Biomass - bad for trees, bad for the planet

Thu, 2011-11-03 07:26Kevin Grandia
Kevin Grandia's picture

Biomass - bad for trees, bad for the planet

A new report out today finds that using forest timber (biomass) for heating, electricity generation or liquid ‘biofuel’ could severely harm forests and accelerate global warming.

The report titled, Fuelling a Biomess, and authored by Greenpeace Canada, points to scientific evidence showing how using forests for energy can be worse for the climate than burning coal. 

The US is set to overtake Canada as the world’s biggest exporter of wood pellets, which are used in power plants and burnt instead of fossil fuels.

The report recommends:

  • Using woody biomass for energy production should be restricted to a local, small-scale use of mill residues.
  • Approval of new wood-based bioenergy projects should cease, pending public hearings, a full accounting of the life-cycle climate and biodiversity footprints, and a re-thinking of government policies. 

You can read a complete version of the report here: Fueling a Biomess, burning trees for energy puts Canadian forests and climate at risk.

[Note: a big warm hello to all the DeSmog readers! Been a while since I have written here, but I think I have the time to do so now.]

Comments

I don't know about Canada, but in the meditteranean climate of Northern California, a biomass treatment can reduce the risk of high intensity fire.  Biomass operations here are done with logging residue and small diameter trees that were thinned out.  The thinning operations that are made economically feasible by biomass utilization will give the remaining trees room to spread out their roots and grow, making them more resistant to drought.  Their bark will get thicker quicker, making them more likely to survive a moderate intensity wildfire.  A thinning can favor drought resistant species such as ponderosa pine, while removing more of species that are very susceptible to climate change, such as white fir. 

I agree on the need to keep it local.  Why in the world would anyone ship a low density energy source like wood pellets overseas.  It must be a boutique market.  The wood chip generating plants in my region can only afford to haul chips 50-75 miles, depending on road quality. 

This "report" title ("Fuelling a BioMess") reveals what an obvious screed this is. It denigrates the sincere and conscientious RD&D that has gone into finding significant roles that Canada's renewable feedstocks, beetle kill, and waste streams can play in reducing fossil fuel dependence (i.e., non-renewable, clearly environmentally destructive practices like tar sands oil recovery).

Attributing "carbon neutral" to biomass conversion isn't Stone Age accounting - it is a pre-Industrial Age comparison. We did not have a greenhouse gas problem previous to the Industrial Age. Since the mid-1800's we have seen a jump in carbon in the atmosphere by 39%! See http://bit.ly/lxVhtd . Development of sustainable reforestation, harvesting, logistics, and energy recovery technologies and practices is an urgent pursuit. It builds on the success of biofuels and biopower deployments, market development, and forestry practices that already contribute over 50% of the renewable energy currently produced. It does not require the vast use of non-renewable materials (copper, lithium, rare earth, etc.) and off-shore manufacturing that other "renewable" technologies require. Furthermore, bioenergy must be locally deployed - which is good news for the economies of local communities. Canada is the Saudi Arabia of renewable biomass.

The use of whole trees may occasionally be necessary and beneficial - especially to salvage the energy contained in dead, decomposing, or overly dense timberlands (which add methane, cause mega-fires, and beetle kill conditions). Using whole trees exclusively for wood chips and pellets makes no economic sense for businesses. Buyers always want to create the highest value products from the feedstock. Beams and lumber are worth ten times the value of wood chips.

Unless Greenpeace can show more respect for the institutions (academies, communities, forestry experts, utilities, first nations, etc.) that are progressively tackling these challenges, spurious reports like this should be evaluated for the damage they can do. Finding alternatives to our oil dependence is important business. Denigrating the best alternatives only insures perpetuation of the fossil fuel status quo.

However sincere and conscientious the RD&D that has undoubtedly been done, I can't get my head around what sounds like a strip-mining of the forests for energy.

If the carbon stored in those trees really does take decades or more to be replenished, torching them makes no sense whatsoever. Avoiding a severe climate shock demands steep cuts in CO2 emissions in the next three decades. If a 'renewable' source isn't carbon-neutral on a lot shorter timeframe, then it's utterly useless. 

 

The difference between "strip mining" and harvesting trees is pretty obvious - fossil materials are not renewable. Growing trees (consider a 5 gram acorn capturing 50 tons of carbon in its development while sinking carbon roots into the soil) is very efficient in storing recoverable energy no matter how long it takes.

We can draw a line with regard comparing the sustainability of wood feedstock and harvesting practices. For instance, harvesting beetle killed trees reduces GHG emissions that would otherwise result from methane formation during decomposion (23 worse than CO2 as a GHG). So most would agree that is not only sustainable but an environmentally preferable outcome. If trees are harvested for other purposes (lumber, veneer, beams, etc.) and the feedstock is the residual or biomass that is being used, that should be considered a plus. Surely, thinning to reduce the prevalence of wildfire and promoting forest health is preferable to clear-cutting.

A majority of the effort in biomass R&D is on how to identify which side of the sustainability line certain sources of feedstock and practices fall on. By denying the establishment of the forest products and energy recovery businesses that utilize this research you run the risk that the aging private timberland owners (average age is now 75) will sell their holdings to developers to pay for medical costs since there is a diminishing value to their assets and their kids see no value to keep the property. This is a real expectation. That's the worst possible outcome because the land is converted for all time increasing the wildland-urban interface.

" Growing trees (consider a 5 gram acorn capturing 50 tons of carbon in its development while sinking carbon roots into the soil) is very efficient in storing recoverable energy no matter how long it takes."

Discussions of metrics can be a dangerous thing with deniers I find. Many times I've been told by deniers that grass absorbs more CO2 than shrubs/trees/forests etc. So therefore if CO2 absorbption is top of the agenda, then why not just mow down all forests & replace it with grass?

 

.. but we don't really want to wait for the swamps to become coal. :-)

The reason I used the analogy to strip mining was to reinforce that maybe timescale is the critical thing here. If whole-tree felling for fuel sends 50 tons of carbon up a smokestack, and we then have to wait 30-50 years to recover that CO2 store, that hardly seems renewable on the timescales that matter.

We need to cut CO2 emissions now, and for the next two decades, hard, to have a chance of hitting climate tipping points.

Once we have the luxury of a reduced emissions curve -- that has nudged us from the runaway climate warming scenario -- perhaps such wholescale harvesting of forest for energy would make some kind of carbon accounting sense, long-term.

On the beetle-killed trees, thinning to reduce fire risk etc, of course it makes sense to put those to productive use. But again, why not use them for structural purposes, rather than sending their carbon straight back into the atmosphere?

 

 

Cut up more of the stuff that absorbes CO2? What a great idea!......not. Sheeesh,  it's amazing how people will try to make a buck out of destroying natural assets we all share & then spin how good it is for you..............(them).

I dont mind what they do with plantation timber, after all , we need a certain amount of pulp & timber for our every day lives at present, but existing forests I have a problem with.

 

 

 

 

At some point the climateers will have to face reality. HUman beings require energy and raw materials a choice will have be made as to how much we consume in timber, oil, gas, coal etc.. Even Phil Mckracken seems to have a point of view bordering on reality here.

Of course we have a choice over the resources we consume --  on a scale of self-sufficient to self-destructive. At the moment we're very firmly locked onto the self-destructive path.

There is nothing that dictates we have to consume the vast amounts of energy and raw materials that we currently do. We have a choice.

There is nothing that dictates that these have to come from oil, gas, coal or timber. We have a choice.

The problem is a eco-political system that presumes that choice for us.

Athough if we don't get a move on, it will be the planet making that choice for us - resource and environmental constraints are hard and fast, despite the fantasies of dismal economic theory.

 

 

Unifying the world has never been done before. Individuals and entire nations focus on narrow immediate self interest. It's a bit of insanity to think you can change that. No offense intended.

I recall alarmists saying that about Europe.  And here they are going through growing pains.

Admitedly large dollops of self-interest are in our blood.

But our behavior is really a motley collection of self-interest and altrusim, swinging between the two. Sometimes a unity of purpose, to avert a threat, has won out in the past. And after all, most nations were collections of antagonistoc tribes a few millenia ago. 

That moment of possible global unity, over the gathering climate shock, probably dissolved as the towers crumbled in New York -- we can't worry about two global threats at the same time, after all. 

Sadly, a sense of unity will only come back when disaster is staring us in the face. But no harm in shouting from the rooftops in the meantime..

 

BTW Not insane, just a peversely optimistic pessimist..

:-)

 

"But our behavior is really a motley collection of self-interest and altrusim, swinging between the two. Sometimes a unity of purpose, to avert a threat, has won out in the past. And after all, most nations were collections of antagonistoc tribes a few millenia ago."

Yes, hopefully the majority will realise that we are fulfilling the "tragedy of commons". Creating damage to that which is held in common.

It seems to me that there is room for a lot more science here.  I read the report.  Much of it makes sense - burning is not always a great idea, to say the least.  The evidence for some strong positions and demands for policy seems to be clear, but in other cases, there is not much evidence, but the positions and demands are equally strongly stated as broad prescriptions.  If it is for reasons of making it easier for other alternatives to take root, let's just say so.  There are interesting figures that have been compiled, but I don't see much about the biology or the engineering, to convince me that it has been given a full review.  This is surprising, that what is lacks is biological science, because the author's credentials are listed as "Biol. MSc", which I assume means an "MSc in Biology".  But it seems that he was trained in a different field at UQAM, unless I have the wrong person.  A mystery to me - what else could "Biol MSc" mean.  Maybe I am just confused.

The report says:

"THE FOLLOWING TYPES OF BIOMASS PROJECT MUST CEASE IMMEDIATELY:"

"• Projects that source biomass from full-tree harvesting;" [this is the one that seems to need a little more science; I wonder to what extent fast-growing clones, particularly of certain aspen, willow or cottonwood, could make this feasible in temperate zones, for example with a regime of biofertilizer, etc.] 

• Projects that compete with renewable energy options that offer immediate GHG emissions reductions (energy conservation, wind, solar, geothermal); [so maybe competition is the real reason here, and not that science has been allowed to make a contribution] 

• Projects that are intended for production of new energy, instead of replacing existing fossil fuel production; [what does this mean, new energy?  Any energy "replaces" others in a sense]

• Projects that source from intact or natural forests with high biodiversity values; [this seems to make obvious sense, in protection of biodiversity and ecosystems]

• Projects that source from forests with large carbon stocks and low growth rates like the Boreal Forest [this also seems obvious, but also worth emphasizing]

 

 

 

     "At some point the climateers will have to face reality."

 

 

Where in the heck do you dig up some of these readers?  Or, how far back?

 

 

 

 

But its against their religion...

 

It is not inconceivable that one useful way of storing and reusing solar energy would be growing things.  Just throwing them into a fire is probably not the way to extract the energy most efficiently, in the same sense that just pouring crude oil onto a wagon was not the way to invent the McLaren F1. Some research into the efficiencies of carbon fixing and energy extraction could yield better ways. But dumping the boreal forest into a power plant oven is not the way, duh.  

 

 

 

How about sustainable logging? no need to eradicate the forest, just make use of it.

... especially if you sustainably log some forests, and leave others entirely untouched. 

I don’t know where you live but here in the US good forest management has maybe been too good. As for our forests are growing at a rate that we cannot use them. More than sustainable but are decaying because we cannot us them. Make use of them? Fix the economy and people will still not be able to use all of them.

plant more trees.

 

Plant faster than cut.

 

Plant!

" plant more trees. Plant faster than cut. Plant!"

You make an interesting point David. I'm not sure why there is not full scale usage of fast growing annuals like hemp. Obviously cotton & nylon producers don't like that idea, but it could not only provide for much of our pulp needs, but it can cut down on the actual amount of plantation timber we need to cut.

 

fast growing will do.  Hemp. Miscanthus, tall grass prarie grass, trees --- whatever does well in each locality.

 

The goal is lots of it, all soaking up CO2.

One of the best things we can do to save the boreal forest is to burn more oil and natural gas. They are both much more energy efficient fuels and have limited ecological damage as they are both contained beneath the surface of the earth.

 

 

That was the prevailing view, up to about 1900 (you might want to watch the movie "There will be blood"), and for decades after.  Some people are still stuck there. 

I support reforestation as a means for improving our carbon cycle.

Find one solar cell that can self replicate. They can't even store energy. That's why we need to support photosynthesis as much as we support photovoltaics.

Problems arise when the energy in trees is short-circuited (think forest fire). This is happening at an increasing rate because we refuse to thin forests of excess trees and undergrowth that cause fires. Forest density also causes the kind of beetle kill infestations that have devasted boreal forests in British Columbia and are spreading rapidly through Canada, in California and Colorado.

We can solve multiple problems if we embrace rather than reject forest management and biomass conversion technologies. If we didn't have bioenergy technologies, we would have to create them if only to deal with the methane producing consequences of decomposing skags (dead trees) in wildfire and beetle kill areas. Governments don't have the funds. Biomass power plants can fund salvage, thinning operations, and reforestation.

Biorefineries create biofuels that reduce the pollution of our carbon cycle by fossil fuels. The atmosphere has 39% more carbon than before the Industrial Revolution (1850's) because subterranean sequestered carbon is being combusted into the atmosphere and the carbon cycle is being impacted. For those that believe climate change is real, you must realize that natural forest conditions no longer exist because atmospheric conditions (and changing climate) are unprecedented.

More R&D and deployments are urgently needed for best forestry practices, conversion technologies, and reforestation.

"Forest density also causes the kind of beetle kill infestations that have devasted boreal forests in British Columbia and are spreading rapidly through Canada, in California and Colorado."

Bioblogger, maybe I have mispinterpreted your statement, but are you saying that the beetle infestation we are seeing at the moment is largely due to us not logging enough? As opposed to scientific evidence that says there is less cold periods in these regions, allowing the beetles to thrive where they were once not able to?

http://e360.yale.edu/content/feature.msp?id=2252

http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v452/n7190/full/nature06777.html

 

 

Phil -

Thanks for excellent references which substantiate the relationship between British Columbia's climate warming and bug infestations. Each cites the alarmingly unprecedented magnitude of the problem.

In answer to your question, here's one for you. It is an excellent California-focused booklet that addresses how forest density contributes to beetle infestations and wildfires. http://bit.ly/s8vV4x (see page 7 on "Beetle Invasions")

Tree density (estimated at 4 to 10 times historic norms) means more stressed trees fighting for water, nutrients, and sunlight in the same area. These trees are less able to generate sap to fight off beetles. Unthinned proximity and underbrush also means it is easier for beetles to migrate quickly through a forest.

Harvesting on California's public forestlands has dropped nearly 90% since 1990 because of public pressure and the consequent drop in forest infrastructure development. Environmentalists need to support sustainable thinning operations and infrastructure development or we risk losing forests' ecosystem services and habitats.

The problems in these regions will only get worse with climate change from unprecedent carbon load in the atmosphere. "Natural" conditions have been compromised and unharvested, decomposing dead trees (whole or otherwise) means more methane in the atmosphere. If we harvest now we can still sequester the carbon in these trees as forest products or convert their biomass into renewable biofuels and power to substitute for fossil energy. It is something BC Hydro has been promoting since 2007 (see http://bit.ly/sA95IV ).

 

I live in BC.

Clear cut logging has been a huge mistake even In postage stamp sections. We should have been doing the much more expensive selective limited logging of mature trees and clearing of excess underbrush.

Lack of a hard freeze has been a problem too - but funny thing is you just never hear about the beetle thing anymore.

Thanks Bioblogger for those links. That booklet was especially interesting. However, a few things don't sit well with me, so hopefully you can answer.

"Tree density (estimated at 4 to 10 times historic norms) means more stressed trees fighting for water, nutrients, and sunlight in the same area."

Thomas Bonnicksen also makes the same point:

"The problem is that many forests are too crowded with trees."

Maybe it's because I am far from an expert on this & really only now am just starting to read up on it due to this post & your links. But it appears counter intuitive & illogical to thin forest out to make them healthier. How did forests survive for hundreds of millions of years before man came along to thin them out? If there was this perpetual problem of forests overcrowding themselves, then surely forests with no intervention from man, would progressively degrade.

If it's an argument from public safety & public property, then I can understand the need for backburning practices & such. Backburning happens in winter months here in Australia from time to time.

But surely, if left alone forests find their own balance & fallen trees contribute to the soil & ecosystem. Introducing global warming to the mix while humans are on the planet obviously is a problem though.

"Unthinned proximity and underbrush also means it is easier for beetles to migrate quickly through a forest."

But they have wings. It's not like they have to crawl like ants. Even if the undergrowth was not there, it's still a short flight to the next tree.

"Environmentalists need to support sustainable thinning operations and infrastructure development or we risk losing forests' ecosystem services and habitats."

Then why don't we do this with all forests? Why not thin out rainforests that are thousands of years old? It seems nuts. Obviously, a fallen tree allows seedlings underneath a chance at life. But in a global warming climate, it also encourages weeds. Which means you need to expend even more labour to manage the weeds.

"It is something BC Hydro has been promoting since 2007"

It feels like you have coin involved in this.

To give you the benefit of the doubt, I have written to the guys in the links I have provided  for some additional information. I choose not to email Greenpeace, as obviously they would disagree with you & I'm looking for an impartial viewpoint.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Well, Werner Kurz wrote back to me & it seems the jury is still out on the feasability of biomass in these regions. It appears to be a 6 of of one, half a dozen of the other type scenario.  I have asked for permission to reprint his email, but in the meantime will sumarize his comment by saying his opinion is that one point of view says that removing the trees for the purposes of biomass & reducing GHG's is a moot point, as Biomass can causes more emissions that some fossil fuels to produce. However.....if a fire were to happen in one of these stands, then removing dead trees for bioenergy would have been a good choice. There are lots of variables it seems.

 

One of the best studies I have found on the carbon emissions of wildfires compares what public agencies do vs. private timberland owners in the aftermath of a 4 California wildfires. The author seeks to account for the carbon consequences of the different practices used. http://biostock.blogspot.com/2008/04/links-between-california-wildfires-and.html

Cutting to the chase - we can reduce wildfires through thinning operations (which halt the advance of wildfires in their tracks). Private owners are quicker to respond, salvage dead and dying trees (which still contain 75% of the carbon from before the fire), and reforest quicker. The federal agencies are not as able to respond because of lack of funds and authority (everything they do is challenged, often in courts). Mainly, it's an issue of vested interest. Timberland owners have it.

Also - See this article about the 60 Minutes story that links Warming Climate and its impact on mega-fires http://biostock.blogspot.com/search?q=cone+fire . I included a link to a series of photos showing wildfire impact comparisons between thinned forests vs. unthinned forests that came from the USDA Forest Service.

Phil M, I am also a forester (retired, so no financial conflict) and would like to put my 2 cents in. 

How did the forest survive before man came along?  The forest before Europeans was in many areas more of an open savanna created by frequent fires.  An occasional very large and hot fire created a few large openings which were gradually recolonized.  Dense forests with a closed canopy were the exception rather than the rule.  This was a good situation for the hunter gatherers who lived at that time, because this type of forest produced more large herbivores and more edible plants.  In fact, the natives started many of the fires.  Oaks were much more prevalent, and acorns were a staple food.  This type of forest is not as good for a culture that demands regular harvests of wood products, esthetically pleasing forests for recreation, and maximal photosynthesis rates for global warming mitigation.  Fires produce lots of air pollution, and can threaten human settlements.  Hence, we controlled fire for a couple of generations, and produced a much more dense forest.  Now we are less able to control fire.  In 2008, the air quality in Northern California was very poor all summer.   We could let fires burn again, but we wouldn't be happy with the results.  The accumulated biomass would result in very hot burns, with very few trees surviving. 

 

It's not like they (bark beetles) don't have wings:  Bark beetles are very poor fliers, and the winged stage is very short lived.  The farther apart  the trees, the less the chance that the beetle will reach a suitable host tree and try to lay eggs.  And well spaced trees are more able to resist beetle burrowing by producing lots of pitch. 

What I am saying about forest ecology is especially true for mediterranean climates, mostly true for the eastern and central United States, and less true for boreal forests and coastal forests in the pacific northwest.  I have no idea how or if we could manage tropical rainforests.  They are different. 

I don’t know where you live but here in the US good forest management has maybe been too good. As for our forests are growing at a rate that we cannot use them and starting into a deteriorating state. If Canada is being deforested because of wood pellets then maybe we could help them with some research. Otherwise maybe we sell them wood so that our forests can be used rather than decay and release CO2 anyway. As for Greenpeace what forest experts did they use in their research? How many of these “peers” were from a forest management background?

Pine Beetles are moving ever northward eating our pine trees.  We haven't had cold snaps long enough and cold enough to kill them in a long time.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mountain_pine_beetle