Congress Calls Burning Wood 'Carbon Neutral,' Prominent Ecologist Calls Bullshit

Illustration for article titled Congress Calls Burning Wood 'Carbon Neutral,' Prominent Ecologist Calls Bullshit
Photo: Hans Emtenas (Flickr)

On Friday, Congress passed a 1.3 trillion dollar spending bill that, among other things, will continue to enshrine the controversial notion that biomass fuels are carbon neutral. The day before, a prominent ecologist penned an article in a prestigious journal explaining why that’s baloney.

William Schlesinger may be an emeritus professor at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, but retirement isn’t stopping him calling BS on the United States Congress and leaders abroad for promoting the idea that wood burning is consequence-free activity for the climate. And yes, this is something people are really arguing.

Because of a regulatory loophole that passed European Parliament recently, the European Union still considers biomass fuels carbon-neutral, allowing them to count toward fulfillment of its Paris Agreement commitments. The result? The U.S. wood industry is shipping millions of tons of wood pellets across the Atlantic each year to meet growing demand.


With the passage of an omnibus spending bill imminent, the U.S. Congress is about to extend a similar directive to federal agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency. That’s despite that fact that many scientists disagree, and have argued that burning wood can in fact be worse for the climate than burning coal.

“Cutting trees for fuel is antithetical to the important role that forests play as a sink for CO2 that might otherwise accumulate in the atmosphere,” Schlesinger writes in an article published yesterday in the journal Science, adding later that carbon neutrality “is only achieved” if harvested forests are allowed to regrow more biomass than was lost.

Indeed, the whole argument for biomass fuels stems from the fact that trees are giant CO2 vacuums. Let ‘em grow, they mop CO2 up, burn the wood, CO2 goes back in the atmosphere. The trouble, as Schlesinger notes, is that the emissions are only net zero if forests can regrow for decades in order to compensate for the carbon lost when they are chopped up, shipped to distant shores, and burnt for energy.

Not only are the wood pellet-producing pine plantations of the southeastern U.S. typically kept on short rotations that reduce their carbon uptake, the expansion of these plantations to satisfy increased demand for wood products may be harming regional biodiversity, Schlesinger argues.


On the whole, the spending bill that passed Congress last night could have been much worse for the environment. But while the biomass directive makes a minor appearance, it also makes it easier for our leaders to keep dragging their feet on climate action. And since EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has committed to helping the biomass industry achieve regulatory certainty, this may just be the beginning.

“The choices Congress makes today will literally determine whether we preserve a livable planet, Kassie Siegel, director of the Center for Biological Diversity’s Climate Law Institute, told Earther in response to a request for comment on the budget yesterday. “Once again, Congress is sacrificing our children’s future to protect polluters’ short-term profits.”


Maddie Stone is a freelancer based in Philadelphia.

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Maybe I’m missing something here, but the only carbon-positive effect I can think of here is the original one - when old(er) growth forest is chopped down and replaced with a (younger) tree farm. You could have a mild carbon-neutral founders effect if you start from grassland or marginal land.

If the pellets are being sustainably harvested afterward (big if), then you can only remove an amount of carbon equal to the forest biomass. However long the cycle is, the wood harvested is going to equal the CO2 pulled down from the atmosphere over its lifespan.

There certainly isn’t a carbon-negative aspect of this, but on a sustained basis it should be near neutral (there are fossil fuels involved in harvesting, processing and transportation, at least for now).

Of course, we don’t have to use wood pellets. I’m normally skeptical of the “hemp is the best for everything” types, but when it comes to pellets, hemp pellets perform with a very similar profile as wood pellets (they have a low ash content). Hemp grows quickly, pulling carbon out of the atmosphere to support its fast growth. If the heating plant isn’t as ash-sensitive as a typical pellet stove, you can also use grass, wheat chaff, rice husk, cherry pits and a whole host of organic waste products.