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By Josh Schlossberg
Wood Burning, Biomass, Air Pollution and Climate Change, by Christopher D. Ahlers, adjunct professor of Law at Vermont Law School, explains that the term renewable is a “subjective policy judgment" that must take into account the health and environmental impacts of a given energy source.
Currently, biomass energy makes up 50 percent of renewable energy in the U.S., according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, with half of that tally coming from wood products.
Ahlers, legal support for the Philadelphia-based Clean Air Council, contrasts biomass energy from solar and wind and instead compares bioenergy to fossil fuels, as “both involve the extraction of solid material from the Earth, for the purpose of combustion." He also discusses the time difference between growing a new tree (decades to centuries) and the formation of new fossil fuel deposits (millennia).
The Carbon Question
The idea of separately accounting for the carbon emissions of fossil fuels and bioenergy—biogenic carbon—is “ambiguous," according to the report, which references the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) ongoing “uncertainty" on the topic.
While wood gradually emits carbon dioxide as it decomposes in the forest, Ahlers points out that wood burned in a biomass facility releases the CO2 in one immediate pulse. Still, he notes the issue involves a “complex factual question" that climate scientists have “wrestled with."
Biomass101, a coalition of organizations representing the forest products industry, agrees that accounting for bioenergy carbon emissions is complicated. In an email to The Biomass Monitor, a representative writes that biomass energy is “part of a complex process of carbon capture, storage and emission that carries on much the same whether trees become forest bioenergy or are lost to insects, disease, storm damage, wildfires and the like."
The organization contends that “biomass is carbon neutral where American forests are capturing as much or more carbon as energy production is emitting and where sustainable forest management is reinforcing that dynamic."
When it comes to directly measurable smokestack emissions, Ahlers writes that biomass energy generates “nearly as many carbon dioxide emissions as coal and significantly more carbon dioxide emissions than natural gas."
Specifically, the EPA attributes 208.6 MMT (million metric tons) of carbon dioxide emissions per year to the commercial, industrial and residential burning of woody biomass. 120.2 MMT comes from the industrial sector, 59.8 MMT from residential burning, 21.3 MMT from the electricity sector and 7.2 MMT from commercial biomass.
The EPA and proponents of biomass energy have distracted attention away from its public health impacts by “framing the issue of biomass around climate," writes report author Christopher Ahlers, in an email exchange with The Biomass Monitor. Ignoring air pollution, he said, has resulted in “limiting the engagement of environmental groups," many of which are either tangentially involved with the issue or not at all.
The report delves into the air pollution concerns from the combustion of biomass, citing World Health Organization estimates of 7 million annual deaths worldwide attributed to air pollution.
All forms of combustion, including biomass, emit nitrogen oxides and fine particulates, along with hazardous air pollutants (formaldehyde, benzene, toluene), mercury and other chemicals. The EPA has linked nitrogen oxides to respiratory problems and when it comes to particulate matter, the agency has “not identified a threshold below which there are no adverse effects on human health."
Therefore, the report concludes that biomass energy “contributes to the formation of the country's two most significant air pollution problems."
Because of its air emissions, biomass is “more similar to coal, oil and natural gas (non- renewable energy), than it is to wind and solar power."Ahlers determines that “many people have erroneously become fixated on biomass, even though it presents harm to public health."
Culture of Wood Burning
The report also tackles the issue of residential wood burning, including wood stoves and fireplaces.
New England is a hot bed of wood heating, with Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine ranked first, fourth, fifth in per capita air emissions from wood burning. The report notes a “broader pattern of elevated asthma levels" in these states.
Ahlers compares emissions from fireplaces and woodstoves, calculating that fireplaces release twenty times the amount of particulates as an EPA-certified woodstove. An EPA-certified woodstove, meanwhile, emits 169 times more particulates than a gas furnace.
Because of what he calls a “cultural affinity for wood burning," when it comes to wood stoves, some states are “refusing to enforce more stringent standards for the protection of public health."
Outside of the U.S., burning wood and biomass for cooking and heating is responsible for “millions of annual deaths from household air pollution in developing countries."
Renewable or Not?
According to Biomass101, the fact that trees cut for bioenergy eventually grow back means the energy source is “inherently renewable."
However, Clean Air Council believes the expansion of biomass energy is less a science-based decision and more the “result of political and cultural choices being made by both consumers and corporations."
Ahlers makes the point that nuclear energy could theoretically be considered renewable, because of its lack of direct air emissions and the fact that uranium isn't a fossil fuel, however it's been denied the label mostly because of its health and environmental impacts.
The report concludes that the same restrictions applied to nuclear power should be applied to biomass energy, “due to the health and environmental impacts in the form of fine particulates and harvesting of trees."
Josh Schlossberg is the editor-in-chief of The Biomass Monitor.
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Colorado River Has Lost 1.5 Billion Tons of Water to the Climate Crisis, 'Severe Water Shortages' May Follow
California is headed toward drought conditions as February, typically the state's wettest month, passes without a drop of rain. The lack of rainfall could lead to early fire conditions. With no rain predicted for the next week, it looks as if this month will be only the second time in 170 years that San Francisco has not had a drop of rain in February, according to The Weather Channel.
The last time San Francisco did not record a drop of rain in February was in 1864 as the Civil War raged.
"This hasn't happened in 150 years or more," said Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at UCLA's Institute of the Environment and Sustainability to The Guardian. "There have even been a couple [of] wildfires – which is definitely not something you typically hear about in the middle of winter."
While the Pacific Northwest has flooded from heavy rains, the southern part of the West Coast has seen one storm after another pass by. Last week, the U.S. Drought Monitor said more Californians are in drought conditions than at any time during 2019, as The Weather Channel reported.
The dry winter has included areas that have seen devastating fires recently, including Sonoma, Napa, Lake and Mendocino counties. If the dry conditions continue, those areas will once again have dangerously high fire conditions, according to The Mercury News.
"Given what we've seen so far this year and the forecast for the next few weeks, I do think it's pretty likely we'll end up in some degree of drought by this summer," said Swain, as The Mercury News reported.
Another alarming sign of an impending drought is the decreased snowpack in the Sierra Nevada Mountain range. The National Weather Service posted to Twitter a side-by-side comparison of snowpack from February 2019 and from this year, illustrating the puny snowpack this year. The snow accumulated in the Sierra Nevadas provides water to roughly 30 percent of the state, according to NBC Los Angeles.
Right now, the snowpack is at 53 percent of its normal volume after two warm and dry months to start the year. It is a remarkable decline, considering that the snowpack started 2020 at 90 percent of its historical average, as The Guardian reported.
"Those numbers are going to continue to go down," said Swain. "I would guess that the 1 March number is going to be less than 50 percent."
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Climate Prediction Center forecast that the drier-than-average conditions may last through April.
NOAA said Northern California will continue deeper into drought through the end of April, citing that the "persistent high pressure over the North Pacific Ocean is expected to continue, diverting storm systems to the north and south and away from California and parts of the Southwest," as The Weather Channel reported.
As the climate crisis escalates and the world continues to heat up, California should expect to see water drawn out of its ecosystem, making the state warmer and drier. Increased heat will lead to further loss of snow, both as less falls and as more of it melts quickly, according to The Guardian.
"We aren't going to necessarily see less rain, it's just that that rain goes less far. That's a future where the flood risk extends, with bigger wetter storms in a warming world," said Swain, as The Guardian reported.
The Guardian noted that while California's reservoirs are currently near capacity, the more immediate impact of the warm, dry winter will be how it raises the fire danger as trees and grasslands dry out.
"The plants and the forests don't benefit from the water storage reservoirs," said Swain, as The Mercury News reported. "If conditions remain very dry heading into summer, the landscape and vegetation is definitely going to feel it this year. From a wildfire perspective, the dry years do tend to be the bad fire years, especially in Northern California."
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A warm day in winter used to be a rare and uplifting relief.
Now such days are routine reminders of climate change – all the more foreboding when they coincide with news stories about unprecedented wildfires, record-breaking "rain bombs," or the accelerated melting of polar ice sheets.
Where, then, can one turn for hope in these dark months of the year?