Quantcast
Environmental News for a Healthier Planet and Life

Burning Trees for Electricity Is Actually Dirtier Than Coal

Climate

Western Europe has already lost about 97 percent of its original forests. But European power companies, under pressure to clean up their climate pollution and switch to renewable sources of energy, are increasingly looking to burn wood fuel instead of coal in their power plants. Without enough wood at home, European utilities are looking to America for wood fuel—to the rich forests of the Southeastern U.S. Their exploding appetite for wood from our southern forests stems from misguided EU energy policies that allow power plants to burn wood—known as forest biomass—as a low-carbon alternative to coal.

A group of 78 leading scientists wrote a letter last week to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy, challenging the EPA’s carbon math and warning the agency not to repeat the EU’s mistake. Photo credit: Shutterstock

These policies assume that all biomass is carbon neutral, so when power plants burn wood instead of coal, they don’t have to count any of their carbon emissions. Trouble is, the latest science shows this assumption is false. Burning trees and other large-diameter wood for electricity is actually dirtier than coal. Yet the U.S. EPA is apparently on the verge of making the same math mistake the EU did—opening an accounting loophole that puts our forests, as well as the Obama Administration’s own efforts to cut carbon pollution, at risk.

A group of 78 leading scientists wrote a letter last week to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Gina McCarthy, challenging the EPA’s carbon math and warning the agency not to repeat the EU’s mistake. In a November 2014 memo, the EPA appeared to agree with industry claims that because trees grow back, burning biomass will help utilities reduce their carbon emissions. Some forms of biomass, such as sawdust and chips from sawmills, and small branches and limbs from forestry operations, could work as low-carbon alternatives. But in its memo, the agency suggested that it would allow even the burning of whole trees for electricity—provided they were “sustainably derived.”

Sustainable forestry is great, and NRDC has long advocated for it—but even the most sustainably managed forest can’t turn trees into a clean source of energy. No matter what efforts the forestry industry makes to reduce the soil erosion, habitat loss, and the other harmful impacts that result from poor forest management, burning trees to produce electricity still increases carbon pollution. In a nutshell, here’s why:

  1. Wood is much less energy dense than coal, so you have to burn a lot more of it to produce the same amount of electricity. As a result, burning wood produces higher emissions than coal (about 40 percent higher) for every unit of energy you generate;
  2. Trees take a long time to grow back. Even with immediate replanting, it can take many decades or even centuries before a forest can remove the emissions created from burning it in the first place;
  3. Cutting forests eliminates an important carbon “sink” that would otherwise continue capturing carbon from the atmosphere. Our forests currently absorb 15 percent of our carbon emissions each year.

The EPA needs to get the math right on forests, to avoid undermining its own efforts to reduce carbon pollution from power plants and putting forests around the world at risk. If American utilities start burning trees and other large diameter wood on a wide scale like their European counterparts, we could accelerate climate change, instead of dialing it down. The real answer is to scale up the use of modern, truly clean resources like energy efficiency, solar, wind, and geothermal, not to burn our forests as fuel.

It’s time for the EPA to heed the scientific community’s warning and use a carbon accounting system that accurately measures the impacts of burning trees and other biomass fuels. Trees are not a low carbon fuel, and failing to account for this fact puts our forests, our climate, and our communities at risk.

YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE

Why Utilities Hate the Clean Power Rule

President Obama, Stop Selling Us Out: End Oil, Gas and Coal Extraction on Public Lands

Solar Industry Prepares for Battle Against Koch Brothers’ Front Groups

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Pexels

By Zak Smith

It is pretty amazing that in this moment when the COVID-19 outbreak has much of the country holed up in their homes binging Netflix, the most watched show in America over the last few weeks has been focused on wildlife trade — which scientists believe is the source of the COVID-19 pandemic. Make no mistake: Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness is about wildlife trade and other aspects of wildlife exploitation, just as surely as the appearance of Ebola, SARS, MERS, avian flu and probably COVID-19 in humans is a result of wildlife exploitation. As a conservationist, this is one of the things I've been thinking about while watching Tiger King. Here are five more:

1. We are in a biodiversity crisis.

A million plant and animal species are threatened with extinction, many within decades, including tigers. The leading drivers of species decline and the impending collapse of ecosystems are ocean and land use changes (like converting wildlands into other uses, usually agricultural) and the direct exploitation of species (like taking animals out of the wild for eating, "medicinal" purposes, or status motives). It is for these exact reasons that there are more tigers in cages in the United States than there are in the wild. Developers continue to destroy tiger habitat and, in the not-so-distant past, hunters shot and killed tigers for sport or for trade in tiger products (and some still do illegally).

2. We must fundamentally change our relationship to nature.

Transformative change is necessary to limit species extinctions and secure human well-being (functioning ecosystems provide the clean air, clean water, carbon sequestration, flood control, healthy soils, pollination of plants and healthy coastal waters humans need to survive). Transformative change in this context means "a fundamental, system-wide reorganization across technological, economic, and social factors, including paradigms, goals, and values." We aren't going to halt the loss of species and strengthen ecosystems if we continue to treat wild plants and animals as expendable and renewable resources that we can use however we want. The tigers and other animals in Tiger King are exploited for profit and personal interests. Regardless of how they may be respected, coveted, or cared for, they are still treated as exploitable objects, which reinforces other destructive attitudes toward nature. A tiger cub is something to be held and photographed, a wetland is something to be filled and built upon, a rhino is something to be killed so we can use its horn for fake medicine. It's a view of nature as being in service to human wants, an attitude that is destroying our planet and one that must change.

3. Most wildlife trade should be banned and we should protect more wild places.

As noted above, ocean and land use changes and direct exploitation of species are causing an extinction crisis and threaten the ecosystems we depend on for human well-being. In line with our exploitative mindset, we've been stuck for centuries with economic and social patterns that allow unfettered use of wild places and wildlife until there's a problem. We need to flip that model on its head and only use wild places and wildlife if we can affirmatively demonstrate that such use won't contribute to the biodiversity and climate crisis. Tigers and the other animals appearing in Tiger King wouldn't be endangered today and wouldn't require "sanctuaries" if we hadn't destroyed their habitat and taken them from the wild for food, pets, "medicine" and trophies.

To set things right, we should ban most wildlife trade and protect more of the natural world. I say "most" wildlife trade to account for the exception of well-managed fisheries. NRDC has long sought to limit irresponsible wildlife trade (fighting for imperiled species internationally, supporting state efforts to limit trade, providing recommendations to China on revisions to its wildlife law), and now we must go further by banning most trade. In addition, we should support efforts to set aside vast swaths of ocean, land and terrestrial water to rebalance the functioning of our natural world. That's why NRDC and others support an initial call of protecting 30 percent of the world's oceans, lands and water areas by 2030. In China, we're protecting areas in a way that helps tigers by supporting the government's development of a National Park system, with targeted efforts on one of its pilot parks, the Northeast Tiger and Leopard National Park, which provides an important habitat for China's struggling populations of Amur tigers and leopards.

4. Not​ all sanctuaries are sanctuaries.

A lot of so-called sanctuaries are dumpster fires; they serve no purpose other than exploitation of animals for profit, and the animals suffer needlessly. It doesn't look like the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park — the park formerly owned by Joe Exotic — is a sanctuary, though it styles itself as being one, so the public may be confused. According to the International Fund for Animal Welfare, legitimate sanctuaries "do not breed, allow public contact with, sell, or otherwise exploit the animals that they take in." Legitimate sanctuaries can play an important role in saving imperiled species, promoting animal welfare, and educating the public. But those that do not meet strict standards are part of the problem, not the solution. The Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries (GFAS) provides accreditation for sanctuaries that abide by a set of policies, including the maintenance of a nonprofit/noncommercial status. Big Cat Rescue, which is featured in the Tiger King series, "has held GFAS Accreditation status since 2009."

5. Changing our relationship to nature must include a just transition.

Throughout the world and in the United States, millions of people use nature in destructive ways for their livelihoods. I don't say this with judgement; often, people are just doing what we've always done — business as usual — which is unfortunately destroying the planet. Workers in the fossil fuel industry, fishermen in unsustainable fisheries, clearcutters in the tropics and boreal forests, and even people working at fake sanctuaries depend on the current system of exploiting nature to provide for themselves and their families. Unfortunately, it's at the expense of other people who depend on healthy, thriving ecosystems for their livelihoods and at the expense of human well-being overall. If we want to succeed in charting a new path for our planet, we must commit to making people and communities whole. The rampant exploitation appearing on the screen in Tiger King isn't just of wildlife — it is also of many desperate people brutalized by a political and economic system providing few options. We're not going to successfully realign our relationship with nature if we don't provide the necessary support for people and communities to transition to more sustainable, ethical means of providing for themselves and their families.

So, watch Tiger King and see if for you, like me, it informs the horror of the current moment, then maybe think about building a different world when we come out of this — a vibrant, natural world filled with wildlife and wonder, where we orient ourselves around preserving nature, not exploiting it, and embark on a new human journey.

Pexels

By Hector Chapa

With the coronavirus pandemic quickly spreading, U.S. health officials have changed their advice on face masks and now recommend people wear cloth masks in public areas where social distancing can be difficult, such as grocery stores.

But can these masks be effective?

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
Jörg Carstensen / picture alliance via Getty Images

By Carey Gillam

Bayer AG is reneging on negotiated settlements with several U.S. law firms representing thousands of plaintiffs who claim exposure to Monsanto's Roundup herbicides caused them to develop non-Hodgkin lymphoma, sources involved in the litigation said on Friday.

Read More Show Less
Tom Werner / DigitalVision / Getty Images

By Jillian Kubala, MS, RD

With many schools now closed due to the current COVID-19 outbreak, you may be looking for activities to keep your children active, engaged, and entertained.

Although numerous activities can keep kids busy, cooking is one of the best choices, as it's both fun and educational.

Read More Show Less
In Germany's Hunsrück village of Schorbach, numerous photovoltaic systems are installed on house roofs, on Sept. 19, 2019. Thomas Frey / Picture Alliance via Getty Images

Germany's target for renewable energy sources to deliver 65% of its consumed electricity by 2030 seemed on track Wednesday, with 52% of electricity coming from renewables in 2020's first quarter. Renewable energy advocates, however, warned the trend is imperiled by slowdowns in building new wind and solar plants.

Read More Show Less