This post was co-authored with Rita Frost.
Is biomass bad for the environment? Using either wood (bioenergy or biomass) or fossil fuels for energy creates greenhouse gas emissions that worsen climate change. The global energy trade is large, and many countries import fossil fuels or biomass to produce energy.
Biomass imports have proven extremely harmful to climate change mitigation efforts. As the world changes its relationship with fossil fuels, we can’t rely on dirty fuels like biomass energy to make up the difference.
Climate change mitigation means reducing carbon emissions
The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recently released a new report on climate change and fossil fuels. Their report tells us,
“The scientific evidence is unequivocal: climate change is a threat to human well-being and the health of the planet. Any further delay in concerted global action will miss a brief and rapidly closing window to secure a liveable [sic] future.”
Is biomass harmful to the environment? The IPCC is clearly warning the world about energy sources. As the world tries to move towards a clean energy future, we have to be smart about it. The world can’t continue using fossil fuels for energy. We do need to power the world. But the more that we can rely on a green and clean energy source, the better. We need to get off of fossil fuels, but burning biomass to generate electricity is not the answer. Though renewable, biomass energy produces more greenhouse gases than coal when it is burned.
Here are just a few reasons that the world should think twice before using wood pellets and other biomass as fuel sources to replace fossil fuels.
Reason 1: The Greenhouse Gas Impacts of Wood Pellet Bioenergy
The IPCC does not give a green light to burning biomass as an energy source. No matter what producers like Enviva or Drax will tell you, it’s a bad fuel choice. Burning biomass produces more carbon dioxide than fossil fuels. Even though biomass is sometimes considered one of several renewable energy sources used to generate electricity, its carbon dioxide emissions are very large.
The IPCC says in its latest AR6 report,
“Large scale deployment of bioenergy, including Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS) … can damage ecosystems directly or through increasing competition for land.”
In other words, this renewable energy can damage ecosystems in two ways. First, logging for biomass energy can harm ecosystems in direct, measurable ways. Secondly, it can influence how expensive land is or what it’s used for.
The world keeps track of carbon dioxide through carbon accounting systems. Unfortunately, here’s a big loophole in global climate policy. It classifies burning woody biomass as a “carbon neutral” energy source. As a result, the UN and many countries think that biomass energy is acceptable. But scientists have proven that burning biomass is worse than burning coal for energy production. And ultimately, it just leads to more carbon dioxide emissions, and more global warming.
Reason 2: There’s Too Much Money In Bioenergy Production
Declaring biomass wrongfully “carbon neutral” has created cascading economic effects. The forestry industry, especially in the US, gets massive subsidies to produce millions of tons of wood pellets annually. The carbon dioxide emissions from burning biomass are essentially “free” – even if they contribute to global warming. Plus, more bioenergy means less room for food crops – and we need food crops to eat!
Biomass Energy Companies Are Relying On International Subsidies
Subsidies are fueling rapid growth of the biomass industry. The US, Canada, Eastern Europe, Russia, Vietnam, and Malaysia are all cutting forests down for energy. The EU and UK are the largest biomass energy market, but the market continues to grow. There’s rapid expansion of biomass power plants now occurring in Japan and South Korea.
Unfortunately for the climate, the biomass boom is only beginning. To avoid disastrous global warming impacts, subsidies for biomass must end. Without government subsidies, power plants can’t afford to buy biomass feedstock. Without subsidies made up of taxpayer dollars, the biomass industry can’t turn a profit.
Biomass Energy Produces More Greenhouse Gas Than Coal
More than a decade of research has shown that wood pellets often cause more carbon pollution than coal. Last February, more than 500 scientists signed a letter sent to President Joe Biden and other world leaders. It urged them not to substitute burning trees for fossil fuels as a climate solution. They wrote,
“The burning of wood will increase warming for decades to centuries.”
Reason 3: Logging For Biomass Threatens Wildlife
Here in the US Southeast, we’re no stranger to the threat of biomass production. We’re the world’s largest wood-producing region where logging rates are among the highest on Earth. Industrial logging is the largest cause of carbon emissions from US forests. As a result, natural forests in our region are declining in both acreage and health.
Many species rely on natural forests for habitat. From mixed pine forests to bottomland hardwoods, forests and wildlife are all harmed when logging occurs. Logging is a cause for many local and global extinctions, even here in the US.
Bioenergy Manufacturers Are Not Concerned About Wildlife
Enviva, the world’s largest wood pellet manufacturer plans to double production over the next 5 years. This would mean they’re also doubling their carbon emissions. It’ll come as no surprise if they try to gobble up an opportunity in the market should countries stop buying Russian created-biomass.
While an end of consumption of Russian-based biomass is necessary, it must not end there. It’s time to close the biomass carbon accounting loophole and end the burning of forests for electricity.
Reason 4: To Protect Public Health, We Can’t Burn Biomass
Producing biomass creates a lot of air pollution that can impact human health. None of the compounds created by wood pellet production should be inhaled. Biomass is one of the dirtiest energy sources out there.
People living near biomass production facilities complain about dust and noise. Some have resorted to rinsing off their cars many times a month because of dust accumulation. If you can see it, you’re definitely breathing it.
It’s no wonder that the so-called “making alternative energy sources” seems to take place overwhelmingly in poor communities of color. Many rural communities have less voice in how their communities deal with renewable energy production.
This “renewable energy source” is responsible for releasing the following chemicals during operations – all of which can impact human health:
- carbon monoxide
- volatile organic compounds
- greenhouse gasses
- nitrogen oxide
- fine particulate matter
- coarse particulate matter
- other air pollutants
Reason 5: We Need That Money To Go Elsewhere, Not To Bioenergy
Billions of dollars in the form of subsidies go to biomass burners every year. The United Kingdom, Netherlands, Denmark, Belgium, Japan, and South Korea are some of the top burners. If leaders in those countries are committed to tackling climate and nature, they must do more.
They must realize that biomass wood harvest drives both the climate and biodiversity crisis. Instead of billions more in dirty biomass subsidies, governments must focus on renewables like solar and wind. Solar and wind guarantee real emissions cuts at a fraction of the cost of burning wood for electricity
Bioenergy companies are leaders in deceit
The walls built up around biomass, have started to come down. The facts about biomass as a false renewable energy source are increasingly recognized. For instance, two major financial institutions have downrated Drax. They believe that Drax has an unsustainable business model.
From Citi Group on December 2, 2021,
“While sentiment could continue to support what’s perceived as a green growth stock…we do not fundamentally see biomass as a sustainable source of energy…”
Drax is in court for health hazards from fugitive dust in the UK. It was also fined the largest amount ever for biomass producers in the US over a clean air violation. Drax’s billion pound subsidies will expire in 2027.
To move forward, we need to put our money where our mouths are.
Subsidies that go towards biomass are being wasted. Instead, we must invest subsidies elsewhere. Let’s tackle the climate crisis and help protect biodiversity by investing in communities near forests.
In the US South, industrial logging disproportionately harms low income communities of color. If this was truly a way to advance economies, the South would be one of the wealthiest areas of the world.
Instead, it’s become a sacrifice zone for the forestry industry, which is now parading as a clean energy industry in the form of biomass. Forest solutions should work for communities, not just landowners and corporate executives.