Forest bioenergy: How “clean” is it?

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President & Executive Director Philip B. Duffy

I was dismayed to see myself described in a recent Washington Post article as “a prominent critic of forest bioenergy”—burning wood to generate electricity or heat. Not that I mind being regarded as prominent, of course, but the issue of forest bioenergy deserves a more nuanced stance than being simply for or against. Some forms of forest bioenergy make much more sense than others, and I want myself and the Center to be known as proponents of science-based policies, rather than as yet another advocacy group.

One thing I am and will always be critical of is accounting rules that allow greenhouse gases to be added to the atmosphere without being counted towards reported national emissions. Legislation pending in Congress would allow (in fact would require) exactly that, and would encourage harmful forest management practices. This is why I, and others at WHRC, have in fact been “prominent” in speaking out against this.

As for forest bioenergy itself, the forest products industry would have us believe that burning wood is “carbon neutral” (adds no CO2 to the atmosphere in the long run). Some environmental groups, on the other hand, oppose burning any wood, ever.

The best policies lie somewhere between these two extremes. Some forms of forest bioenergy, like burning small scraps of wood, or wood that would decay anyway (like beetle-killed trees), are probably fine, although I don’t think we can get much energy from those sources. What’s most important is that forest bioenergy policies should be based on rigorous and unbiased science. “Duh,” you may be thinking, but there are plenty of people in Washington pushing policies that might make dollars but don’t make sense.

The science of forest bioenergy is complex, which makes sensible policy formulation difficult. But here a few ideas that have emerged from my recent involvement with this issue:

1. Accounting rules for greenhouse gas emissions should reflect as closely as possible what actually goes into and out of the atmosphere. Seems obvious? Some present and proposed rules allow emissions from burning wood not to be counted at all. Again, that creates incentives for practices that make climate change worse.

2. Forest bioenergy, when it is used at all, is better used to produce heat, where it is 75-80% efficient, rather than electricity, where the efficiency is only around 25%.

3. We should be skeptical of policies that depend on forests being sustainably managed for long periods into the future (e.g. 50-100 years). Even with good intentions, a lot can happen over time periods that long. After all, 100 years ago was the middle of World War I!

4. Financial incentives should be reserved for forms of energy that are truly low-carbon, like wind and solar. The studies I’ve seen show that forest bioenergy, even under idealized circumstances, has greenhouse emissions that are much too high to successfully control climate change. We shouldn’t pay to promote “solutions” that aren’t good enough.

In the next few months several of us at WHRC will lead the publication of a special journal issue on the science and policy of forest bioenergy. This is an important step, because policymakers can’t make science-based policy without a good summary of the latest science, and because I want the Center to put forth our own policy ideas rather than only reacting to others’ proposals.

Thanks as always for your interest and support.