The science dialogue is heating up on biomass as policy makers in the United States, Europe and elsewhere seek to chart a path forward on carbon emissions policies. With so many opinions and hypotheses offered by so many, the airwaves on biomass seem to be getting pretty cluttered and pretty confusing, pretty fast.
Fortunately, U.S. forest scientists are helping policy makers breathe a little easier by decluttering and clarifying the basic science on biomass. Last November, 100 forest scientists in the U.S. jointly endorsed a set of "science fundamentals for biomass carbon accounting" that distill the growing body of biomass literature into a few straightforward principles. Scientists at the U.S. Forest Service also have also published new research further reinforcing the fundamentals of biomass science.
The key takeaways from this growing body of scientific consensus include:
- The long-term carbon benefits of biomass energy are well accepted by the international science community, and most debates are about the timing rather than the existence of these benefits.
- Biomass decreases overall carbon accumulation in the atmosphere over time compared to fossil fuels.
- The carbon impacts of biomass should be measured using the same timeframe applied to other energy sources. The most common timeframe is 100 years.
- Forest economics strongly influence biomass carbon impacts. Strong markets improve the long-term carbon benefits of biomass energy just like they do for other forest products.
- The single most significant threat to long-term forest carbon benefits is the conversion of forests to other land uses.
These principles help remove the confusion caused when research overlooks the basics or applies them out of context. These principles, for example, essentially erase the concept of "carbon debt" with respect to U.S. biomass. They also correct the sometimes out-of-context application of findings from other countries to the U.S.
We in the U.S. are fortunate to have some of the worlds' most productive and well-managed forests. We are also fortunate to have a strong community of forests scientists who understand better than anyone the carbon benefits these forests provide. When the airwaves get cluttered and confusing, we are well served to look to these experts for clarity. Doing so will foster good policy here and abroad ensuring continued carbon benefits from U.S. forests and biomass well into the future.