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Burning trees for energy is not a climate solution


7 February 2022— Burning trees and other forest biomass for energy is contrary to climate mitigation, biodiversity protection, and environmental justice goals. Governments must stop promoting climate-damaging forest bioenergy and instead invest in strategies to decrease energy demand, deploy low-emissions energy like solar and wind, and protect forests. These are the conclusions of a new article published in the Vermont Journal of Environmental Law.

A Call to Stop Burning Trees in the Name of Climate Mitigation, based on leading science, explains how forest bioenergy has a substantial greenhouse gas (GHG) footprint and will accelerate warming for decades. In fact, burning woody biomass releases more carbon dioxide (CO2) than fossil fuels per unit of energy. It takes many decades for tree regrowth to offset those emissions. Plus relying on tree regrowth ignores the damage to natural forests from harvest – both to forests’ carbon sink capacity and biodiversity. The bioenergy industry, including the wood pellet industry in the United States, also exacerbates environmental injustice.

“To meet our climate targets and protect communities from catastrophic warming, the false accounting of forest bioenergy’s emissions must end. Governments should follow the science and implement policies that reflect the urgency of the climate crisis – not those that would increase emissions for decades and destroy valuable carbon sinks,” said Laura Bloomer, Legal Fellow at the Institute for Governance & Sustainable Development (IGSD) and co-lead author of the article.

Nevertheless, many countries promote and subsidize forest bioenergy. The article describes the consequences of including forest bioenergy in the European Union’s Renewable Energy Directive (RED). In the RED, forest bioenergy is assumed to have zero CO2 combustion emissions, even though bioenergy power plants spew CO2 and other pollutants into the air. The RED’s bad accounting trick makes forest bioenergy eligible for renewable energy subsidies and incentivizes power plants to switch to forest bioenergy and falsely claim they’ve reduced their emissions.

“Countries have to protect and enhance the natural carbon sinks including forests, to slow self-reinforcing feedbacks and avoid dangerous climate tipping points, on the way to net-zero by mid-century,” said Durwood Zaelke, President of IGSD. “Countries must move away from forest bioenergy which not only damages the forest sinks but also worsens the air pollution, biodiversity loss and environmental injustice.”

Beyond the EU, the article provides an overview of bioenergy policies in the United States and China. While neither country’s bioenergy consumption matches the EU’s in scale, it is important that both large emitters do not follow the EU’s harmful model as they work to decarbonize.

Many countries, including the EU, US, and China, are considering using bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) to reach their mid-century climate goals. Yet large-scale BECCS is not a viable climate solution. Not only is the CCS technology not yet available at scale, but BECCS also suffers from the same shortcomings of bioenergy. Because of bioenergy’s emissions footprint and the associated forest destruction, BECCS will accelerate warming in the coming decades.

The Authors argue that countries should end subsidies for and move away from forest bioenergy. Instead, countries should work at all levels (domestic, regional, and international) to (1) take action to lower energy demand; (2) deploy low-emission energy sources like wind and solar; and (3) invest in strategies to protect and enhance forests. Actions to protect carbon sinks like forests are designed to sequester more carbon and prevent already-stored carbon from being released into the atmosphere. They complement quick actions to reduce CO2 and other super polluting climate pollutants like methane, hydrofluorocarbons, black carbon, and nitrous oxide. These fast mitigation strategies are critical to limiting warming to 1.5ºC.

IGSD team members Laura Bloomer, Xiaopu Sun, Gabrielle Dreyfus, Richard Ferris, Durwood Zaelke, and Connor Schiff co-authored the article.

Download A Call to Stop Burning Trees in the Name of Climate Mitigation here.

For media inquiries and additional information, contact: Laura Bloomer, lbloomer@igsd.org