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Forest Management

Biden’s Choice: Burning Biomass or Sequestering Carbon

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In recent years, the use of wood biomass in Europe has become untenable. The massive subsidies granted to biomass firms has become out of proportion to their appropriate role in generating renewable energy.

Much of the wood pellets used in biomass plants originate from forests in the US, where private woodland owners have seen a decline in markets for wood fibre in the furniture manufacturing sector and for pulp and paper and see the quick cash provided by selling into biomass as one of few available options. Due to their inability to benefit from economies of scale in certification, and lack of adequate market incentives, they are also largely excluded from certification schemes such as FSC.

The new President has an important decision to make. Joe Biden can either back the continued unsustainable mass export of wood pellets or create a method by which private woodlands can remain carbon-storing and profitable, by supporting their access to higher value markets for durable long-lived wood products.

Wood Biomass: The Basic Problem

In a previous article, this website has explored the issues surrounding the use of biomass as a renewable source of energy. The conclusions drawn from that investigation highlighted that biomass could potentially be sustainable when using waste or post-consumer wood. However, the expanded role provided to wood biomass in Europe by energy companies like Drax, is motivating the use of timber that would be of most benefit if used in construction or furniture.

Drax has received £800 million in subsidies from the UK government in 2020 to move away from coal and burn biomass (Image courtesy of Paul Glazzard on Wiki Commons)

Burning freshly cut, large trees as biomass has multiple downsides, the most obvious being its carbon-intensive nature, as without the offset created by cascaded use, the emissions generated at the smokestack are greater than that of fossil fuels. Additionally, around half the mass of freshly harvested trees is water. This water must be boiled off before the tree can be turned into wood pellets and burnt. Consequently, the use of newly cut trees is also a much less efficient way of creating energy when compared to fossil fuels.

Furthermore, the burning of maturing trees greatly disrupts a woodland’s carbon sink. Cutting trees down before reaching full maturity, when the stand is absorbing the most volume of carbon, and not sequestering the carbon in building wooden buildings or furniture, creates a ‘carbon debt’ that could take a forest 35 to 100 years to repay.

The full implications and environmental impact of biomass energy have not been fully considered by the EU, as evidenced by the supranational organisation’s decision to designate all wood biomass as carbon neutral. Consequently, wood biomass plant emissions are not adequately taken into account when establishing their environmental impact allowing the operating energy firms to further benefit from carbon tax breaks.

As a result, many EU and independent European nations, have jumped on the opportunity to use wood biomass as a relatively inexpensive and seemingly sustainable source of renewable energy.

In order to meet the demand for wood pellets, manufacturers in the US have massively increased their exports to the EU and the UK. This trend is exemplified in the 7.0 million tonnes of wood pellets imported by the EU and UK from the US in 2020, up from 4.3 million tonnes in 2015 and less than 2 million tonnes in 2010.

Increasing amounts of carbon-storing timber logs are being converted into pellets for biomass burning rather than waste wood (Image courtesy of VKras on Wiki Commons)

Unlike exported US lumber moving into the EU, wood pellets are finding their way into the single market with relative ease. Much of the freedom from scrutiny can be attributed to certification schemes such as the Sustainable Biomass Program (SBP).

Created in 2013, the SBP works by providing an assurance that wood pellets used for biomass originate from legal and sustainably managed forests. The methodology by which SBP provides this assurance is six-fold:

  • A Feedstock Compliance Standard – an evaluation of the raw wood fuel used in Biomass.
  • Verification of SBP-compliant Feedstock – defines how the evaluation stipulated in the previous standard should be carried out by biomass producers.
  • A Chain of Custody Standard – a system with which biomass producers demonstrate the origin of their feedstock (raw wood fuel).
  • Regulating Certification Systems – defines how an independent certification body checks the compliance of Biomass producers against the SBP Framework requirements.
  • Collection and Communication of Data – specifies how data collated by biomass producers is to be collected and communicated.
  • Energy and Carbon Balance Calculation – allows for the certification of the carbon balance calculation.

The SBP system has certain strengths. It requires assessment by qualified auditing experts. It provides a reliable assurance that the wood used for biomass derives from a specific forest region. Unlike other forest certification systems, it includes a requirement to assess the carbon content of wood pellets supplied into the market.

Particularly important in the context of the US, where non-industrial forest operators often struggle to achieve FSC certification, SBP allows certification at regional level by way of systematic assessment of the risk of illegal and unsustainable practices. This can work well in countries like the US with robust institutions operating at state level to ensure good forest governance and comprehensive forest inventory data to allow reliable and regular monitoring of changes in forest condition.

However, SPB has also been criticised by environmentalists for the role it is alleged to play in obscuring the real carbon impacts of widespread use of wood for biomass. These recriminations were explored in a 2017 paper compiled by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the Dogwood Alliance entitled: The Sustainable Biomass Program: Smokescreen for Forest Destruction and Corporate Non-Accountability.

The report summarises with damning claims against the expanding biomass industry and production of wood pellets:

“A growing body of peer-reviewed science and ground-level evidence clearly shows that the expanding wood pellet industry threatens our climate, natural forest ecosystems, and quality of life in rural communities”.

NRDC., DOGWOOD ALLIANCE. (2017) The Sustainable Biomass Program: Smokescreen for Forest Destruction and Corporate Non-Accountability.

The report is critical of the SBP standards allowing biomass plants to conduct their own risk assessments, creating a clear conflict of interest. It also alleges that SBP neglects to consider other important environmental topics, such as high carbon stock forests and relies too heavily on other certification schemes to avoid considering forest management and conservation objectives.

NRCC and the Dogwood Alliance claim that SBP-certified projects do not present a ‘green’ alternative to fossil fuel. Instead, the extensive use of biomass and increasing production of wood pellets from newly cut timber poses a high risk to the environment, by encouraging intensification of forest use for production of a low value commodity, while also failing to adequately and fully account for associated carbon emissions.

A Sustainable Wood Initiative

What makes the current policy situation particularly perverse is that procurement officials in Europe have been encouraged to accept wood pellets from the United States not only as “carbon neutral” but also as “sustainable” based on SBP certification. In contrast, procurement policies in Europe typically require FSC or similar forms of certification to demonstrate the sustainability of timber destined for long-lived product applications in construction, joinery and furniture.

(Image courtesy of Unsplash)

Unlike the production of wood pellets, the use of responsibly managed timber in construction has innumerable climate benefits. Buildings constructed out of wood not only sequester carbon but are far better thermal insulators, requiring less energy to heat, and are easier to transport to site; resulting in less emissions from trucks and are entirely biodegradable at end of life allowing for cradle-cradle building lifecycles.

However, in the struggle between the timber and biomass industry in the US the latter has recently taken the upper hand. It is much easier for small woodland owners to sell wood harvests to biomass plants under the regional certification provided by the SPB than to sell into higher value markets like construction and furniture, particularly if the latter is also demanding more restrictive forms of certification like FSC.

FSC certified wood (Image courtesy of Greenpeace)

There are clearly positive aspects to the biomass industry in the US. The contribution the industry can make to maintaining the profitability of smaller landowners and sawmills by buying up their waste wood must be credited. Biomass plants have allowed small woodlands to remain economically viable and valuable to landowners, and therefore motivate their continued sustainable woodland management.

The problem emerges when European wood biomass plants are clamouring for wood pellets to meet their demands, prompting US pellet manufacturers to begin extending their remit to include whole trees, rather than just waste, and encouraging intensification of forest operations. These practices severely undermine the carbon claims on which the whole biomass industry is based.

The SBP certification system also has positive aspects, notably that it demonstrates how, through use of regional risk assessment, small land-owners can be accommodated within a certification framework in a non-discriminatory way without adding significant compliance costs to individual forest operators. The addition of carbon-accounting within a forest certification framework, something not achieved by FSC, can also be seen as a positive, although clearly this aspect needs to be strengthened to build trust amongst consumers and environmentalists.

A certification system that provided this level of access to small operators, reliably assessed forest carbon impacts, and which actively encouraged the use of wood for manufacture of higher value and long-lived construction and furniture products, would make a far greater contribution both to the profitability of woodlands and in the fight against climate change.

Mixed hardwood forest in Pennsylvania (Image courtesy of Nicholas A. Tonelli on Wiki Commons)

Even better would be a single certification system accommodating both the timber and biomass sectors, using risk assessment for small operators in regions like the US where there is good forest governance and forest data, rewarding operators that maximise use of timber for high value and long-lived products, whilst also providing a market outlet for certified waste wood in biomass plants.

What Stance Will the Biden Administration Take?

The stance taken by Joe Biden towards either the continued expansion of biomass or the promotion of higher value and carbon storing American wood products will be pivotal in the coming years. Whilst Biden appears far more dedicated to tackling climate change issues than his predecessor (the Trump administration had previously supported the line taken by the EU in declaring biomass as inherently carbon neutral), the new administration’s position still appears unclear.

(Image courtesy of US Department of Labor on Wiki Commons)

Views amongst the new administration vary greatly. The newly appointed agricultural secretary Tom Vilsack, strongly endorsed the use of biomass whilst serving in the Obama administration, whereas Gina McCarthy Biden’s top climate advisor, has previously headed the anti-biomass Natural Resources Defense Council.

In the past several months the international environmental and scientific communities have joined together to urge the newly elected President to move away from over-reliance on wood biomass and its potentially damaging environmental impacts.

Ambitious pledges to reach net-zero targets by 2050 are deeply ingrained in Biden’s environmental policy, and the increasing range of evidence against the climate mitigation benefits of wood biomass will most likely shift the President away from supporting claims of carbon neutrality from the industry.

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