Climate Central Ought to Know Better on Biomass vs. Coal

The last time environmental activist John Upton wrote about biomass issues for the advocacy group Climate Central, we called his piece a “Greatest Hits of Biomass Myths,” because it checked the box on nearly every major misrepresentation we are here to correct. Upton made clear that on biomass energy production, carbon accounting, and the economics of forest sustainability, he either doesn’t know the facts or doesn’t want his readers to know them.

In fact, after we pushed back on his “report,” Upton felt compelled to rationalize his failure to meet basic standards of objectivity, sourcing, and transparency. In a follow-up, Upton wrote that he omitted science that ran counter to his narrative in order to make his readers “journey…much simpler” and made the incredible claim that it would have been “dishonest” for him to include countervailing evidence from peer-reviewed studies, the US Forest Service, the UN IPCC, and over 100 forest scientists.

Let that sink in. Upton claimed that omitting multiple credible, relevant sources, just because they ran counter to his preferred conclusions, was an effort to avoid dishonesty.

True to form, Upton’s latest doubles down on erroneous claims about biomass, asserting as facts that:

(1)  “Cutting down trees and incinerating them, meanwhile, stops them drawing carbon dioxide pollution out of the atmosphere.”

(2)  “The expanding use of large-scale wood energy…is releasing more climate-changing carbon dioxide than burning coal.”

Let’s take each in turn. (1) is technically true. Wood used for biomass energy production is wood that can’t store any more carbon than it already has. But that’s not the whole story. The reality is that demand for forest products incentivizes the planting of more trees, and if as many or more trees are planted than are harvested by the forest products industry, the net carbon impact of biomass is neutral—even positive. That’s exactly what’s happening now the United States where the volume of growing trees has increased by 50 percent since the early 1950s.

The reality behind (1) reveals the problem with (2). In a world where biomass is carbon neutral—and its carbon neutrality is recognized by experts and regulators around the globe—it is fundamentally dishonest to claim biomass releases “more climate-changing carbon dioxide than burning coal.” Under some circumstances, biomass emits more carbon than coal at the time of incineration, but trees are the backbone of the natural carbon cycle. Whether they are used for bioenergy, or burned in a natural fire, or decay in a landfill or on the forest floor, they release the same amount of carbon. (In fact, capturing the energy value significantly reduces the emission of other, much more dangerous warming gases, relative to natural decomposition.) But what really matters is what happens next, over an ecologically significant period like a century. And what happens when forests are sustainably managed is that they breathe in all that carbon, pulling it out of the atmosphere and storing it throughout their natural lives—and beyond, if they become building and other wood products.

What happens after you harvest and burn coal? Here’s a hint: miners don’t plant coal seeds. 

Not only did we furnish Upton with this sound science last time around, but his own peers took to Twitter to scold Upton for being careless with the facts on biomass versus coal. If that wasn’t enough to get Upton to stick to the facts, then maybe its not the facts he’s interested in. 

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Here’s One Simple Trick to Avoid Bad Science on Forest Bioenergy.