A recent article by USIPA (US Industrial Pellet Association) demonstrates how forests in the US South help to sustainably support the European Union (EU) directive to reduce net carbon emissions by employing more renewable resources.
The article, “Biomass: supporting greater climate ambitions without sacrificing sustainability,” outlines key features of the wood biomass supply chain and illustrates why developing sustainable markets for low-value forest products is vital to keeping forestlands forested.
Due to concerns about the growth of the wood pellet industry in the US South, Forest2Market was commissioned to examine the history and sustainability of regional forest assets in 2017. For the study, we conducted a statistical analysis for a 70-year period of the forest acreage, demand and inventory, and we uncovered a synergistic relationship between healthy markets and increased inventory (carbon sequestration) in the forest, which obviously benefits the environment.
USIPA notes that Europe’s largest single source of renewable energy is sustainable biomass, which is a cornerstone of the EU’s low-carbon energy transition. Seeking to accelerate this transition, the European Commission has proposed a series of ambitious new goals to achieve by the end of the decade, including:
- Reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 55% from 1990 levels
- Decreasing consumption of coal by 70% and gas by 25% from 2015 levels
- Increasing the share of renewable energy to 38-40%
For the last decade, forest resources in the US Southeast have helped to meet these goals—as they will in the future. This heavily forested region exported nearly 7 million metric tons of sustainable biomass to the EU and UK in 2019, and it has the capacity to sustainably increase its production to 35 million metric tons.
USIPA cites five principles to help understand what constitutes sustainable biomass, how it supports forest growth in the US Southeast, and how it can contribute to achieving the Commission’s climate goals.
- Sustainable biomass is sourced from forests where forest inventory and carbon stocks are stable or increasing. Steady increases in forest inventory mean emissions from biomass are quickly sequestered by the continually growing forest landscape from which it is sourced.
- In the US, sustainable biomass represents a tiny fraction of the forest products industry. Each year, only 4% of the forest is harvested in this region leaving the remaining 96% to keep growing. Of that 4% that is harvested, just 3% is used for biomass.
- Forests tracts in the US Southeast are not clear-cut exclusively for biomass. Wood from a single tract of land typically supplies multiple markets, including sawmills, solid wood products, pulp and paper, and bioenergy, among others.
- Sustainable biomass is produced from low-value wood that is created as a by-product of a traditional timber harvest. Forest tracts are typically managed for high-value sawtimber, which generate the most revenue for landowners. Some trees that do not meet the specifications for sawtimber are cascaded for use as biomass, which is in keeping with the principle of using wood fiber for its greatest climate benefit.
- Biomass is a small market, but helps forest owners keep planting trees. Private citizens own 86% of the forestland in the US Southeast. Strong demand for forest products, like biomass, incentivize landowners to continue the cycle of planting and harvesting, versus converting their forestland to other, more lucrative uses. This demand helps landowners preserve and manage their forest to promote wildlife and biodiversity in the region.
Renewable energy development is going to continue to increase because climate change drives it. The broader deployment will be directed, at a minimum, by social license to operate and hopefully by continued policy as an enhancement.