I’d like to make a few comments about the important environmental issues associated with using forest biomass for energy and heat. Foremost, the assertion from stakeholders that advocate woody biomass as a carbon neutral renewable energy source is misleading and scientifically inaccurate. Just like fossil fuels, woody biomass is a carbon-based fuel that emits atmospheric carbon dioxide when ignited; in fact, fossil fuels are derived from biomass.
Why woody biomass fails as renewable energy
There are three major reasons why we should question the carbon neutrality of woody biomass. Burning forest biomass re-emits sequestered carbon, creates a cycle of ongoing carbon emissions and causes ocean acidification.
Between January 1966 and January 2016, our atmospheric CO2 emissions have steadily increased nearly 25 percent, according to data from the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration. Tree growth is mostly driven by carbon dioxide directly absorbed from the atmosphere, which includes our harmful anthropogenic CO2 emissions. Essentially, our forests work as carbon sinks and provide a natural pathway of carbon capture and storage. Every time we burn trees for bioenergy, we’re just re-emitting the same carbon the trees had worked so effectively to sequester.
The woody biomass industry is unnaturally emitting huge amounts of CO2 into our atmosphere, which creates a cycle of ongoing carbon emissions. Biomass emissions have a timeline of sequestration known as the carbon recovery period. Every day a new timeline of biomass emissions with its own carbon recovery period is stacked into our atmosphere waiting to be sequestered. As those emission timelines overlap, the cumulative amount of CO2 rises dramatically, creating a massive ongoing bubble of carbon emissions. For example, it’s easy to understand that if we burn a 40-year-old tree in one day, we’re going to have a carbon debt.
Bioenergy is the only renewable energy that contributes to ocean acidification. Every day the woody biomass industry is systematically dumping tons of atmospheric carbon into our oceans, causing them to acidify. Nearly 25 percent of the biomass industry’s CO2 emissions will end up in our oceans, exacerbating ocean acidification. Yet, the industry has never publicly acknowledged any responsibility for its role in this accruing ecological disaster. If left unchecked, ocean acidification from forest bioenergy has the potential to render long-term damage to regional marine ecosystems and disrupt local seafood economies.
Biomass uses flawed carbon accounting
The biomass industry continuously hides behind the cloak of weak science: “We’re carbon neutral because we’re growing as much as we’re emitting.” This is a dangerous frame of reference that implies that somehow the “magic” biomass CO2 emissions are not acting as a greenhouse gas and contributing to global warming. That’s simply not true; just like fossil fuels, biomass produces harmful CO2 emissions and growing more trees doesn’t negate the science.
The biomass industry has conveniently created a “smoke and mirror” double standard for carbon emissions. The industry claims biomass is “good carbon” because it’s part of the active carbon cycle, and fossil fuels are “bad carbon” because they’re part of the inactive carbon cycle.
First of all, whether we like it, fossil fuel emissions are now part of the active carbon cycle. Second, the underlying problem isn’t about where we get our carbon from; the root of the problem is the conscious decision we make to extract and combust carbon-based fuels for our short-term energy needs. Carbon is carbon; our atmosphere makes no distinction between the harmful effects of carbon from biomass and fossil fuel.
Moving forward toward climate adaptation
The accelerating evidence of climate change is upon us. Our atmosphere and hydrosphere are already adversely affected by excess carbon. Our biosphere, however, has the ability to sequester and store vast amounts of CO2 as terrestrial carbon. That’s why our forest ecosystems play such an important role in the future of Earth’s climate adaptation.
Maine has a golden opportunity to become a global leader in developing advanced carbon management practices that spur new industries and jobs in forestry, agriculture and environmental science. I implore Maine’s biomass industry stakeholders, policymakers and higher education systems to rethink their woody biomass policy positions and to help establish a biomass energy public forum that addresses the important environmental issues associated with using forest bioenergy.
Brett Leuenberger is a nontraditional senior student at Unity College enrolled in the environmental writing and media studies program. He is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists.