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DEBUNKING THE BIOMASS MYTH

Biomass — fuels derived from growing things like trees and other plants — has long enjoyed a reputation as a clean, green and renewable alternative to fossil fuels. That clean, green reputation, however, is tarnishing — and rightly. Burning biomass for energy pumps huge quantities of carbon dioxide and other pollutants into the atmosphere, contributing to climate change and exacerbating chronic respiratory health problems. Making matters worse, the widespread conversion of native forests and croplands for biofuels production, especially in the tropics, threatens both biodiversity and human food supplies. And a new generation of domestic power plants designed to burn wood for electricity could put incredible pressure on American forests to generate fuel, further degrading habitat and water quality in forest lands across the country.

Climate scientists meanwhile are sounding an increasingly urgent alarm that global emissions must peak and start to decline sharply within the next decade if we’re to have a decent chance of avoiding the very worst impacts of climate change. This is precisely the period during which CO2 emissions from today’s biomass burning is certain to increase global CO2 concentrations. Burning biomass thus makes little sense as a strategy for dealing with global warming, and in fact it may worsen the problem.

OUR CAMPAIGN

The Center, in coalition with other advocates from coast to coast, has begun to push back against the biomass juggernaut. We’ve begun by tackling the longstanding mythology that biomass is “carbon neutral” — that is, the industry argument that the CO2 emissions from burning biomass don’t actually affect the atmosphere, either because the plants may grow back someday or because they would have died and decayed anyway. A plethora of recent scientific articles and studies have demolished this mythology, demonstrating that even when biomass is burned as a substitute for fossil fuels, the resulting CO2 emissions may actually be worse for decades or even centuries to come. This period of increased emissions — known as the biomass “carbon debt” — arises because plants don’t contain as much energy as fossil fuels. So in order to get the same amount of energy, more trees than fossil fuels have to be burned, resulting in more CO2 emissions per unit of energy produced.

The Center’s achievements in debunking the “carbon-neutral” biomass myth began when we successfully challenged statements in the Environmental Protection Agency’s annual greenhouse gas inventory claiming that biomass is carbon neutral. After we filed a petition under a little-known federal law called the Data Quality Act, the EPA quietly removed carbon neutrality assertions from its latest inventory.

Working with allies, we won a major legal victory in 2013, convincing a federal court of appeals to invalidate an EPA rule that unlawfully exempted biomass CO2 emissions from crucial Clean Air Act permitting programs. And we’ve reviewed dozens of air permits, submitted comments on a wide range of biomass facilities, and initiated challenges to particular biomass plants in order to head off threats to the climate and our forests. Our message has been consistent: Government and industry must account honestly for the carbon emissions and climate impacts of biomass facilities — not perpetuate the baseless falsehood that biomass helps in the fight against climate change, when it in fact could be a significant factor, in these critically important next few years, in pushing us past the point of no return.

 

Biomass harvest site photo courtesy Flickr Commons/esagor