Biomass More Polluting Than Coal, New Study Finds
By Sami Yassa
A pre-eminent think tank in the United Kingdom, Chatham House, issued a seminal report last week challenging a fundamental assumption underlying European renewable energy policy: that burning forest biomass to produce electricity is "carbon neutral." The report, Woody Biomass for Power and Heat: Impacts on the Global Climate, finds that many forms of forest-derived biopower are likely increasing carbon pollution rather than reducing emissions and calls for restrictions on existing government incentives for the biomass industry in the EU.
Is Biomass Energy Renewable? https://t.co/WyUAmOO22S via @ecowatch— Ambientworld.com (@Ambientworld.com)1465641841.0
The context for this analysis is a cross-Atlantic dirty energy boom, fueled by misplaced subsidies intended to promote clean energy. Currently energy companies are cutting U.S. forests and producing wood pellets to export to EU markets, claiming that biomass fuel is clean and renewable. These exports are driven by generous EU renewable energy subsidies that erroneously reward all forest biomass as "carbon-neutral"—equivalent to non-polluting sources like solar and wind energy. In other words, when counting carbon pollution at a biomass power plant, EU regulators treat the discharge from the smokestack as zero carbon, even though biomass combustion releases carbon emissions at levels comparable to fossil fuels.
The Chatham House report is the capstone to a growing body of peer-reviewed scientific analyses—including the UK government's own modeling—that show forest biomass is not carbon neutral. It underscores that in many cases forest biomass produces more emissions than fossil fuels and these emissions persist in the atmosphere for decades.
The report provides exhaustive research and deliberate reasoning to debunk the industry-promoted myths underlying the EU's misplaced carbon-neutrality assumptions. Here are a few of their top-line conclusions and recommendations:
Biomass Plants Pollute at the Smokestack at Levels Comparable to Fossil Fuels.
Since wood has a lower energy content compared with fossil fuels while also having a higher moisture content, its combustion for energy usually emits more carbon per unit of energy produced than fossil fuels. The Chatham House study, citing numbers from the IPCC confirms this fact:
... in most circumstances, comparing technologies of similar ages, the use of woody biomass for energy will release higher levels of emissions than coal and considerably higher levels than gas.
Burning Biomass Produces a "Carbon Debt" Which is Not Automatically Offset by Forest Regrowth.
The report goes on to underscore a fundamental flaw underlying the arguments of biomass proponents: namely, since forests can regenerate over time and sequester carbon in the process, this regrowth balances or offsets the stack emissions produced by burning wood for energy. The report rejects this overly simplistic error and instead stresses that biomass burning creates a "carbon debt"—excess carbon in the atmosphere—and that the intensity and duration of this debt depends on the type of forest biomass burned (for example, whole trees versus logging residues versus mill waste). In sum it confirms the findings of many prior scientific inquiries that not all biomass is created equal and burning whole trees in particular is always detrimental to climate.
The harvesting of whole trees for energy will in almost all circumstances increase net carbon emissions very substantially compared to using fossil fuels. This is because of the loss of future carbon sequestration from the growing trees—particularly from mature trees in old-growth forests, whose rate of carbon absorption can be very high—and of the loss of soil carbon consequent upon the disturbance.
The use of sawmill residues for energy has lower impacts because it involves no additional harvesting; it is waste from other operations of the wood industry. The impact will be most positive for the climate if they are burnt on-site for energy without any associated transport or processing emissions.
While wood pellet manufacturers in the U.S. southeast claim that most of their wood pellets are produced with residues, the report shows that about three quarters of the pellets from the southern U.S. came from whole trees and residues accounted for only a quarter.
Time Scale Matters
These two examples from the study show that when biomass is burned it releases carbon emissions immediately and this carbon debt lasts anywhere from a few years to many decades (often called the "payback period")—depending upon the type of feedstock used. But carbon emissions from burning forest biomass will have real consequences for climate in the near term—and not just some distant future 100 years from now. These near-term "tipping points" include melting glaciers, sea level rise, disruptions to agricultural systems and effects on human health. So only those feedstocks that reduce emissions in the short term will provide climate benefits. The Chatham House study confirms this finding:
Some have argued that the length of the carbon payback period does not matter as long as all emissions are eventually absorbed. This ignores the potential impact in the short term on climate tipping points (a concept for which there is some evidence) and on the world's ability to meet the target set in the 2015 Paris agreement to limit temperature increase to 1.5 C above pre-industrial levels, which requires greenhouse gas emissions to peak in the near term. This suggests that only biomass energy with the shortest carbon payback periods should be eligible for financial and regulatory support.
"Sustainable Forestry" Does Not Mean Carbon Neutrality
Many biomass proponents like to argue that biomass fuel sourced from a region where the net forest growth is positive or where sustainable forestry is practiced—is carbon neutral. Such logic is nonsense. Rates of forest growth simply cannot detect, quantify or reflect the carbon emissions from an individual biomass-burning facility and it does not establish a proper baseline for accounting or a cause-and-effect between the power plant and the region's forests. The Chatham House study flatly debunks this industry myth:
It is often argued that biomass emissions should be considered to be zero at the point of combustion because carbon has been absorbed during the growth of the trees, either because the timber is harvested from a sustainably managed forest, or because forest area as a whole is increasing (at least in Europe and North America).
These arguments are not credible. They ignore what happens to the wood after it is harvested (emissions will be different if the wood is burnt or made into products) and the carbon sequestration forgone from harvesting the trees that if left unharvested would have continued to grow and absorb carbon. The evidence suggests that this is true even for mature trees, which absorb carbon at a faster rate than young trees.
Among the report's many recommendations, three stand out as rejecting the fundamental carbon neutrality assumption underlying the EU's Renewable Energy Directive and restricting financial support only to biomass feedstocks that actually reduce carbon emissions in the short term—mill residues and post-consumer waste.
- It is not valid to claim that because trees absorb carbon as they grow, the emissions from burning them can be ignored.
- The provision of financial or regulatory support to biomass energy on the grounds of its contribution to mitigating climate change should be limited only to those feedstocks that reduce carbon emissions over the short term.
- In practice, this means that support should be restricted to sawmill residues, together with post-consumer waste. Burning slower-decaying forest residues or whole trees means that carbon emissions stay higher for decades than if fossil fuels had been used.
Burning forest biomass is not a climate solution. It often worsens climate change by emitting more carbon than burning coal. These findings have now been corroborated by an established UK institution with a history of independent and rigorous research. It should serve as a wake-up call to policymakers in both the UK and EU that their renewables incentives and subsidies aimed at reducing carbon emissions from power plants are—in the case of forest biomass power—likely having the opposite effect and making our climate problems worse.
By Astrid Caldas
As we reach the official end of hurricane season, 2020 will be one for the record books. Looking back at these long, surprising, sometimes downright crazy past six months (seven if you count when the first named storms actually started forming), there are many noteworthy statistics and patterns that drive home the significance of this hurricane season, and the ways climate change may have contributed to it.
A summary infographic showing hurricane season probability and numbers of named storms predicted from NOAA's 2020 Atlantic Hurricane Season Outlook. NOAA
The updated 2020 Atlantic hurricane season probability and numbers of named storms. NOAA
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EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Dana Drugmand
An unprecedented climate lawsuit brought by six Portuguese youths is to be fast-tracked at Europe's highest court, it was announced today.
The European Court of Human Rights said the case, which accuses 33 European nations of violating the applicants' right to life by disregarding the climate emergency, would be granted priority status due to the "importance and urgency of the issues raised."
‘Protect Our Future’<p>Cláudia Agostinho (21), Catarina Mota (20), Martim Agostinho (17), Sofia Oliveira (15), André Oliveira (12) and Mariana Agostinho (8) are <a href="https://www.desmogblog.com/2020/09/03/youth-climate-lawsuit-portugal-33-european-countries" target="_blank">bringing the case</a> with nonprofit law firm Global Legal Action Network (<span style="background-color: initial;">GLAN</span>), arguing that none of the countries have sufficiently ambitious targets to cut their emissions.</p><p>Portugal recently sweltered through its <a href="https://www.ipma.pt/pt/media/noticias/news.detail.jsp?f=/pt/media/noticias/textos/resumo-clima-julho-20.html" target="_blank">hottest July in 90 years</a> and has seen a rise in devastating heatwaves and wildfires over recent years due to rising temperatures. Four of the applicants live in Leiria, one of the regions worst-hit by the forest fires that killed more than 120 people in 2017. </p><p>Responding to the development, André Oliveira, 12, said: "It gives me lots of hope to know that the judges in the European Court of Human Rights recognise the urgency of our case." </p><p>"But what I'd like the most would be for European governments to immediately do what the scientists say is necessary to protect our future. Until they do this, we will keep on fighting with more determination than ever."</p>
‘Highly Significant'<p>The decision represents a "highly significant" step, <a href="https://www.glanlaw.org/about-us" target="_blank">GLAN</a> Director Dr. Gearóid Ó Cuinn said in a <a href="https://youth4climatejustice.org/" target="_blank">press release</a>.</p><p>"This is an appropriate response from the Court given the scale and imminence of the threat these young people face from the climate emergency," he added. </p><p>By suing the 33 countries all together, the youths aim to compel these national governments to act more aggressively on climate through a single court order, which would potentially be more effective than pursuing separate lawsuits or lobbying policymakers in each country.</p><p>If successful, the defendant countries would be legally bound not only to ramp up emissions cuts, but also to tackle overseas contributions to climate change including those of their multinational enterprises.</p>
‘Major Hurdle’<p>The <a href="https://youth4climatejustice.org/the-case/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">countries targeted</a> include all of the European Union member states as well as Norway, Russia, Switzerland, Turkey, Ukraine and the United Kingdom, none of which are currently aligned with <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/paris-agreement">Paris agreement</a> target to limit global temperature rise to well below 2 degrees C (3.6 degrees F) and pursue a limit of 1.5 degrees C (2.7 degrees F).<a href="https://climateactiontracker.org/countries/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"> </a></p><p><a href="https://climateactiontracker.org/countries/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Climate Action Tracker rates</a> most of Europe as "insufficient" in terms of its emissions reduction policies based on the Paris target, while Ukraine, Turkey and Russia are assessed as "critically insufficient" – meaning they are on track for a warming of 4 degrees C or higher.</p><p>The European Union has pledged to slash its emissions by <a href="https://ec.europa.eu/clima/policies/eu-climate-action/2030_ctp_en" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">at least 55 percent by 2030</a>. But the Portuguese youth plaintiffs are calling for cuts of at least 65 percent by 2030, a level that <a href="http://www.caneurope.org/energy/climate-energy-targets" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">European climate campaigners say</a> is necessary to meet the 1.5 degrees warming limit.</p><p> The 33 countries must each respond to the youths' complaint by the end of February, before lawyers representing the plaintiffs will respond to the points of defense. </p><p>"Nothing less than a 65 percent reduction by 2030 will be enough for the EU member states to comply with their obligations to the youth-applicants and indeed countless others," Gerry Liston, legal officer with GLAN, said in a press release.</p><p>"These brave young people have cleared a major hurdle in their pursuit of a judgment which compels European governments to accelerate their climate mitigation efforts."</p><p><span></span><em>Reposted with permission from <a href="https://www.desmogblog.com/2020/11/29/court-advances-landmark-youth-climate-lawsuit-against-33-european-nations" target="_blank">DeSmog</a>. </em></p>
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By Liz Kimbrough
Six grassroots environmental activists will receive the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize in a virtual ceremony this year. Dubbed the "Green Nobel Prize," this award is given annually to environmental heroes from each of the world's six inhabited continents.
Kristal Ambrose, the Bahamas<img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDg0NzI3MC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1MDM5NTk5MX0.fdMrrUqf0HvWq0Uh0Ii3mXxJczHPyN1jcnSsQoXoerE/img.jpg?width=980" id="b9e66" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="b8b8777f7964bb7100672b3be0abf3fe" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Kristal Ambrose. Goldman Environmental Prize
Chibeze Ezekiel, Ghana<img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDg0NzM2MS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1MTgzOTE3OX0.KoEZr3oMPKbeG2uT8q-ZsGPOGtIZ3l6V6NXEK5U90FU/img.jpg?width=980" id="65224" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="6ec640a8ba56a4db22b57e4f8734a7a4" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Chibeze Ezekiel. Goldman Environmental Prize
Nemonte Nenquimo, Ecuador<img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDg0NzM2Ny9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYwNzYxODYwM30.cys5ZsFGd75UcjybADGBPFt20jrzgrsFujoj_qMTK4E/img.jpg?width=980" id="96b5a" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="0778ab7334e3297e0ead52d5fd1499e5" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Nemonte Nenquimo. Goldman Environmental Prize
Leydy Pech, Mexico<img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDg0NzQwNy9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0NzkzOTYzOH0.uHlN2FQoJJ_KFJWTn4oL__lDyjA0-HDnxewBhwgQRVg/img.jpg?width=980" id="9ab07" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ccc347126d4ce9ddbb3b9c1b4673391b" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Leydy Pech. Goldman Environmental Prize
Lucie Pinson, France<img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDg0NzQxMS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY2NzE0NTU1NX0.OutmX3sfl4pMaoYssTQ4zk7Y14_hans7-Z-0B0xsjfM/img.jpg?width=980" id="4bcd7" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="4bff14750dc0a70fc79e9484ea2bdbd4" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Lucie Pinson. Goldman Environmental Prize
Paul Sein Twa, Myanmar<img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDg0NzQxNS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1NDAyNjU0MH0.DHrKykngmcJyJ5rn4r91ANH7FmQ7Us6ZMEOis8yAzGY/img.jpg?width=980" id="8fa36" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="0e703d62288df00931cd678c861c6e0b" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Paul Sein Twa. Goldman Environmental Prize
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