Scientific Endorsement of Biomass’s Carbon Benefits

Last month, the Journal of Forestry published a scientific, peer-reviewed study confirming the virtues of biomass as an energy source, and an important element for forestry health and atmospheric carbon management.
By Bob Cleaves | September 17, 2014

Last month, the Journal of Forestry published a scientific, peer-reviewed study by nine respected scientists and forestry experts confirming the virtues of biomass—not just as an energy source, but also as an important element for forestry health and atmospheric carbon management.

The scientists, from USDA Forest Service as well as prominent universities and think tanks, in no uncertain terms, argued for policies that recognize the long-term benefits of biomass power, warning that not doing so could result in the loss of a valuable carbon mitigation tool, stating, “The current debate about biomass energy often narrows the discussion to short-term and direct effects of increased use of forest biomass, understating the benefits of using sustainably produced forest-based fuels and materials.…Carbon accounting frameworks often misrepresent the CO2 impacts of using biomass fuels and put at risk many of the mitigation benefits and opportunities provided by sustainably managed forests and the products that flow from them.”

This study couldn’t have come at a better time. Despite the abundant evidence of the environmental benefits of power from biomass, there is still much uncertainty about how our industry will factor into the nation’s renewable energy future.

There have been many encouraging signs from the Obama administration and several of its federal agencies that biomass is a valued energy source and will be an important part of climate change mitigation.

The National Climate Assessment released in May characterized biomass as “one component of an overall bioenergy strategy to reduce emissions of carbon from fossil fuels, while also improving water quality and maintaining lands for timber production as an alternative to other socioeconomic options.” Even more promising, the U.S. EPA’s Clean Power Plan, released soon after the National Climate Assessment in June, recognized that “biomass-derived fuels can play an important role in CO2 emission reduction strategies.”

But all of this won’t mean much until the EPA definitively declares how it will measure carbon from biogenic sources. It’s a complicated question with what we think is a fairly straightforward answer:

Biomass power produced from wood and organic residues should have a low-carbon value.

The findings included in the Journal of Forestry report echo this opinion. The authors of the study presented four key findings they recommended be reflected in any biomass policy framework:

• Substantial long-term carbon mitigation benefits are derived from sustainably managed working forests that provide an ongoing output of biomass to produce materials and fuels to displace more greenhouse gas-intensive alternatives. While the timing of benefits is debated, the fact that these benefits exist is not.

• The threats to maintaining long-term forest carbon stocks come primarily from pressures to convert land to nonforest uses and from natural disturbances. Research clearly shows that demand for wood results in investments in forestry that help to prevent deforestation and incentivize afforestation.

• The most effective mitigation measures are those that provide the lowest long-term net cumulative emissions. The benefits of forest-based mitigation activities are sometimes delayed, but any increased emissions are reversible and temporary and are incurred in the interest of limiting cumulative emissions.

• Proper characterization of the global warming impacts of the mix of forest biomass sources likely to be used for energy shows net emissions of biogenic carbon to be low when including the effects of market-induced investments.

We look forward to seeing the EPA’s final framework on carbon from biogenic sources, which we hope will be released by the end of the year. This set of regulations will have an enormous impact on biomass at a time when renewable energy is poised for considerable growth.

Author: Bob Cleaves
President and CEO, Biomass Power Association