Ten Reasons to Not Burn Biomass

This is a guest blog by Dr. Louise Vet and Dr. Martijn Katan, originally posted in Dutch paper, Trouw, on October 9, 2020.

Professor Vet prepares to provide expert testimony during a Dutch Parliamentary hearing on biomass today, October 14, 2020. The Netherlands is one of the primary importers of biomass sourced from the Southern United States and major changes could be underfoot as the new Dutch sustainability framework for biomass is set this fall.

Wood as an energy source is harmful to the climate, say 35 scientists.

Burning wood for energy? Clearly this is a false solution to climate change. But the House of Representatives in the Netherlands is still struggling with their decision-making with the poor excuse that “there is no scientific consensus.” We, 35 scientists, know better. This is because it is not about opinions but about facts. We give ten here.

1. There is already too much CO2 in the atmosphere! If we want to achieve the climate goals for 2030 and 2050, we must reduce carbon pollution in the atmosphere within the next 10 years and actively avoid increasing emissions. The best way to do this? Let trees grow because trees are good at storing CO2.

2. The combustion of biomass emits 16% more CO2 per unit of energy than coal and 94% more than gas[1]. Decades from now that CO2 could be absorbed again in trees, but then it will be too late.

3. Wood as an energy source requires an immense amount of land because plants only capture and store a small percentage of solar energy. Biomass supplies fifty to a hundred times less energy per square meter than solar panels[2].

4. The motivation to burn wood for energy is that a new tree can be planted for every felled tree. It would therefore be CO2-free energy, because this new planting removes the released CO2 from the air. But this ignores the loss of time: it takes decades for the new plantings to absorb the CO2 emitted again, and even longer for the extra CO2 that an uncut tree would have absorbed. The “carbon-neutrality” claim by the biomass industry is an illusion. It has been scientifically established that the use of woody biomass instead of fossil fuels for energy will increase CO2 in the atmosphere for thirty to more than a hundred years[3].

5. Within the EU, the CO2 emitted by burning imported biomass – and that is the majority – has gone missing from carbon accounts because of international loopholes. This creates a skewed picture of the carbon impacts of removing and then burning forests for energy[4].

6. One argument we hear from the biomass industry is: “If you don’t burn logging waste, it will rot and the CO2 will still be released.” This ignores the time factor. Combustion emits all CO2 immediately. Wood that decays emits only a quarter to a third of its CO2 in ten years[5]. In addition, a large part of the CO2 is never emitted but fixed in the soil. This “waste” is an important source of nutrients and therefore indispensable for the growth of the forest and thus the sequestration of CO2. Forests do not produce waste: dead biomass is converted and reused. Forests are the textbook example of a circular economy.

7. The claim that woody biomass is residual waste is incorrect. Only 12% of the wood for imported wood pellets is residual forest waste[6]. Documentaries from the Netherlands, the US, Estonia, and Denmark show how whole trees are harvested and processed[7]. Why on the one hand recycle newspapers and on the other hand shred and burn the trees from which newspapers are made?

8. Biomass from biologically-rich forests is now burned with enormous public subsidies. Burning trees as energy is the lowest-value product of the tree in a forest. It should be used for high-quality products. In the context of climate change, the greatest value of a tree in a forest is to leave it standing to sequester and store carbons.

9. Sawdust and other residual waste that is released in the wood industry can also be used to a higher level, for example for chipboard and linoleum. Subsidies for energy purposes disrupts this market and leads to more logging.

10. The worldwide large-scale demand for biomass has major negative consequences for land use and biodiversity. A varied forest is multifunctional (air, soil and water quality, maximum carbon storage, and biodiversity). Converting existing multifunctional forests to energy crops or fast-growing wood into monocultures is a form of land use with many negative environmental and biodiversity effects.

Also on behalf of:
Bert Brunekreef, Em. Prof Environmental Epidemiology, Univ. Utrecht
Hans de Kroon, Prof. of Plant Ecology, Radboud Univ. Nijmegen
Geert de Snoo, Prof. Conservation Biology, Univ. Leiden and NIOO-KNAW
Jan den Ouden, Assistant Professor of Forest Ecology and Forest Management Wageningen Univ.
Marcel Dicke, Prof. of Entomology, Wageningen Univ.
Ben Feringa, Jacobus van ‘t Hoff Distinguished Prof. of Molecular Sciences, Univ. of Groningen
Daan Frenkel, Em. Prof. of Chemistry, Cambridge Univ.
Kees Hummelen, Em. Prof. Chemistry of (bio) organic materials, Univ. Groningen
Patrick Jansen, Associate Professor of Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, Wageningen Univ.
Tjeerd Jongsma, Director Institute for Sustainable Process Technology (ISPT)
Frits Mohren, Prof. Forest Ecology and Forest Management, Wageningen Univ.
Han Ollf, Prof. of Community and Conservation Ecology, Univ. Groningen
Jos Raaijmakers, Prof. of Microbial interactions, Univ. Leiden and NIOO-KNAW
Rudy Rabbinge, Em. Prof. Theoretical Production Ecology, Wageningen Univ.
Joost Reek, Prof. Supramolecular Catalysis, University of Amsterdam
Huub Rijnaarts, Prof. Environmental Technology, Wageningen Univ.
Daan Schram, Em. Prof. Engineering Physics, Techn. Univ. Eindhoven
David Smeulders, Prof. Energy Technology, Techn. Univ. Eindhoven
Richard van de Sanden, Prof. Plasma Physics and Chemistry, Techn. Univ. Eindhoven
Jos van der Meer, Em. Prof. General Internal Medicine, Radboud Univ. Nijmegen
Klaas van Egmond, em. Prof. Environmental Science and Sustainability, Univ. Utrecht.
Rienk van Grondelle, Em. Prof. biophysics Free Univ. Amsterdam
Joop van Lenteren, Em. Prof. entomology, Wageningen Univ.
Wim van Saarloos, Prof. of Theoretical physics, Leiden University
Wim van der Putten, Prof. Functional Biodiversity, Wageningen Univ. and NIOO-KNAW
Pier Vellinga, em. Prof. climate change, Free Univ. Amsterdam
Marcel Visser, Prof. of Ecological genetics, Wageningen Univ. , RUG, and NIOO-KNAW
Rene Wijffels, Prof. in Bioprocess Engineering, Wageningen Univ.
Mary Booth Ph.D., Director, Partnership for Policy Integrity
Bill Moomaw, Co-director Global Development and Environment Institute, Tufts Univ. Boston
Mike Norton, Prof. Tokyo Institute of Technology, Shinshu Univ. and EASAC Environment Program Director
Tim Searchinger, Research Scholar, Center for Policy Research on Energy and the Environment, Princeton Univ.
Tarmo Soomere, President, Estonian Academy of Sciences, Tallinn, Estonia

[1] Netherlands Enterprise Agency RVO, and Zijlema, PJ (2017). Dutch list of energy carriers and standard CO2 emission factors.
[2] van Zalk, J., and Behrens, P. (2018). The spatial extent of renewable and non-renewable power generation: A review and meta-analysis of power densities and their application in the US Energy Policy 123 , 83–91.
[3] Bentsen, NS (2017). Carbon debt and payback time – Lost in the forest? Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews 73 , 1211–1217.
Sterman, JD, Siegel, L., and Rooney-Varga, JN (2018). Does replacing coal with wood lower CO2 emissions? Dynamic lifecycle analysis of wood bioenergy. Environ. Res. Lett. 13 , 015007.
Alessandro Agostini, Jacopo Giuntoli, and Aikaterini Boulamanti (2014). Carbon accounting of forest bioenergy: Conclusions and recommendations from a critical literature review (European Commission Joint Research Center). https://ec.europa.eu/jrc/en/publication/eur-scientific-and-technical-research-reports/carbon-accounting-forest-bioenergy-conclusions-and-recommendations-critical-literature
[4] Ros, JP, Minnen, JG, Arets, EJMM, 2013. Climate effects of wood used for bioenergy. PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency. www.pbl.nl/publicaties/klimaateffecten-door-gegevens-van-hout-voor-bio-energie Page 21

Searchinger, TD 2009. Fixing a Critical Climate Accounting Error. Science 326, 527–528. doi: 10.1126 / science.1178797

Strange Olesen, A., Bager, SL, Kittler, B., Price, W., Aguilar, F., European Commission, Directorate-General for the Environment, COWI, and Pinchot Institute for Conservation (2016). Environmental implications of increased reliance of the EU on biomass from the South East US: final report. (Luxembourg: Publications Office). P 185: ‘Emissions from biomass combustion are counted as zero in the energy sector. This, however, assumes that the sourcing and use of the biomass does not lead to Greenhouse Gas emissions, or that any such emissions are properly accounted elsewhere, such as in the LULUCF sector of the country where the biomass originates from.’

The European Commission recognizes this and wants to abolish it: ‘Emissions of biomass used in energy will be recorded and accounted towards each Member State’s 2030 climate commitments’. European Commission (2016). Land use and forestry regulation for 2021-2030. https://ec.europa.eu/clima/policies/forests/lulucf_en

[5] Booth, MS (2018). Not carbon neutral: Assessing the net emissions impact of residues burned for bioenergy. Environmental Research Letters 13 , 035001.
[6] (RISI) Walker, S., Lyddan, C., Perritt, W. & Pilla, L. An Analysis of UK Biomass Power Policy, US South Pellet Production and Impacts on Wood Fiber Markets (RISI, 2015). https://docplayer.net/25281897-An-analysis-of-uk-biomass-power-policy-us-south-pellet- production-and-impacts-on-wood-fiber-markets-prepared-for-the- american-forest-paper.html

Oswalt, SN, Smith, WB, Miles, PD, and Pugh, SA (2014). Forest Resources of the United States, 2012: a technical document supporting the Forest Service 2010 update of the RPA Assessment (Washington, DC: US ​​Department of Agriculture, Forest Service). P. 21: ‘During 2011, timber-processing facilities in the United States produced nearly 59.3 million dry tons of wood residues, with just 492,000 tons (less than 1 percent) of that residue not used for a product’.

Erik Berg, Todd Morgan, Eric Simmons (2016). Timber Products Output (TPO) – Forest Inventory, Timber Harvest, Mill and Logging Residue – Essential Feedstock Information Needed to Characterize the NARA Supply Chain (Univ. Of Montana Bureau of Business and Economic Research). P. 9: ‘the vast majority of mill residue <99.8%> is currently utilized… .Nearly 80 percent .. is currently used for pulp and composite panels ‘.

[7] Videos showing how whole trees are harvested for wood pellets:
6 Sept 2020: ARD 1. Europamagazin ∙ Das Erste. Estonia: Waldrodungen für die Pelletindustrie. About clearing forests for pellets in Estonia. www.ardmediathek.de/daserste/video/europamagazin/estland-waldrodungen-fuer-die-pelletindustrie/das-erste/Y3JpZDovL2Rhc2Vyc3RlLmRlL2V1cm9wYW1hZ2F6aW4vNzQzN2ZmODktMjdjOS00OWU1LTk2MGEtZGRhZDA4ZTMzMWQ4/?fbclid=IwAR0rm79g0v-CDhrxDu4B7n8wu8jP3cccVJEle69SztjPapKs09VI7wPs1AE
August 30, 2020 Mongabay. Pellet manufacturing in the US
19 July 2020. French pellet factory Biosylva shows how they convert huge trees into pellets https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PA77mKuc8gc&feature=youtu.be
June 4, 2020. Fragile Forests – Estonia 2020. Clearing forests in Estonia. Select in (Youtube settings English subtitles.) Www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=1&v=lzUcHXTC6vo&feature=emb_logo&ab_channel=PriiduSaartLaten
22 Feb 2020. EenVandaag.TV. How Enviva in the US converts trees into pellets. https://eenvandaag.avrotros.nl/embed/524402/
March 2019. Belgium: video of the wood pellet factory Ecopower CVBA in Ham, how they make pellets. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fet2zceG9VI&feature=youtu.be or https://youtu.be/Fet2zceG9VI
2019. Denmark TV2, Harvesting trees in Estonia for biomass wood pellets. https://nyheder.tv2.dk/samfund/2019-09-09-tv-2-afsloerer-fejl-i-klimakontrol-helt-sort-siger-ekspert
2019. Dogwood / NRDC Brochure: Global Markets for Biomass Energy are Devastating US Forests https://www.dogwoodalliance.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/Biomass-Investigation-Booklet-2019.pdf
Jan 18, 2018. Platform Wald-Klima.de. The Calculation Error – or: Why Burning Wood is not Carbon Neutral. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YC4tqu8-oSo
22 May 2017 Zembla TV: Forest as fuel. Production of American wood pellets. www.youtube.com/watch?v=6LHGbiyvZto
2017. Link TV. Burned: are trees the new coal? About wood pellet production in the US. https://burnedthemovie.com/ https://vimeo.com/286550378 www.linktv.org/shows/burned-are-trees-the-new-coal/episodes/burned-are-trees-the-new-coal
2015. Climate Central. Employees of Enviva employees show where pellets come from. http://ccentralassets.s3.amazonaws.com/specialreports/pulp-fiction/videos/packages/making-of-a-pellet-720p.mp4
18 Dec 2015 Cuijk bio-energy plant company video, including tree trunks. www.youtube.com/watch?v=38nw09mDyss&feature=youtu.be&t=53

3 Responses to “Ten Reasons to Not Burn Biomass”

  1. Thomas R. Boughan

    I saw the movie The Need to Grow. It had lot of good information, until they covered a scientist who claim he can use biomass to quickly recover soils. I think his name was Michael Smith. His prototype greenhouse was burned down. I suspect from the way he was burning biomass. It is narrated by Rosario Dawson. Also, in Planet of Humans, the film maker accused Dogwood Alliance of supporting biomass, which is not true. I emailed Michael Moore about this. He has not replied and that was nearly a year ago. So, I wonder about these documentaries at all.

  2. Colin Tinker

    Dear Rita… What a delight to find your “10 reasons to not burn biomass”. I’ve been looking for this kind of information for ages. Log burner sellers and indeed all the off shoots of this industry claim carbon neutral and eco friendly products. The public are fooled by these claims and buy the products, thus considerably adding to pollution levels and climate change. Your research blows their claims away! Thank you for this. Regards, Colin.


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