Seven senators – two Republicans, four Democrats and an independent – have co-sponsored an amendment that would unintentionally encourage deforestation and worsen climate change. In response late last month, more than sixty scientists and three professional societies signed onto our letter to the senators pointing out a serious factual error in their proposed legislation.
The amendment, which is attached to legislation now under consideration to update the nation’s energy policy, would mandate that all federal agencies count the burning of wood from forests as a “renewable energy resource” that is “carbon neutral” – meaning that it does not add CO2 to the atmosphere. Reality is more complex, and forest bioenergy certainly is not carbon neutral. In any case, the carbon footprint of bioenergy, whatever it is, should be measured scientifically rather than specified by legislation.
The irony is that all seven backers of the amendment accept the reality of climate change. Two of them – Republican Sen. Susan Collins, the principal sponsor, and Sen. Angus King, an independent – are from Maine and may be supporting the mandate in a well-intentioned but misguided attempt to help the struggling forest products industry in their state.
Forest bioenergy may at first appear to be nearly carbon neutral, because while burning wood for energy releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, a comparable amount of CO2 is later removed from the atmosphere if the wood that was burned is fully regrown. Not all forests are sustainably managed, however, and even if they are, it takes 50 to 100 years for new trees to grow and absorb the released carbon dioxide, which meanwhile remains in the atmosphere and continues to warm the planet. And this assumes that new trees reach maturity despite the increasing challenges of fire, insects and drought. In addition, forest soils release carbon dioxide when disturbed. Finally, the process of preparing wood for use as fuel takes significant energy, further adding to greenhouse gas emissions.
By treating forest bioenergy as carbon neutral when it isn’t, this amendment would encourage deforestation and worsen climate change. That’s why dozens of scientists and eight of the nation’s major environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, the League of Conservation Voters and the Natural Resources Defense Council, have urged the Senate to reject the amendment as “an environmentally damaging and scientifically indefensible approach to biomass policy.”
Globally, forests and soils absorb an amount of carbon dioxide equal to about one-quarter of annual emissions from all sources, including fossil fuels, forest losses and soil degradation. In addition to halting fossil fuel emissions, it’s essential that we regrow forests that have been cut, and restore and expand forests that have been degraded, if we are to have any hope of avoiding unmanageable rates of warming and sea level rise.
Expanding rather than burning forests as we phase out fossil fuels might make it possible to return atmospheric concentrations to 1970s levels. It would also protect biodiversity, prevent flooding and maintain the many additional benefits provided by forests to the millions who enjoy these productive ecosystems.
As scientists, we need to send a clear message to policy makers about the critical role that forests and soils play in removing heat-trapping carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
As scientists, we also know that legislating science, especially when the fundamental facts are wrong, is never a good idea.
*Professor Emeritus, Center for International Environment and Resource Policy, Tufts University, Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.