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The Carbon Neutrality of Forest Biomass

July 17, 2015
Author: John Greene

The world of environmental science, for better or for worse, can be construed as being a relatively subjective field. And because of this fact, environmental policies that flow from Washington are oftentimes ill-conceived and shortsighted. The White House’s recent policy statement rejecting HR 2822—a resolution that would label forest biomass fuels as carbon neutral, renewable resources—is a prime example of this disconnect.

One thing is certain when it comes to environmental science and the policy derived from it: carbon accounting, as it relates to the larger environmental conversation, is an extremely intricate concept. There is little agreement when it comes to standardized testing methodologies, measurement criteria, metrics, etc. That said, most would agree that the industrialized world needs to expand its energy portfolio in order to taper its reliance on fossil fuels, and biomass has an important role in that expansion. Even as technology continues to improve energy efficiencies, biomass has historically served as a reliable energy bridge—as Pete Stewart has written about in the past.

In its rejection of the House proposal, The White House noted, “The Administration objects to the bill's representation of forest biomass as categorically ‘carbon-neutral.’ This language conflicts with existing EPA policies on biogenic CO2 and interferes with the position of States that do not apply the same policies to forest biomass as other renewable fuels like solar or wind. This language stands in contradiction to a wide-ranging consensus on policies and best available science from EPA's own independent Science Advisory Board, numerous technical studies, many States, and various other stakeholders.”

While no one would accurately compare energy derived from biomass to solar or wind energies, one can’t help but wonder who the “various other stakeholders” are who signed off on this best available science. Either way, important points within these arguments tend to get lost in translation. As an analytical, third-party data provider operating within the forest products industry, Forest2Market has an unbiased view of the science and the markets, as well as the experience and credibility to make these distinctions. As we have stated before, woody biomass can be a carbon-neutral renewable resource if grown, harvested and consumed in a sustainable manner. However, certain criteria must be met:

  1. The total stock of wood in the forest must remain stable.
  2. Properly managing the forest ensures stability, and may in fact result in an increase in the total stock of wood.

When addressing the issue of carbon debt as it relates to woody biomass, the importance of deriving this biomass from managed, working forests cannot be overstated. As the European Biomass Association (AEBIOM) has noted via its research, the effect of a managed forest as a CO2 sink is ten times that of the primary forest. The reasons for this speak to the significance of proper management:

  • An unmanaged forest will emit almost as much CO2 as Biomassit absorbs over its life cycle due to natural degradation. Since no wood was harvested in the end, no substitution effect resulted.
  • An unmanaged forest that is destroyed due to natural causes (fungus, insects, fire, etc.) will actually have a detrimental effect by releasing large amounts of carbon. This process makes for a much slower decomposition/regeneration of the forest and its ability to offset carbon debt.
  • Interest in biomass generates investment in forest management, which in turn improves the carbon stock. The US South has increased its carbon stock due to an increase in its forested area by over 31 percent since 1990.
  • Managed forests sequester more carbon through growth than is extracted through harvest. In the case of regenerated timberland, carbon stocks are maintained or increase over time, creating zero carbon debt.
  • Forest biomass is produced from material that has no other use or value on the market. Instead of being wasted, consuming it in the form of wood pellets as a substitute for fossil energy reduces carbon debt.
  • The carbon released from burning remnants of a tree is less than the carbon sequestered by the entire tree during its life cycle; it is not a simple 1:1 conversion.

In the case of a properly-managed, working forest in which sustainability criteria are being followed, the total amount of carbon sequestered in the forest is never lowered and there is no carbon debt. While any number of variables can affect this ideal managed forest situation–fire, pests, unsound harvesting, etc.—it can nevertheless provide a carbon-neutral option worthy of further discussion and consideration at both the federal and state levels of government. And when compared to coal, the preferred energy source for generating electricity, forest biomass generates a fraction of the carbon debt.

That the White House would “categorically object” to defining forest biomass as carbon-neutral, renewable resource is disappointing. But based upon some of the other dubious decisions regarding renewable energies it has endorsed via EPA, disappointment seems to be the order of the day.

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