Joby Warrick’s Biomass Fallacies

A recent story on biomass in The Washington Post ("How Europe’s climate policies have led to more trees being cut down in the U.S.," By Joby Warrick, 06/02/15) continues a pattern of major publications uncritically reporting distortions of the carbon cycle and responsible forestry that don’t stand up to basic scrutiny.

Sadly, the story gives space to the basic fallacy behind much faulty reporting on the subject: that it generally takes decades to replace the carbon capturing capacity of biomass material.

In reality, these scientists say, Europe’s appetite for wood pellets could lead to more carbon pollution for decades to come. . . .

“You release a lot of carbon in a short period of time, and it takes decades to pull that carbon back out of the atmosphere.”

In the distorted reality implied here, American foresters cut down everything all at once, and sit back for generations waiting for regrowth. In the real world, responsible foresters plant trees constantly and consistently. That’s why the U.S. grows twice as much wood as it harvests, and why tree volume has grown 50 percent in the last 60 years.

When forestry is done responsibly- the way we’re doing it now - the result is a sustainable, carbon-neutral equilibrium. That’s because we are tapping into the natural carbon cycle. Remember, carbon is held in trees or wood products and eventually gets released by combustion or by biodegrading, whether or not it is actually used to produce energy. The best way to capture this ongoing carbon balance is to use actual measures of forest inventories over appropriate periods of time, rather than the convoluted and hypothetical preferred by some activists and relied upon in dubious studies.

Unfortunately, today’s article is just one of numerous examples of the media getting it wrong. Here are just a few recent examples of the same faulty logic at play:

  • Al Jazeera [I]n the years it takes to grow the trees back, a harvested forest isn’t sequestering nearly as much carbon as it would were trees not cut down.
  • Forbes Newly planted trees, meanwhile, can’t absorb that carbon at the same rate as older trees.    
  • New York Times The argument for aggressive deployment of bioenergy assumes that it is carbon-neutral because plants pull CO2 back from the air when they grow, offsetting the carbon emitted from burning them as fuel. But diverting a cornfield or a forest to produce energy requires not using it to make food or, just as important, to store carbon.
  • The Telegraph But it is not that simple, because it takes decades of growth before the newcomers can absorb all the greenhouse gas given off in the combustion of a mature tree.
  • Washington Post Giving biomass too much credit would encourage a lot of wood burning. This is counterproductive, since live trees pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.    

What accounts for this persistent misconception? Take a look at what the ideological activists are saying about biomass and ask yourself if there is any difference between their talking points and the “straight news.”

  • Environmental Justice Network Studies show that it takes at least 40 years for trees to absorb the extra pulse of CO2, making biomass only as bad as coal power plants -- and hundreds of years to become "carbon neutral.”
  •  Environmental Paper Network [I]nterrupting forest growth. . . and incinerating much of it for the large amount of energy required to power pulp and paper mills, results in a carbon debt. . . 
  • NRDC Burning whole trees and some larger woody debris for energy actually increases carbon pollution for decades. 
  • Partnership for Policy Integrity Only after many decades might regrowing forests recapture enough carbon to make burning wood better than these fossil fuels. 

Time and again these distortions are presented as fact because journalists treat activists as objective observers, even as they subject other perspectives to greater scrutiny.

To return to the latest story in the Post, for example, agenda-driven groups are described as “independent” and “nonprofit,” with no mention of their policy agendas or investigation of their motives, while science running counter to their claims is either held to a higher standard or ignored altogether. To cite just one example, the piece gives credence to an open letter to the EPA written by biomass skeptics, but makes no mention at all of the 100 forest science experts who weighed the best peer-reviewed science and affirmed the carbon benefits of biomass.

Responsible coverage of these issues should apply the same rules of journalism to all sides. Journalists are duty-bound to report the news, applying the same standard of scrutiny to all sides, no matter the perspective - especially when the assertions are hotly disputed. When they fail to do so, it’s evangelism and not journalism.