Report finds biomass emits significantly less CO2 than coal

By Lisa Gibson | August 15, 2011

A life-cycle assessment comparing biomass power to coal power shows biomass emits just 4 percent of the carbon dioxide coal power emits. The conclusion is one of many resulting from “Life Cycle Impacts of Forest Management and Wood Utilization on Carbon Mitigation: Knowns and Unknowns,” a recently released study by lead author Bruce Lippke, of the University of Washington’s College of Environment, as well as other contributing authors. The report also found that sustainably managed forests are better than carbon neutral, and managed forests continually accumulate carbon and maintain stable carbon stocks.

The findings are significantly different from those of the 2010 Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences study, which concluded that biomass power initially emits more carbon per unit of energy than coal, accruing a carbon debt that is paid off as the forest continues to grow and recapture carbon. Lippke’s group is not the first to offer a counter to the claims made in the Manomet study, pointing out that equating biomass carbon and fossil fuel carbon can give rise to concerns about the immediate release of carbon from burning biomass as opposed to slower releases as would occur during decomposition on the forest floor. “While much has been made about this time sensitivity—that burning wood is worse than letting it decay—the longer term benefits of sustainable wood production displacing fossil fuel emissions rotation after rotation far outweighs any short-term impact,” the report states. The view is similar to that of William Strauss, president of FutureMetrics, whose analysis found that there is no carbon debt, but instead a credit of previously-accumulated carbon.

Both conclusions tout the idea that sustainably managed forests provide the opportunity to sustain a maximum rate of carbon absorption, and are essentially carbon neutral. “The life-cycle research results accumulated over the last decade does not lead one to assume forest carbon neutrality, rather it demonstrates that the emissions from burning biomass for energy and the products produced from forest removals are being offset by the sustained growth in forest carbon removed from the atmosphere even after deducting any emissions from unused dead wood left in the forest,” according to Lippke’s study.

Natural disturbance is also a concern addressed in the report, but it states that there are higher risks of carbon loss due to natural disturbance in unmanaged forests than in managed forests. And collecting that biomass as a forest management practice requires little energy and releases little emissions, Lippke and his fellow researchers wrote.

Check out the study here.



1 Responses

  1. Jesse Sewell



    It is amazing to me that anyone of sound mind would argue the total emissions of coal versus wood. It is night and day. Everything else is splitting hairs. Will it be delivered by trucks, will it be waste or whole trees, will the forests be sustainably managed, etc., etc. You can subject your analysis to a myriad of criteria and the answer is clearly the same. Coal is far and away much more harmful from any biological health perspective due to the types of chemicals that coal fired plants emit. What is puzzling is the entirely bizarre tendency to dismiss the massive amounts of pollution that coal mines generate during extraction and delivery, simply because it occurs somewhere else. Since it occurs in Kentucky or West Virginia then it is not worthy of being factored into our analysis (how convenient). Conversely, in an effort to discredit biomass that is completely transparent, environmentalists want to account for every possible social and environmental impact that might occur. Loggers will have to drive to the woods to gather the wood waste. They might stop for a coffee and a biscuit (will that coffee be fair trade?). Then they will have to use heavy equipment, then put it on trucks, then deliver it to the mill, etc., etc., ad nauseum. The attempt to discredit biomass is largely juvenile and not well disguised in its motivation.


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