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Forest bioenergy: How “clean” is it?
Dr. Philip Duffy, President & Executive Director
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 are 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.
Saving Species While Mitigating Climate Change
Carbon emissions from deforestation have been estimated at almost a billion tons every year. Forest loss in the tropics exceeds 90,000 square km per year – and much of that area is critical for species conservation.
Using field analysis and remote sensing, we can effectively fight both of these problems at the same time.
The results of a project analysis by WHRC Senior Scientist Scott Goetz, Dr. Nadine Laporte and Research Associate Patrick Jantz have been made available through an interactive digital ‘story map’ entitled, Saving Species while Mitigating Climate Change. The site highlights the team’s work “investigating ideal locations for corridors connecting protected lands based on areas of highest carbon densities.”
The world’s tropical forests have been plagued by deforestation and habitat fragmentation – which increase carbon emissions and threaten biodiversity.
Using GIS and remote sensing data as well as existing data on pantropical protected areas, the scientists mapped corridors between protected areas and the biomass contained in each. The habitats of several endangered Gorilla species were used as an example to identify regions that were particularly important for carbon storage and species conservation.
While the scientists noted there are multiple factors that decision makers must take into consideration, their analysis “streamlines the process, helping to identify solutions that can maintain Great Ape habitat connectivity and prevent the additional carbon emissions that occur as a result of deforestation.”
“Habitat conservation and climate change mitigation are both at the core of sustainability,” Jantz said. “This analysis could make forest conservation efforts so much more effective if we are able to protect critical habitat and fight climate change simultaneously.”
Graduate students present Amazon policy recommendations to Brazilian officials
Six University of Chicago graduate students – working closely with WHRC scientists – recently presented policy recommendations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and Amazon deforestation for an audience of Brazilian elected officials and ministers.
This summer WHRC, the Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM), and the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) teamed up with the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy to launch the first-ever International Innovation Corps Brazil Summer “Policy Lab,” designed to use the latest Amazon science to carefully evaluate proposed policies and development plans that could have large impacts on the future environment of the Amazon. The USAID-supported Policy Lab took place in collaboration with IPAM’s central office in the Brazilian capital of Brasília.
The students, with varied backgrounds in public policy, statistics and evolutionary biology, spent a week in Woods Hole at MBL and WHRC to get an overview of Amazon science. They then spent two months in Brasília where they used scientific and analytical methods to develop policy briefs on five key Amazon environmental issues.
The student teams worked with IPAM and WHRC scientist mentors and produced policy briefs that evaluated: 1) the implications of the development of a new Amazon highway from Porto Velho to Manaus, 2) the effects of a series of new dams proposed for the Tapajós River, 3) consequences of changes to the Brazilian constitution that would downgrade protections for indigenous reserves, 4) the potential forest-saving benefits of intensifying Amazon beef production on already-cleared land, and 5) the compliance with the new Brazilian “environmental registry,” which requires all farmers to submit documentation for land use on their farms.
A portion of the students’ time was spent at Tanguro Ranch in Mato Grosso, where WHRC, IPAM and MBL scientists have long collaborated on a wide range of field studies concerning the effects of deforestation, fire and agriculture on the Amazon environment and global climate.
In late August, the students presented their final results and policy recommendations at a Ministry of Environment symposium attended by 80 people, including elected representatives and ministers. At the symposium, the students also met and heard from experts in the global environmental arena, including Thelma Krug, Vice Chair of the IPCC and Director of the Department on Policies to Combat Deforestation in the Brazilian Ministry of Environment, and Amath Pathe Sene, a policy specialist at the UN Development Programme.
Phoebe Holtzman and Nicole Anderson of the University of Chicago and Raíssa Guerra of IPAM played key roles recruiting students, structuring the course and organizing the final symposium.
Scientists Paulo Moutinho, Ane Alencar, Tiago Reis, Andréa Azevedo, Marcelo Stabile, Marcelo Costa, Isabel de Costa Ldumila Ratis and Divino Silvério of IPAM, and Michael Coe, Marcia Macedo, Paulo Brando and Christopher Neill of WHRC all served as team mentors.
The five policy briefs
Legal Recognition of Indigenous Territories Supports Climate Balance in the Brazilian Amazon
Alicia Barceinas Cruz (University of Chicago), Ariane de Almeida Rodrigues (University of Brasilia), Márcia Macedo (WHRC), Paulo Moutinho (IPAM), Divino Silvério (IPAM), Ludmila Rattis (IPAM), Isabel de Castro (IPAM), Raíssa Guerra (IPAM)
Paving BR-319: Effects on Deforestation and Climate
Hannah Bent (University of Chicago), Wanessa Campos Silva (Federal University of Goiás), Paulo Moutinho (IPAM)
Land Tenure and the Effect of the Terra Legal Program on Deforestation
Leith McIndewar (University of Chicago), Tiago Reis (IPAM)
Greenhouse Gas Emissions of Pasture Intensification to Meet Mato Grosso’s COP21 PCI 2030 Targets
Nini Gu (University of Chicago), Jonas Inkotte (National University of Brasilia), Christopher Neill (WHRC), Marcelo Stabile (IPAM)
Hydropower Construction and Deforestation: Linking Forest Cover to Changes in Water Balance
Soudeep Deb (University of Chicago), Joel Smith (University of Chicago), Ane Alencar (IPAM), Michael Coe (WHRC)
Coping with scarcities in Mbandaka, DRC
Eva McNamara is a policy and communications intern and a technical assistant with WHRC’s Projet Équateur in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Here is an excerpt from her recent Field Notes entry:
I am currently building a digital library for the Institut Supérieur de Développement Rurale (ISDR) to give its students and faculty improved access to national and international reports, agricultural literature, and open access articles and textbooks…. I have collected about 800 documents, classes, and videos to import into a library database that is fully searchable, not dependent on an Internet connection, and user friendly. We are also developing materials to help the students and staff learn about “best practices” when using the Internet….
Life at the office in Mbandaka can be a bit challenging. You quickly remember that things like running water, electricity, and even small electric fans are luxuries … However, there’s nothing like going out in the morning to collect the chickens’ eggs, only to find bananas, papayas, passion fruit, or oranges… ready to be eaten.… In the evenings we enjoy leisurely walks along the Congo River with Dawa, Melaine’s (Projet Équateur Manager Melaine Kermarc) dog, who is a celebrity in Mbandaka. Everyone yells, “DAWA!” as he walks past. We often pick up a few samosas made fresh daily at a nearby shop owned by an Indian family. We head home quickly before dark, which comes between 6 and 6:30 every night regardless of the season, due to our equatorial location….
This is truly a unique place, and I hope that the work Projet Équateur does here will help start a bigger conversation about the need for targeted capacity building on all levels within the country, as well as smart investments in education and training programs.
Earlier this month, the wind turbine on the WHRC campus hit an impressive milestone – surpassing 1 million kilowatt/hours (kWh) of generated electricity.
The turbine – a Northern Power 100 kw model – was erected in 2009. The tower, situated between the campus buildings and the road, is 121 feet tall. The blades are 69 feet long.
The one million kWh of electricity has displaced a significant amount of fossil fuel emissions.
In New England, most of the electricity provided by the grid comes from natural gas. If the turbine-generated electricity had come instead from natural gas, it would have emitted 618 tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. That is equivalent to the total annual emissions footprint of 33 staff members at Woods Hole Research Center.
WHRC’s campus also has 88 rooftop solar photovoltaic panels, producing about 30,000 kWh annually.
Next steps for Goetz and Jantz
When Scott Goetz joined WHRC in 2002, the institution was housed in a patchwork of small locations in the village of Woods Hole and was at the cusp of wide recognition in the international environmental arena. Fourteen years later, there is an entire campus, and much of the progress on the science of climate change as well as the success of WHRC as an internationally recognized climate change think tank can be attributed to the work of Dr. Goetz, who has served as both Senior Scientist and Deputy Director.
This past year Dr. Goetz was named the lead scientist of ABoVE, NASA’s major, ten-year campaign to understand the vulnerability and resilience of the Arctic and boreal ecosystems to a changing environment. He was also recently appointed to the National Academy of Science’s Ecosystems Panel (Marine and Terrestrial Ecosystems and Natural Resource Management) for the Decadal Survey for Earth Science and Applications from Space.
This fall Dr. Goetz will move to Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, where he will continue his work on boreal ecosystems. With his many projects covering various aspects of climate change science from the northern high latitudes to the tropics, Dr. Goetz’s work pushed the envelope and became a hallmark of WHRC and its overall contribution to the science of global climate change. He will continue to collaborate on current and future projects with WHRC, where he remains a member of its Board of Directors.
Research Associate Patrick Jantz first came to WHRC in 2003 and was an intern and then a research assistant with Scott Goetz’s team. He left to work on his Ph.D. and returned again as a postdoctoral fellow, eventually becoming a research associate. Dr. Jantz’s frequently cited papers include a pivotal one in Nature Climate Change (2014) on corridors to promote biodiversity and mitigate climate change. This fall he will move to Flagstaff, joining Dr. Goetz at Northern Arizona University. His contributions to WHRC are many, and his expertise and amiable manner will be missed.
WHRC in the news
Burning Permafrost: Handheld Water Quality Meters Track Impacts. Environmental Monitor interviewed Max Holmes on September water sampling in the Yukon River Delta.
Reforestation Doesn’t Fight Climate Change Unless It’s Done Right. ThinkProgress interviewed Senior Scientist Richard A. Houghton. 31 August.
Associate Scientist Wayne Walker’s work was the subject of Building relationships with indigenous people opens up paths to good research — and mutual benefit in Nature. August.
This Proposal to Torch Dead Forests For Fuel Is Nuts. Gizmodo interviewed Scott Goetz, who said, “Wood does not burn clean… it’s dirtier than coal. And it takes a long time to grow back the carbon that’s being combusted and emitted.” September 9.
U.S. forests are so full of dead trees that some scientists want to burn them instead of coal. The Washington Post interviewed President Phil Duffy, who said, “The commonly-made claim that burning wood for energy is ‘carbon neutral’ is at best an exaggeration and at worst completely wrong.” 8 September.
Vineyard Students Experience Climate Science First-hand. Associate Scientist Susan Natali’s son and Martha’s Vineyard classmates travel to Alaskan field site. Living Lab on The Point, WCAI. 5 September.
Give indigenous people land rights or fail on deforestation pledges, governors told. Reuters covered the Governors’ Climate and Forests Task Force, citing WHRC’s analysis of carbon stored in indigenous lands. 1 September.
Many ways to support climate change research
You don’t need to be a billionaire to make a difference at WHRC. There are many alternative ways to support our mission beyond donating cash. If you believe, as we do, that climate solutions depend on science, you might consider one of these alternative ways to support WHRC:
Turn your old gas-guzzler into a climate change solution
Vehicle donations are tax deductible and benefit WHRC’s mission. It’s more than cars – you can donate trucks, boats, planes, motorcycles, RVs and heavy farm equipment too, running or not.
For our local friends with “green” homes
Does your solar PV system create a credit on your Eversource electric bill? You can transfer the credit to WHRC to help us keep the lights on and the computers running! Call Eversource or your PV installer and have them send you a Schedule Z, which will allow the transfer.
Shop with Amazon Smile
Visit smile.amazon.com and select WHRC as your charitable organization of choice. The products and prices are identical, but Amazon will donate 0.5% of the proceeds to WHRC when you use the Amazon Smile link.
Contribute from your IRA tax-free
IRA owners over the age of 70 1/2 are able to direct their plan administrator to distribute up to $100,000 from an IRA to WHRC and other charities, tax-free. The donation counts toward your minimum required distribution, but is not included in your income for income tax purposes.
Include WHRC in your will or estate plans
Good estate planning could enable you to make a larger charitable gift than you ever thought possible. There are a variety of planned giving structures available to donors that combine your philanthropic interests with your financial needs and tax-planning strategies. By setting up one today, you can see the impact of your gift and know you made a big difference.
To discuss any of the options above, contact Alison Smart, Chief Development Officer at 508-444-1545 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Woods Hole Research Center is an independent research institute where scientists investigate the causes and effects of climate change to identify and implement opportunities for conservation, restoration, and economic development around the world.