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4 Forest Carbon Accounting Insights Policy Makers Should Know

October 02, 2014
Author: Tracy Leslie

As policy makers in both the United States and Europe work to solidify regulations around the use of forest biomass to generate electricity, their jobs are made more difficult by the misleading debate some stakeholders cling to about the validity of forest biomass as a low carbon source of energy. (See Stan Parton's post, With Friends Like These.)

Even though forest biomass as it is sourced for energy production today has a positive carbon benefit compared to fossil fuel alternatives, the perpetuation of this debate slows advancement of policy and prevents any progress toward the end goal of slowing, and eventually reversing, climate change.

A compelling demonstration that science does not support the debate over this issue can be found in a recent article in the Journal of Forestry, a publication of the Society of American Foresters (SAF).  This peer reviewed article, Forest Carbon Accounting Considerations in US Bioenergy Policy, is the result of an in-depth study of the research and debate on forest carbon accounting by nine highly regarded scientists.*

According to the report, research in this area has transitioned over the last 25 years through three stages (pp. 1-3):

Forest biomass is low carbon

In reviewing the research, the authors found four “research-based insights” that demonstrate that forest biomass is low carbon:

  1. While the timing of benefits from substituting “forest-based fuels and products” for higher carbon intensity products may still be debatable, the fact that these substitutions are beneficial for the environment is not.  As a substitute for fossil fuel energy and building products like concrete and steel, forest-based energy and long-lived wood products produce the more reliable carbon benefits (pp. 3-4).
  2. The largest threats to forests in the United States are urbanization and development—not harvest levels, but land cleared for real estate development. Demand for forest products ensures that forests remain forests by providing incentives for landowners to replant and increase both forest area and productivity. This demand also incents more robust investments in forest management strategies that offset the forest impacts of increased demand and can lead to increased forest carbon stocks (4-7).
  3. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has determined that cumulative CO2 emissions are the best indicators of future peak global temperatures. In this light, although forest-based energy may sometimes result in higher CO2 emissions in the near term, it produces lower cumulative CO2 emissions over time and that is the ultimate measure of its low carbon status (pp. 7-8).
  4. The net warming impacts of biogenic CO2 should be assessed over a 100-year timeframe, the same period of time that impacts from other GHGs are commonly measured, and should take into consideration “the effects of market-induced investments and forest growth dynamics.” Modeling the combination of these factors is likely to confirm that using forest biomass from the United Sates for energy typically has “low (sometimes less than zero) warming impacts (pp. 8-12).”

Just as the false debate over the existence of climate change has stalled action to rein in global warming, the debate over the carbon accounting for forest biomass is delaying the speed with which regulations to slow global warming are enacted.

Whether from government agencies in the United States like the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which is determining how to apply the tailoring rule for biomass power stations, or in the United Kingdom like the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), which is determining how to evaluate the sustainability of wood pellets sourced from the southern United States, policy decisions must be science and research—not false controversy—based.

For every year we delay these decisions, our global climate change problems only get worse.

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