A global network on research and implementation of bioenergy has issued a statement correcting what member scientists say are misconceptions about wood bioenergy.
The International Energy Agency (IEA) Bioenergy Technology Collaboration Program (BTC) statement was released in February 2021 in response to media campaigns and publications questioning the use of woody biomass for renewable energy production. Many of the accounts, the experts say, misrepresent ongoing forestry practices and bioenergy systems, and associate the use of woody biomass for energy with overexploitation of forests, even permanent deforestation, and “the burning of trees.”
The BTC experts contend bioenergy is an integral part of the forest sector, which responds to bioenergy demand by devising forest management approaches and industrial processes to sustainably produce fuels, heat and electricity, as well as sawlogs, paper and a multitude of other biobased products. With sustainability as an overarching principle, the use of wood for renewable energy can be a key driver in not only expanding the supply of biomass for energy, but also in enhancing and capturing a myriad of environmental services that healthy, properly managed forests provide. In addition to boosting carbon storage, good management practices being undertaken today can improve a forest’s biodiversity, wildlife habitat, soil retention, water filtration and storage, and recreation. All of this can be accomplished while still supplying the valuable wood and byproducts needed by the traditional forest products industry.
Today, combustion is the most frequent means of converting woody biomass into energy, particularly in the form of heat and/or power. BTC researchers acknowledge that the process can conjure a vision of “burning trees and forests” among those who are unfamiliar with today’s forestry, including many scientists. However, those in the sector recognize that any harvesting of biomass – be it for bioenergy, construction material, paper or other use – should occur within sustainable boundaries. That means observing good forest management and harvesting principles, which provide safeguards against overharvesting, while maintaining ecological sustainability, and cultural and recreational values.
In their statement, the experts examine questions raised about woody biomass, including those that cast doubts about its need for energy. They say the most important climate change mitigation measure is to transform energy and transport systems as soon as possible so that fossil carbon can be left in the ground.
“Sustainable bioenergy is available now,” the IEA assessment says, “and is compatible with existing energy infrastructure, enabling immediate substitution of coal, natural gas or petroleum fuels. It can therefore play a significant role in supporting energy system transformation to achieve carbon neutrality.”
How about the contention that forests being cut to produce bioenergy? In fact, “on-the-ground” practices are used to manage forests to provide multiple forest products, such as sawn wood, paper, bioenergy and other biobased products. These different forest products together avoid fossil carbon emissions by replacing those products with a high-carbon footprint, such as fossil fuels, cement, steel, or petroleum-based plastics and chemicals.
The experts note that some 90 percent of global renewable industrial heat consumption is currently based on biomass, mainly in industries that can use their own biomass waste and residues, such as sawmills and the pulp and paper industry. By shifting from fossil fuels to biomass, these industries can stop injecting fossil carbon into the atmosphere. Also, energy efficiency improvements and changes in industrial processes enable the sustainable production of fuels, heat and electricity.
The biggest question tends to focus on why woody biomass, which emits CO2, is better than fossil fuels? CO2 from woody biomass combustion is part of the short-term carbon cycle. The carbon that is emitted was previously taken from the atmosphere and is then taken up again by growing trees in the forest. So, if harvests do not exceed carbon uptake in the forest, it does not increase concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide. Fossil fuel, on the other hand, causes what is called a “linear flow” of carbon from geologic stores to the atmosphere.
It is important to point out that landowners know the exploitation of their forests can only reduce the value and income their land provides. As a result, the wood used for bioenergy is not high-quality lumber, but typically thinnings, low-quality wood, salvage wood, harvest logging residues, processing residues or wood waste. Increasing the appropriate use of forest biomass for energy is part of a changing forest management paradigm that brings systematic increases in the amount of carbon stored in forests.
The BTC researchers say use of woody biomass to meet growing energy demand – as well as its carbon neutrality goals – should not be excluded because there may be risks of unsustainable practice. Rather, the focus should be on what practices, innovations and policy regulations are required to ensure sustainable sourcing and efficient conversion to bioenergy and bioproducts. SfL supports this position and cautions stakeholders and policy makers not to make the quest for a perfect clean energy solution the enemy of sound, science validated systems that deliver multiple solutions for the land.
For additional information, contact SfL President Ernie Shea at 410-952-0123, or Eshea@SfLDialogue.net.
Solutions from the Land (SfL) builds and facilitates state, national and global initiatives and alliances through which farmers, ranchers, foresters and collaborating partners showcase examples of innovation and proactively advocate for policies, partnerships, investments and research that will enable agricultural landscapes to deliver near-term, cost-effective, integrated solutions to global mega-challenges: food and energy security; sustainable economic
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