The Carbon Conversation

Conference general session hashes out bioenergy carbon cycles
By Anna Austin | February 21, 2012

During the second-day plenary session of the Pacific West Biomass Conference & Trade Show in San Francisco, the hot topic was wood-to-energy carbon cycles and their relation to forest management.
Session speakers presented and dissected new research and the most recent studies relating to biomass carbon accounting, including a widely publicized report authored by Oregon State University College of Forestry researchers. Titled “Regional Carbon Dioxide Implications of Forest Bioenergy Production,” the study concluded that production of bioenergy from U.S. West Coast forests would increase carbon dioxide emissions from 2 to 14 percent over the next 20 years.

Although not one of the study’s authors, presenter Norm Johnson of the same OSU department discussed the findings, pointing out that the key phrase repeated in media headlines was “biofuel production will increase carbon emissions.” “Now that’s counter to what has been said and understood by many people, including myself,” he said.

Emphasizing that the report was performed by top-of-the-line scientists, Johnson referred to it as “wild science,” but pointed out that if researchers didn’t do studies such as this one, people might still believe the sun revolved around the earth. “It opens up new avenues of thought, analysis and controversy, and it’s not going away soon; it’s not easily dismissed, it’s a serious work.”

However, the report has a very specific point of view and looks out only 20 years—a very short time—and the outcome would be different if it accounted for a more expanded time period, according to Johnson. “They don’t look at the longer picture, and it’s hard to argue that harvesting trees reduces carbon emissions in the short term, unless it results in greatly reduced mortality in the forests due to various threats, or through selection of building materials,” he said. “We have shorter-term goals that are important, and we’re headed into a pretty intense period of discussion of what all this means.”

Joining Johnson on the panel were Jeremy Fried, research forester at the U.S. Forest Service Pacific Northwest Research Station, and Bill Stewart, cooperative extension specialist at the University of California–Berkeley.

—Anna Austin