Burning wood is not a solution to climate change

Burning wood is not a solution to climate change
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We appreciate the benefit of creating economic incentives for actions that address climate change and, in particular, for preserving forests. However, we are “skeptical” of the Orwellian notion that promoting the burning of trees results in more forests, as the authors of an op-ed previously published in The Hill suggested. 

Furthermore, it is clear from a scientific perspective that burning wood is bad for climate. It should not be promoted as a way to incentivize forest preservation and is not in fact a “win-win.”

Science is clear: To prevent unmanageable consequences from climate change, humanity needs to stop increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by mid-century. Even that is not enough: we also need to remove carbon from the atmosphere to compensate for decades of delayed climate action.

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Burning wood for heat or energy works against both of those goals. First, burning wood emits more carbon dioxide than burning fossil fuels. Therefore, burning wood instead of fossil fuels will increase atmospheric carbon dioxide for decades, exactly when we need to be cutting emissions rapidly and dramatically. The problem gets worse if the scale of wood-burning is increased, as the forest products industry proposes. Research shows that increasing the amount of wood-burning until 2050 would result in increased atmospheric carbon dioxide through 2100, even compared to burning coal. 

But isn’t burning wood carbon neutral? No: Burning trees for energy puts far more carbon dioxide into the air immediately than it removes, even if the wood displaces coal, the most carbon-intensive fossil fuel. There are also emissions from cutting, processing and shipping wood pellets. Also, cutting trees causes forest soils to release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Those added emissions will worsen climate change, causing harms that will not be reversed if regrowth eventually removes that extra carbon from the atmosphere. 

That regrowth is slow and uncertain. Harvested land may be developed or converted to cropland or pasture. If replanted, the new, small trees may succumb to wildfire, pests and disease — all made more likely by climate change. Those that survive will take many decades to match the carbon storage of standing trees. We do not have the time and cannot afford the risks.  

Some argue that forests in the United States and some other nations are expanding, so they are already offsetting the carbon dioxide that would be released from increased use of wood for energy. That argument is specious. Carbon dioxide removed by any forests that are growing today is already counted in national emissions inventories. What counts is what happens on the margin. That is, do policies that promote burning more wood cause more growth and more carbon storage in forests than leaving forests standing?  

Again, research shows the answer is no. Some argue that markets for wood chips and pellets will cause new forests to be planted. But greater demand for wood increases the incentives to harvest existing forests — with all the carbon emissions that entails — today. Any new planting will take many decades to remove and store significant carbon from the atmosphere and that carbon will be released at the next harvest. Carbon stocks in forests will be smaller than if the forests had continued growing. 

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Letting forests grow is the single best way we currently have to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Standing forests keep growing, storing more carbon and helping to limit the growth of atmospheric carbon dioxide arising from sectors of the economy — like aviation and heavy industry — that are difficult to decarbonize. Together with other “natural climate solutions,” preserving forests can remove large quantities of carbon dioxide inexpensively, while providing other benefits like biodiversity and better regional climates.  

Instead of burning wood we should be investing in energy efficiency and developing and deploying energy sources which are truly carbon-free. Some of these (wind and solar, for example) are mature enough now to be implemented at much larger scales than they presently are. We also need to develop new solutions for sectors that are difficult to electrify or otherwise decarbonize. Finally, we need to do everything possible to move carbon out of the atmosphere and back into natural reservoirs like forests, soils and wetlands.

Stopping climate change will be difficult at best, but we will never succeed if we allow ourselves to be deceived into investing in non-solutions or half-measures. We do need better incentives for forest preservation, but burning trees is a false solution. 

Philip Duffy is president and executive director of Woods Hole Research Center. William Moomaw is the professor Emeritus of International Environmental Policy at the Fletcher School, Tufts University. John Sterman is the Jay W. Forrester professor of Management at the MIT Sloan School of Management. Juliette N. Rooney-Varga directs the Climate Change Initiative at UMass Lowell and is an associate professor of environmental science.