The House and Senate have advanced bipartisan legislation seeking to provide a clear and practical policy on the carbon benefits of biomass. Anti-biomass activists have complained using arguments that fail on the facts and the science. Now that Congress is in recess, we can pause to examine the two most common fallacies asserted by the activists.
First, the facts are clear. Forests that are actively managed to produce a variety of goods and services provide significant carbon benefits. Data show that nationwide these forests are growing 40% more wood than is removed annually. That is 40% more wood in net growth after taking into account all removals for lumber, paper and packaging, and energy, and from natural events like fire, insects and disease. In other words, the rate of carbon replenishment in privately managed forests far exceeds in real time the rate of carbon released for biomass energy or any other use.
Furthermore, economic returns to private forest owners, who nationwide harvest less than 2.5% of their forests annually, enable them to make reinvestments that produce more healthy and productive forests that capture more carbon. It is largely because of this reinvestment that our forests today have 50% more tree volume than they did 60 years ago and offset 13% or our nation’s industrial carbon emissions in addition to providing us with homes, products and outdoor experiences that improve our quality of life.
Second, science consensus confirms the facts. As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has stated: “In the long term, a sustainable forest management strategy aimed at maintaining or increasing forest carbon stocks, while producing an annual sustained yield of timber, fibre or energy from the forest, will generate the largest sustained mitigation benefit.” This point is underscored by 100 leading forest scientists from 80 U.S. universities in letters to the EPA. The IPCC and other carbon experts correctly emphasize that carbon impacts are best measured by what is actually happening with the carbon in the forest regardless of whether removals are used for timber, fiber, energy or something else.
Now consider the two most common fallacies asserted by the activists. The first claims: “The reality is that burning biomass to generate electricity can produce more carbon pollution than it saves by replacing coal.” This statement fails on its face. Fossil fuels produce a one-way transmission of carbon into the atmosphere where it stays. Biomass from actively managed private forests is part of a natural system that continuously recycles carbon into and out of the atmosphere. That is why the IPCC and other experts place so much emphasis on whether managed forests are maintaining or increasing forest carbon rather than on the specific products they produce.
So why do anti-biomass activists continue to insist that biomass puts more carbon into the atmosphere than coal? The answer comes in the second fallacy they assert: “New trees require up to a century of growth to absorb enough carbon dioxide to offset pollution from mature tree combustion.” This argument rests entirely on two false premises: 1) that biomass comes from mature trees (up to 100 year old trees to be precise) and 2) that the carbon consequences of biomass are measured tree by tree rather than at the forest level.
Neither argument survives factual or scientific scrutiny. The marketplace demands that mature trees (other than those that are deformed, damaged, dead or otherwise poor quality), be used for lumber, panels, furniture, flooring and other high value products, not low value biomass. While it is true that much biomass comes from the leftovers of harvesting and milling high value mature trees, asserting that they are a primary source of biomass paints a picture that factually doesn’t exist in the real world.
Similarly, suggesting that the carbon consequences of biomass can and should be measured tree by tree completely disregards the position of the IPCC, leading scientists in the U.S. and the approach taken by the rest of the world. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and other federal and state agencies around the country and the globe consider forest carbon at broad scales to determine the net carbon impact of forest management. They do this because the discipline of forestry considers forests as large complex, dynamic systems, not as individual trees. The approach taken by the anti-biomass activists quite literally loses sight of the forest through the trees.
Undoubtedly anti-biomass activists will continue to assert these two fallacies in the months ahead. But saying something over and over again doesn’t make it true. Policy makers and experts know better and should be quick to point this out. Doing so will make a significant contribution toward improving biomass policy and our climate.