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.
YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
Atmospheric researchers have pinpointed the spot on Earth with the cleanest air. It's not in the midst of a remote jungle, nor on a deserted tropical island. Instead, the cleanest air in the world is in the air above the frigid Southern Ocean surrounding Antarctica, as CNN reported.
- Greenhouse Gas Emissions Set for Record Decline Due to ... ›
- Coronavirus Shutdowns Causing Huge Drops in Traffic, Air Pollution ... ›
- Blowing the Cover off the 'Cleanest Air' Illusion of the Trump ... ›
Satellite data collated for the World Resources Institute (WRI) showed primal rainforest was lost across 38,000 square kilometers (14,500 square miles) globally — ruining habitats and releasing carbon once locked in wood into the atmosphere.
Bolivia Has 80% Higher Loss<p>In its Global Forest Watch report, the WRI highlighted Bolivia, saying its removal of primary forest and surrounding woodlands — to produce soy and range cattle in 2019 — had been 80% higher than any of its previous years on record.</p><p>"Its highly biodiverse Chiquitano Dry Forest was particularly affected, with reports that nearly 12% of it burned," said the study.</p><p>Other countries with severe losses had been Peru, Malaysia and Colombia, followed by Laos, Mexico and Cambodia — from 1,620 square kilometers and 800 square kilometers in primal forest lost.</p><p><strong>Indigenous Rights Protect Forests Too</strong></p><p>WRI's Seymour said a "mounting body of evidence" suggested that legal recognition of indigenous land rights "provides greater forest protection:</p><p>"We know that deforestation is lower in indigenous territories," Seymour said.</p>
Pandemic Weakens Enforcement<p>The current Covid-19 pandemic had changed dynamics, said Weisse, weakening enforcement of forest-protection laws and leaving rural families desperate to feed themselves back home after losing jobs in cities.</p><p>In April, scientists grouped within the Global Carbon Project estimated that coronavirus-induced economic slowdowns would trim carbon dioxide emissions by more than 5% year-on-year.</p><p>It was "something not seen since the end of World War Two," said project chair Rob Jackson, professor of Earth system science at Stanford University, California.</p><p><span></span>But, recalling the aftermath of the 2008-2009 global financial crisis, climate scientist Corinne Le Quéré at England's University of East Anglia, forecast in April that emissions were likely to rebound if structural changes were not instituted.</p>
Glasgow's COP26 Postponed<p>Last week, host Britain confirmed that UN climate talks due in Glasgow, known as COP26, had been postponed a year until between November 1 and 12 2021.</p><p>Experts involved in those long-running negotiations insist that global emissions must start dropping this year to avoid irreversible impacts, including polar melts, record hot weather, rogue storms, and ocean level rises.</p>
- Statistic of the decade: The massive deforestation of the Amazon ... ›
- Amazon Rainforest Deforestation Hits Highest Rate in 10 Years ... ›
- Amazon Deforestation Rate Hits 3 Football Fields Per Minute, Data ... ›
Researchers have found that warm temperatures in the U.S. this summer are unlikely to stop the coronavirus that causes the infectious disease COVID-19, according to a new study published in the journal Clinical Infectious Disease.
- Will Warmer Weather Curb the Spread of Coronavirus? - EcoWatch ›
- Don't Expect Coronavirus to End This Summer - EcoWatch ›
The glaring numbers that show how disproportionately racial minorities have been affected by the coronavirus and by police brutality go hand-in-hand. The two are byproducts of systemic racism that has kept people of color marginalized and contributed to a public health crisis, according to three prominent medical organizations — the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Medical Association and American College of Physicians, as CNN reported.
- TV Coverage Ignored Impacts of Extreme Weather on Marginalized ... ›
- 15 EcoWatch Stories on Environmental and Racial Injustice ... ›
- House Democrats Roll out Environmental Justice Bill - EcoWatch ›
By Jessica Corbett
With the nation focused on the coronavirus pandemic and protests against U.S. police brutality that have sprung up across the globe, the Trump administration continues to quietly attack federal policies that protect public health and the environment to limit the legal burdens faced by planet-wrecking fossil fuel companies.
<iframe width="100%" height="150" scrolling="no" class="rm-shortcode twitter-embed-1267581093349191680" id="twitter-embed-1267581093349191680" lazy-loadable="true" src="/res/community/twitter_embed/?iframe_id=twitter-embed-1267581093349191680&created_ts=1591049857.0&screen_name=PeterGleick&text=And+while+attention+is+elsewhere%2C+another+Trump+assault+on+the+Clean+%23Water+Act+and+the+ability+of+states+to+protec%E2%80%A6+https%3A%2F%2Ft.co%2FUtqe7IkGt9&id=1267581093349191680&name=Peter+Gleick" frameborder="0" data-rm-shortcode-id="b88aab098c5666a85c251e01b7a029bf"></iframe>
<iframe width="100%" height="150" scrolling="no" class="rm-shortcode twitter-embed-1267802127273005056" id="twitter-embed-1267802127273005056" lazy-loadable="true" src="/res/community/twitter_embed/?iframe_id=twitter-embed-1267802127273005056&created_ts=1591102556.0&screen_name=EnvProtectioNet&text=.%40epa%E2%80%99s+rule+change+is+a+blatant+attack+on+states%E2%80%99+rights+and+flies+in+the+face+of+decades+of+Supreme+Court+rulings%E2%80%A6+https%3A%2F%2Ft.co%2Fk42d4AgTL5&id=1267802127273005056&name=Environmental+Protection+Network" frameborder="0" data-rm-shortcode-id="a0d99172630e2eaea81fb529e2c93c87"></iframe><p>Hauter vowed that Food & Water Action "will be pursuing all avenues available—legal, electoral, and otherwise—to ensure that states have the right to reject fossil fuels as they see fit, and support vulnerable communities everywhere seeking to protect themselves from this malicious administration."</p>
- Trump's EPA Budget: 5 Critical Programs on His Chopping Block ... ›
- Trump's EPA Limits States' and Tribes' Rights to Block Pipelines ›
- States Sue Trump EPA for Suspending Environmental Regulations ... ›
A video of an incident in Central Park last Monday, in which a white woman named Amy Cooper called the cops on African American birder Christian Cooper after he asked her to put her dog on a leash, went viral last week, raising awareness of the racism Black people face for simply trying to enjoy nature.
By Jodi Helmer
In Georgia there are just 213 game wardens to enforce state fish and wildlife laws, investigate violations, assist with conservation efforts and collect data on wildlife and ecological changes across 16,000 miles of rivers and 37 million acres of public and private lands. Statewide 46 counties have no designated game warden at all. The shortage could lead to wildlife crimes going undetected.