COP 21, the UN and Biomass: What You Should Know

You may have read about the climate summit in Paris—officially called “the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference,” and known colloquially as “COP 21,” the conference laid the groundwork for the world’s nations to work together to bring down carbon emissions.

Irresponsible journalists and agenda-driven activists too often portray biomass as a “bad guy”, pitting biomass against groups like the UN in global efforts to protect our climate. But a serious examination of what UN scientists and other experts really think about biomass paints a much different story.

For instance, we know that the agreement itself recognizes the “importance…[of] sustainable management of forests and enhancement of forest carbon stocks” to carbon mitigation efforts, and later calls on all signatories to “take action to conserve and enhance, as appropriate, sinks and reservoirs of greenhouse gases…including forests.”

That’s because the UN-supported scientists at the Intergovernmental Panel at Climate Change (IPCC) have long recognized that soil and biomass—including forest biomass—are hugely important carbon sinks, pulling enormous quantities of man-made carbon emissions out of the atmosphere every year. As the science makes clear, our forests are part of a natural cycle that is contributing to net reductions in atmospheric carbon that, depending on how it is measured, could be as much as a billion metric tons each year. (6.3.2.6.2, p. 499).

As the agreement suggests, incentivizing sustainable forest management is one way to grow those carbon sinks even more. Healthy markets for forest bioenergy—which we know spur growth in America’s forests and help prevent forestland from being converted into non-forest uses—are vital to accomplishing that goal. 

In addition to spurring forest growth, UN scientists have also long recognized the carbon benefits of replacing fossil fuels with forest bioenergy wherever possible. Here’s how a special UN IPCC report on forestry and land use summarizes it:

Biomass energy can be used to avoid greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels by providing equivalent energy services: electricity, transportation fuels, and heat. The avoided fossil fuel CO2 emissions of a biomass energy system are equal to the fossil fuels substituted by biomass energy services minus the fossil fuels used in the biomass energy system. These quantities can be estimated with a full fuel-cycle analysis of the system. The net effect on fossil fuel CO2 emissions is evident as a reduction in fossil fuel consumption.

The report also drives home that when it’s done responsibly, biomass energy production is carbon neutral:

For biomass energy to lead to an overall reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, land use and land-use change emissions of the biomass energy system must also be included (Marland and Schlamadinger, 1995). For example, if biomass is harvested and subsequently regrows without an overall loss of carbon stocks, there would be no net CO2 emissions over a full harvest/ growth cycle. In this way, land can be used continuously for the production of biomass energy to avoid fossil fuel CO2 emissions.

To summarize: Top UN climate scientists have noted that responsible biomass energy production is carbon neutral, reduces demand for fossil fuels, and incentivizes forest growth. That’s why the IPCC predicts that bioenergy (including wood biomass) will provide 35 percent of electricity and 75 percent of fuels stocks by 2050.

But unfortunately, that’s not the story you’ll always hear in coverage of the issue. And that is one of the reasons why we do what we do here at Biomass101.