Biomass, or bioenergy, creates energy by burning living materials like plants and trees. The wood pellet industry uses trees to make wood pellets. It then ships them to Europe and Asia where they’re burned in power plants to create electricity. Wood pellet plants are as dirty and problematic as coal plants. Burning trees (via burning wood pellets) is not a climate solution. Here’s why.
What do forests provide?
Southern forests provide many benefits to humans. They provide us with oxygen to breathe, clean water, and homes for animals. Forests also provide us with food, medicine, and materials for clothing and shelter. Forests are a vital part of our planet and are necessary for our survival.
Forests provide clean water
There are so many examples of how forests influence our access to clean water that it’s hard to choose a few. But here are the highlights:
- In areas with clearcuts, changes in hydrology mean that flooding spreads more quickly and is more dangerous.
- Forests can decrease flooding after a hurricane or storm.
- Clearcutting can cause leaching of nitrogen pollutants into water runoff.
- Salvage logging (logging after a fire) has a negative effect on regulating ecosystem services like water quality and soil quality.
Forests provide carbon storage
Forests play a critical role in the global carbon cycle by storing carbon in their trees and soils. Deforestation, however, can release stored carbon back into the atmosphere, which contributes to climate change.
- Logging can cause a carbon deficit for up to 200 years as the trees regrow.
- Converting old forests to young plantations in western Oregon and Washington has released 1.5-1.8 million metric tonnes of carbon to the atmosphere.
- Around 60% of the carbon lost through deforestation and harvesting from 1700 to 1935 has not yet been recovered in our forests.
- Logging causes significant soil carbon loss, especially in the forest floor soil layer.
- As the number of species (biodiversity) of trees increases, so does carbon storage.
Forests help keep regional temperatures steady and safe
Forests play an important role in keeping regional temperatures steady and safe. By absorbing carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen, forests help keep the Earth’s atmosphere in balance. They also provide shade and cooler temperatures in the summer. They also buffer against extreme weather conditions.
- A healthy forest can lower average temperatures in the region.
- Forests may buffer the impacts of global warming on plants and animals that live within.
- Some forests may lose their buffering ability when faced with drought.
- Old-growth forests mediate temperatures, which can help rare and endangered bird species.
Forests provide homes for wildlife
Forests provide homes for wildlife in many ways. One way is that forests provide shelter and food for animals. Forests also shield animals from predators, the impacts from humans (like development and roads), and even from rapidly changing temperatures. When we lose forests, animals lose their refuge.
- Deforestation can displace predators like coyotes and bears, leading to increased human-wildlife conflict and car collisions.
- Wildlife conservation via habitat conservation has the potential to provide sustainable jobs and conserve species at the same time.
- Deforestation causes declines in many rare, threatened, and endangered species, while species that thrive in edge habitats may flourish.
What is the scale of forest degradation in the Southeastern United States?
Forest degradation is the process of harming or diminishing the quality of a forest. This can be caused by a variety of factors, such as logging, climate change, and more. Forest degradation can impact benefits that forests provide in a number of ways. In the US, forest degradation is one of the most common impacts on forests.
- The US South is known as the “wood basket of the world.” In 2011, the US South was responsible for harvesting 63% of the total timber volume in the US.
- A focus on timber extraction has led to forest degradation across the South. Over half of forest stands are less than 40 years old.
- In the South, the most recent USFS numbers reveal that 226 million dry tons of wood are extracted annually in 14 states.
The number one cause of carbon emissions from US forests is logging
Based on the news, you would think that forest carbon loss was mostly coming from tearing down forests for homes or watching them burn in wildfires. But, the number one cause of carbon emissions from US forests is logging. Logging destroys forest carbon stocks and many other benefits.
- 85% of carbon emissions from forests were attributed to logging. This is five times more than carbon lost through fires, insects, disease, drought, or development combined.
- Over half of forest tree cover loss was due to logging in North America. The number creeps higher when you focus in on the US South.
- Scientists agree that our forests need to absorb more carbon and quickly if we’re to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.
Burning trees for energy is destroying forests
The US South exports more wood pellets than anywhere else in the world. These wood pellets are usually burned alongside coal in the name of “renewable” energy.
- For each ton of wood pellets produced, 24,000 acres of forest are destroyed. Read the fact sheet here.
- Over a million acres in the US have already been cut for wood pellets.
Planting trees does not help forest regrowth
While landowners may replant destroyed trees, they are not required to do so by law. Planted trees (tree farms) take a long time to grow and do not offer the same benefits as natural forests.
- Across the South, natural forests tend to store more carbon per acre than planted tree stands.
- Planting trees may not lead to carbon benefits, even after several decades.
How does the biomass energy industry impact the environment?
There are now more frequent natural disasters, including hurricanes, floods, heat waves, and wildfires. Scientists have linked these events to increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The wood pellet industry is bad for the environment, just like coal or natural gas. The biomass energy industry is destroying forests that help protect us from natural disasters.
- The IPCC says that if bioenergy competes for land, it would negatively impact all other land use – like for food.
- Logging for wood pellets makes forest soils lose carbon. This means that bioenergy harvest can worsen climate change.
- Logging can lead to losses in amphibians, small mammals, and other forest-dependent species.
The biomass energy industry is not “good” renewable energy
Renewable energy industries like wind and solar produce fewer carbon emissions per unit of electricity generation. This is because the carbon emissions associated with wind and solar are mostly during the construction phase. Unlike wind and solar, burning biomass requires a consistent supply of trees. Over time, the carbon debt from biomass energy continues to increase.
- Both solar and wind-powered energy have a consistently lower “global warming potential” than energy produced from wood pellets.
- While the cost of solar technology decreases every year, the cost of burning wood pellets will always depend on transportation and manufacturing costs.
The biomass energy production process uses fossil fuels
Harvesting and transporting forest biomass for wood pellets requires fossil fuels. Fossil fuels via diesel and gasoline fuels are used to operate forestry equipment and transport vehicles. Other energy sources, like natural gas, may be used to power machinery at the biomass energy production plants. The amount of energy used to produce wood pellets varies, but can range from 5-20% of the total carbon emissions generated by the entire lifecycle.
Many biomass plants will proudly state that their wood pellets are carbon neutral. However, this is based on several key assumptions about the manufacturing process. First, many lifecycle analyses assume that biomass plants only use tops and limbs from trees being harvested for other purposes. While this may have been true many years ago, since then, the demand for wood pellets has increased exponentially. Biomass plants are using whole trees and trunks to make wood pellets – not just tops and limbs.
Second, lifecycle analyses assume that trees somewhere in the same region will grow enough to offset the carbon lost through clearcutting. But it’s not fair to expect someone else’s trees to offset the carbon lost through your forest clearing. Instead, lifecycle analyses should be focusing on the areas where the clearcutting occurred. Through that lens, it takes 40-100+ years for the carbon to be reabsorbed by new trees. Unfortunately, we don’t have 40-100+ years to combat climate change.
- Burning wood pellets produces about 1.5x the amount of carbon dioxide that burning coal does.
- It can take between 40-200 years for trees to grow enough to offset a previous logging event.
The biomass industry unfairly targets environmental justice communities
As the renewable energy boom continues to grow across the world, we must examine the true implications of energy projects like these. Environmental racism is when specific communities, like BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, or People of Color) neighborhoods, are subjected to more environmental harms than non-BIPOC communities. Learn more about this environmental racism.
In the US South, wood pellet facilities that use forest biomass are often placed in low-income communities of color. These communities are more likely to experience environmental injustice. They often already have other sources of pollution in or near their communities like:
- Natural gas pipelines or compressor facilities
- Industrial train stations for transporting goods, not people
- CAFOs – concentrated animal feeding operations
- Other large manufacturing facilities
- Coal ash or coal power plants
These other polluters contribute to hazardous air pollutants and even greenhouse gas emissions. Given this pattern of injustice, why does the biomass industry continue to operate in these communities?
The biomass industry helps companies burn more coal
Many wood pellets are “co-fired” alongside coal in traditional power plants. Power plants can burn wood pellets alongside coal to get renewable energy credits. In other words, they can get credit for “green” energy while still burning coal.
When power plants are allowed to “offset” greenhouse gas emissions by cofiring dirty coal with wood pellets, they’re putting more and more carbon into the atmosphere. This is the opposite of the “carbon neutral” companies that they claim to be.
If you’re living near a wood pellet plant, you deserve to know your risks.
Learn more about the air pollution that biomass causes.
Share this fact sheet about the relationship between biomass and forests with your friends.