In a recent announcement made from the North American Leaders' Summit in Ottawa, leaders from the US, Mexico and Canada said they will commit to an action plan boosting their use of wind, solar and other carbon-free sources of electricity. The goal is to generate at least 50 percent of North America’s energy from “clean” sources by 2025. As ambitious as this goal is (since 2001, the European Union, for instance, has been working towards a clean energy goal of 20 percent by 2020), North American leaders feel that the continent has the "capacity, resources and moral imperative" to demonstrate global leadership on building upon the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change.
The goal will apply across the continent, meaning that it’s an average for Canada, Mexico and the US together. “We believe this is an aggressive goal but one that is achievable by all three countries,” stated Brian Deese, a senior adviser to President Barack Obama on environmental and energy matters. The goal, which would need to be adhered to by the president who succeeds Barack Obama in 2017, is “achievable if all three countries respectively make ambitious progress toward executing and in effect exceeding the targets” established in the climate accord reached in Paris last year, Deese added.
This clean energy commitment action plan (not to be confused with the Clean Power Plan) will apply to any electricity generated without producing carbon dioxide emissions, including nuclear as well as renewable wind, solar and hydro power. Deese said it also could apply to power from plants using carbon-capture technology to reduce emissions, and the goal does not otherwise include natural gas.
Over the past year, the US derived about a third of its power from carbon-free sources, according to data from the Energy Information Administration (EIA). In 2015, roughly 37 percent of North America’s electricity came from carbon-free sources largely due to the fact that Canada already obtains more than half of its energy from clean sources. Deese declined to speculate how much of the 50 percent goal would need to be from the US. Per the Obama administration’s CPP, the aim is for the US to get a fifth of its electricity from renewable sources by 2030 and last year, Mexico pledged to get 35 percent of its electricity from wind, solar and other renewable sources by 2024.
The plan to reduce energy consumption and greenhouse gasses also includes methods such as promoting green building technology and fostering clean, efficient transportation technologies and policies that will affect energy generation and consumption beyond electricity. As part of the new partnership, Mexico agreed to join Canada and the US in curbing methane emissions, which also contributes to accelerated climate change. Earlier this year, Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau committed to cut methane emissions from the oil and gas industry by as much as 45 percent from 2012 levels by 2025.
The partnership also pledged to “encourage robust action” by the G-20 group of the world's major economies, including:
- Phasing out inefficient fossil fuel subsidies by 2025 in keeping with the G-20's 2009 commitment to do so in the medium term.
- Developing low greenhouse gas emission development strategies pursuant to the Paris Agreement by 2020.
- Committing to improve the environmental performance of heavy-duty vehicles, including through the implementation of stringent domestic regulations on fuel efficiency and/or greenhouse gas emissions, air pollutant emissions, and low-sulfur fuels and through green freight programs.
- Addressing methane emissions from the oil and gas sector by developing and implementing national and sub-national methane reduction policies and regulations, and participating in mechanisms such as the Climate and Clean Air Coalition Oil and Gas Methane Partnership.
What about Biomass?
While the official White House press release did not specifically mention biomass as a clean energy alternative to fossil fuels, it repeatedly and broadly references “renewables.” As we recently noted, electricity generation from biomass across all sectors grew from 56 terawatthours (TWh) in 2010 to 64 TWh in 2015, which represents a 14 percent increase. Much of this growth occurred in the US South due to the region’s dense concentration of forestland and availability of wood raw materials and wood waste.
One would surely hope that biomass is being considered as a clean energy renewable resource to help North America achieve these aggressive goals. Vast swaths of the continent are covered in dense stands of timber that if sustainably harvested and regrown, offer a viable green energy alternative. Utilizing wood raw materials for energy production in areas where they are plentiful makes both economic and ecological sense. Since the White House announcement did not include mention of biomass, it is worth repeating its case.
As a time-tested feedstock, forest materials should play a pivotal role as both a “bridge” and primary, low-carbon energy source while North America collectively shifts its focus from fossil energy and begins to expand its energy portfolio. Increasing viable markets for forest products continues to drive investment in the sector, which will result in improved resource management practices and efficiencies. As the European Biomass Association (AEBIOM) has noted, the effect of a managed forest as a CO2 sink is ten times that of the primary forest.
- 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.
- An unmanaged forest will emit almost as much CO2 as it 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.
- 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.
The expansion of our nation’s energy portfolio is not up for debate. Global awareness regarding sustainable energy is on the rise and this new North American action plan is an aggressive step towards a cleaner energy future. “We recognize that our highly integrated economies and energy systems afford a tremendous opportunity to harness growth in our continuing transition to a clean energy economy. Our actions to align climate and energy policies will protect human health and help level the playing field for our businesses, households and workers,” the leaders of the three countries said via a joint statement. “In recognition of our close ties and shared vision, we commit today to an ambitious and enduring North American Climate, Clean Energy and Environment Partnership that sets us firmly on the path to a more sustainable future.”