If Anti-Biomass Activists Have Their Way, It’s Going to Be a Whole Lot Harder to Solve Our Climate Problems

Click to view our critique

Click to view our critique

Chris Mooney of the Washington Post is out with an article on the activist letter we recently critiqued here. Mooney deserves credit for including a balanced perspective on the science underlying the carbon benefits of biomass and the language of the congressional amendment that reflects those benefits.

But the article might still leave readers believing one of the core myths of anti-biomass dogma—that trees take “a century” to grow back after harvesting.

This is wrong coming and going. Not only is it false that it takes a century to regrow trees after harvest—responsible forestry doesn’t work that way, for reasons we outlined here—but 100 years is precisely the timeframe that most climate experts recommend for a robust assessments of carbon trends in the atmosphere. Indeed, it’s the same timeframe that climate scientists themselves use to measure the impact of fossil-fuel derived greenhouse gases. So why does a group that includes several climate scientists get away with a double standard when it comes to biomass—which, unlike fossil fuels, is a fully-renewable resource and an ingenious carbon capture technology in its own right?

As researchers in the peer-reviewed, scientific Journal of Forestry put it:  

[I]t is long-term cumulative CO2 emissions that are correlated with projected peak global temperature, and these cumulative emissions are reduced by substituting forest bioenergy for fossil fuels. Considering forest growth, investment responses, and the radiative forcing of biogenic CO2 over a 100-year time horizon (as used for other greenhouse gases), the increased use of forest-derived materials most likely to be used for bioenergy in the United States results in low net greenhouse gas emissions, especially compared with those for fossil fuels.”

That’s in line with the thinking of the UN IPCC, and the 100+ forestry scientists that Mooney himself cites in the piece. So it does readers a disservice to give credence to alarmist spin that isn’t supported by sound science.

There’s also another irony at work. Just hours before Mooney reported on the activist letter, he put out a long, thoughtful piece on researchers looking for viable means to pull carbon out of the air. What is perhaps the number one challenges to these efforts, according to Mooney? Economic viability. Mooney reported that one such project to pull carbon out of the atmosphere could cost between $60 and $600 trillion—yes trillion. And yet if you were to imagine a substance that taps into the natural carbon cycle, pulls CO2 from the atmosphere naturally and efficiently, and taps into a viable, renewable energy source that is a viable replacement for fossil fuels in many contexts—you’d be imagining forest biomass.

As we wrote in response to the misguided activist letter, healthy biomass markets mean healthy forests. Even as we speak, the laws of supply and demand, combined with smart, responsible forestry, are working to help solve our energy problems and our climate challenges. Anti-biomass would better serve their donors, and the planet, by pausing to reflect on their misguided opposition.

Healthy Markets Mean Healthy Forests.

A group of scientists—many with connections to activist groups and most lacking direct expertise in forestry management practices—has issued a letter to policymakers challenging the carbon benefits of forest bioenergy.

Their case relies on a faulty understanding of the economic and scientific principles at play, and sadly is in many ways indistinguishable from the agenda-driven talking points of the most zealous activists using anti-biomass rhetoric.

Here are just some of the things the letter gets wrong:

Climate Central on Climate Central on Biomass

In just the first paragraph alone, Climate Central activist John Upton’s latest polemic (“Dutch Lawmakers Call for Halt to Wood Energy Subsidies” 02/09/16) warns that biomass energy is only friendly at “local scales” and has the potential to “worsen deforestation” and “accelerate global warming.”

These are serious charges. You might wonder if Upton cites published reports to back them up. He does, in his own unique way,

On Upton’s first claim, that biomass is only environmentally friendly at local scales, readers can click through to a report called “Pulp Fiction, Part 3” authored by one John Upton of the activist 501c3 group Climate Central.

On Upton’s second claim, that biomass accelerates global warming, readers can click through to a report called “Pulp Fiction, Part 1”, which again is authored by Upton and published at Climate Central.

You’re probably expecting that the third claim, that biomass worsens deforestation, clicks through to “Pulp Fiction, Part 2” by Upton of Climate Central. Well you won’t be disappointed, because you’re right.

You are reading that right.  Upton cites his own stories as the sole support for his assertions. And later, Upton even references himself a fourth time for good measure.

As long as we’re quoting ourselves, why not check out our debunking of Upton’s previous reporting here and here; or our post on Upton’s admission that he purposefully withholds information from readers here; or our summary of the criticism Upton took from real reporters on the bioenergy beat for being careless with the facts, here.

So does Upton actually cite any independent experts on biomass? Just one. Fourteen paragraphs down he cites a recently completed European Union study on biomass as saying that the carbon impacts of wood fuels are “typically very difficult” or “impossible” to calculate. In other words, the only independent study Upton cites directly undercuts his earlier assurance forest biomass accelerates global warming. And indeed, that same study looked at six different scenarios for incorporating forest biomass into Europe’s energy future and found that, “All scenarios achieve significant reductions in total annual GHG emissions, including those scenarios involving increased bioenergy consumption in the EU.” That’s not exactly consistent with Upton’s narrative.

Last, you might ask whether Upton quotes opposing experts or scientific perspectives, as professional standards of conduct would oblige an actual working journalist to do. In the very last paragraph, Upton cites a single industry representative in a brief quote that has nothing to do with the scientific substance of the matter. And in keeping with his established habits, he ignores peer-reviewed, scientific literature that stands at odds with his ideological preconceptions—and, we assume, with the directives of Climate Central leadership and their anonymous donors.

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. 


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

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. (, 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.




Everything you ever wanted to know about biomass science but were afraid to ask

Perhaps the best recent peer-reviewed overview of the science of forest bioenergy comes from the Journal of Forestry

"Forest Carbon Accounting Considerations in US Bioenergy Policy” surveys a wide body of existing science and draws key conclusions about the environmental and economic benefits of biomass. Here’s the abstract:

"Four research-based insights are essential to understanding forest bioenergy and “carbon debts.” (1) As long as wood-producing land remains in forest, long-lived wood products and forest bioenergy reduce fossil fuel use and long-term carbon emission impacts. (2) Increased demand for wood can trigger investments that increase forest area and forest productivity and reduce carbon impacts associated with increased harvesting. (3) The carbon debt concept emphasizes short-term concerns about biogenic CO2 emissions, although it is long-term cumulative CO2 emissions that are correlated with projected peak global temperature, and these cumulative emissions are reduced by substituting forest bioenergy for fossil fuels. (4) Considering forest growth, investment responses, and the radiative forcing of biogenic CO2 over a 100-year time horizon (as used for other greenhouse gases), the increased use of forest-derived materials most likely to be used for bioenergy in the United States results in low net greenhouse gas emissions, especially compared with those for fossil fuels."

One crucial point raised by the authors is that many forest biomass studies show a net carbon benefit immediately, or in as little as a few years. The doom-saying reports frequently cited by activists, “represent only a small fraction of the work that has been, and is still being, performed to understand the GHG impacts of using biomass for energy."

Here are some other highlights of the article: 

On the importance of an appropriate timescale for comparing biomass to fossil fuels: 

“Using a time horizon of less than 100 years to judge the significance of emissions of biogenic CO2 implies that wood energy emissions are more damaging than fossil fuel-derived CO2 and other GHGs, which has no scientific basis.”

On how demand for biomass incentivizes responsible forestry practices: 

“The demand for wood keeps land in forest, provides incentives for expanding forests and improving forest productivity, and supports investments in sustainable forest management that can help offset the forest carbon impacts of increased demand.”

“Policies that provide incentives for landowners to expand forest area, make forests more productive, and store more carbon could have important carbon benefits. On the other hand, policies that increase transaction costs to landowners or devalue forest biomass could have negative carbon consequences."

Read the entire article and you’ll be well armed to sort fact from fiction on biomass.

Climate Central Activist John Upton Just Perfectly Illustrated Why What We Do Is So Necessary

We started Biomass101 with a simple mission: to ensure that journalists covering biomass issues do so accurately and objectively, and in a way that gives readers a full and fair view of the scientific landscape. We never ask for special or favorable consideration, or for our views to crowd out those who disagree with us. We only ask that readers be presented with all the facts, and decide for themselves which side holds the high ground of credibility.

If you’re wondering why such a project is necessary, look no further than the example of Climate Central activist John Upton, who just went on record advising his fellow reporters to ignore opposing viewpoints on biomass, exclude science that disagrees with your agenda, and hide real scientific debates from readers to present them with a “simpler” (Upton’s own word!) narrative.

Are we surprised by anything Upton says? Sadly, we are not. But we are surprised he’d say it out loud, cataloguing—and endorsing—multiple failures to meet basic journalism standards.

Read our original pushback here.

Climate Central Releases Greatest Hits of Biomass Myths

Climate Central describes itself as a “hybrid science and media non-profit organization,” whose “journalists” aim to provide “factual information” on climate and policy. But merely claiming the mantle of objective journalism doesn’t make Climate Central’s output objective, or even journalism. And its close ties to ideologically motivated environmentalist groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council should give pause to publications considering reprinting their work, and readers looking for the facts.

Climate Central’s new, multi-part “report” on forest biomass is a case in point. Authored by activist John Upton, it is presented as the product of a months-long investigation. But the core of its biomass criticism relies on the same misleading talking points and flawed studies touted by other ideologically motivated activists for years.

Some of the error on display we’ve covered before: the flawed understanding of the economics of biomass, the insinuation that trees (trees!) somehow shouldn’t count as renewable energy sources, and the propagation of what we call the “100 Year Fallacy.” This is the utterly silly idea that responsible foresters clear cut entire forests and then walk away. In fact, the computer model Upton relies on to make this faulty claim assumes exactly that—that forests are being “clear cut every few decades” to produce energy. Of course modern forestry, the product of over a century of innovation and experience, doesn’t work that way at all.

The reality is that, far from taking “decades” to have an effect, many forest biomass studies show a net carbon benefit immediately, or in as little as a few years. The doom-saying reports frequently cited by activists, “represent only a small fraction of the work that has been, and is still being, performed to understand the GHG impacts of using biomass for energy” according to 2014 analysis of available research in the peer-reviewed Journal of Forestry

The report also leans heavily on the shortsighted and scientifically wrongheaded idea that somehow biomass’s carbon impact is “worse” than coal. This is simply false. As a coalition of leading forest scientists put it, the evidence shows that“forest biomass energy yields significant net decreases in overall carbon accumulation in the atmosphere over time compared to fossil fuels,” including coal. 

So how does Climate Central and its activist sources get away with saying otherwise? They look only at carbon released at the moment of use—not at full impacts or the role of the natural carbon cycle. Here, as in the 100 Year Fallacy, biomass critics use skewed and scientifically off-base time scales to get the results they want. This failure to look at the big picture of growth, use, and regrowth “implies that wood energy emissions are more damaging than fossil fuel-derived CO2 and other GHGs, which has no scientific basis.” (Journal of Forestry)

Sometimes when activists are backed into a corner on this, they’ll say things like “we can’t afford to wait,” or “we’re at the brink,” and indeed, Upton and Climate Central use that kind of language several times in the report. 

But there’s no scientific basis to that view, either. Indeed, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded “there is no evidence for global-scale tipping points in any of the most comprehensive models evaluated” (IPCC 2013, p. 129). 

What matters according to the best climate science are cumulative carbon emissions over long periods of time, and this is where biomass presents its clear advantages. In fact, one of the studies relied upon by the UN concludes that stopping warming is about limiting total carbon emissions and is “remarkably insensitive” to whether that reduction happens immediately or over time.  As the IPCC concludes, “no individual year's emissions are critical….” (Allen et al. 2009, p. 1163) (Bruckner et al. 2014, p. 67–68)

Reasonable people can disagree about the pros and cons of energy production and energy policy, but those debates should be rooted in rigor and scientific fact, not nonsensical models, cherry-picked statistics, and outright distortions. Unfortunately Climate Central’s “hybrid” of science and journalism falls woefully short on both fronts. In truth, it appears to be more of a hybrid between science obfuscation and activism—and readers, and editors, should beware. 

Download the full infographic here.

The Wrong Way to Look at Biomass

A recent article on biomass from Alastair Bland of Comstock’s (“Burn Notice,” 07/23/15) leaves out relevant facts and perpetuates a number of misapprehensions about biomass.

Bland correctly points out several advantages of biomass over other energy sources, and is right to note that tapping into “waste wood” harnesses the energy potential of material that would otherwise decompose landfills, wild fires, and the like. Readers should also know that forest bioenergy prevents the release of methane––which has a 25 times greater warming effect than carbon dioxide––that would result from wood debris being landfilled or otherwise decomposing.

But from here, Bland veers into factual misunderstandings and omissions. He writes, “the industry is embroiled in controversy” and “there seems to be no straight story on biomass.” But in fact, the science on the carbon neutrality of biomass is clear, as is detailed in a letter from 100 forest scientists and other experts with the National Association of University Forest Resource Programs, and affirmed by U.S and international government agencies.

Bland also gives space to the activist fallacy that it takes decades for biomass to achieve carbon neutrality. But this complaint assumes foresters harvest every tree at once and have to wait decades before the next cut. Thankfully American foresters are smarter than that, and are constantly planting trees: growing twice as much wood each year as they harvest. That’s why the total volume of trees in US forests has actually increased by 50% in the last 60 years.

If Bland wants to present readers with a full and fair discussion of the importance of time scale in understanding the environmental impact of biomass, he should note that scientists recommend a one-hundred-year timeframe––the same span used for evaluating the impact of coal and other energy sources. Holding biomass to a different standard than other energy tips the scales and distorts the science.           

Finally, Bland cites activists worried about the future of American forests. But readers deserve to know that far from endangering forests, demand for forest products like biomass helps them thrive.  A healthy biomass industry incentivizes responsible forestry, which in turn helps combat carbon emissions. Carbon storage in US forests is currently offsetting about 15% of total US carbon dioxide emissions annually, and that number is expected to grow as forest volume increases.

Readers could hardly be blamed for coming away from Bland’s piece thinking that biomass is the enemy of clean energy and healthy forests. Clear away the distortions and omissions, and it becomes clear that the opposite is true.

Want Good Biomass Policy? Start with the Science

“Desmog” describes itself as a group concerned with accuracy in reporting on environmental topics. When it comes to biomass issues, that’s a mission we heartily support.

A recent blog post on the Desmog web site (“Biomass Industry Intensifies Fight for Carbon-Neutral Status As Obama Admin Carbon Rules Draw Near”, by Mike Gaworecki, July 19, 2015) caught our attention. It is largely about energy policy, but of course you can’t make good policy without sound science and common sense, and unfortunately, Garowecki’s post opens with failures on both fronts, leading him to faulty conclusions.

Here’s how he begins:

The science is fairly convoluted but also entirely clear: Bioenergy — burning wood and other forest biomass as a fuel source — produces more carbon emissions than coal.

Even if all the forests we fed into power plants were to one day regrow, in theory sucking all that carbon back out of the Earth’s atmosphere, it would be far too late to be any kind of solution to the global climate crisis.

This is misinformed and therefore misleading, but it also presents a teachable moment.

Let’s start with the confused assumption behind the myth that biomass “produces” carbon emissions that otherwise wouldn’t occur. The paper, packaging, and wood products industries in most cases use bioenergy produced from the “leftovers” of the manufacture of forest products like printing paper, cardboard, and lumber—which taps into the natural carbon cycle. Carbon flows into and out of forests in a continuous sequence, and that would happen whether humans intervened or not. If biomass weren’t used to create energy, it would biodegrade in a landfill somewhere, or perhaps combust in a wildfire. In either case, it would emit as much carbon as it does when used to produce renewable carbon energy. In fact, if left to decay on its own, it will actually produce other, far more dangerous greenhouse gases like methane, which has a warming effect 25 times greater than carbon.

And not only does forest bioenergy harnesses energy value that would otherwise be lost to the atmosphere, it provides about two-thirds of the power to America’s paper, packaging, and wood products manufacturers, dramatically lessening the industry’s reliance on fossil fuels. So far from being a contributor to what the author refers to as “the global climate crisis,” biomass is actually a key part of a sustainable energy future.

Garowecki makes another fundamental mistake when he writes about the carbon-capturing power of America’s forestlands as if it were merely hypothetical. “If” forests were regrowing, they would “in theory” capture the carbon released by biomass, he writes.

But of course, we know that forests are growing—because we’re the folks helping to grow them. In fact, we’re growing twice as much wood each year as we are harvesting, and the total volume of trees in U.S. forests has increased 50 percent in the last 60 years.

Moreover, the carbon-offsetting power of this growth is not a “theory.” It’s a reality recognized by authorities such as the EPA, USDA, European Union, and the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, not to mention the 100 scientists and forestry experts who have publicly supported the science behind carbon-neutral biomass.  Indeed, the proposed legislation, which Garowecki himself quotes, considers biomass carbon neutral only if U.S. Forestry data shows, empirically, that forest carbon stocks are “stable or increasing on a national scale.” There’s nothing hypothetical about that.

Garowecki and his colleagues are of course free to support any policy they like. But first, they should be armed with the facts.

Eduardo Porter and the New York Times Get It Wrong, Again

A recent article (“Climate Change Calls for Science, Not Hope”, 06/23/15) contains significant omissions, imbalances in sourcing, and factual misunderstandings from author Eduardo Porter, who has gotten it wrong on biomass more than once.

For instance, there are several major errors in this paragraph:

It turns out that burning biomass — wood, mainly — for power produces 50 percent more CO2 than burning coal. And even if new forest growth were to eventually suck all of it out of the atmosphere, it would take decades — perhaps more than a century — to make up the difference and break even with coal.

Combined with responsible forestry, the greenhouse-gas-capturing power of the full, natural carbon cycle—which Mother Nature oversees, whether or not we generate forest bioenergy—ensures that as much or more carbon is captured and stored by our growing forests than is released. Yet we see the claim repeated time and again that it takes decades, even “more than a century” to regrow the trees the forestry businesses harvests to make thousands of products you use every day.

But this betrays a lack of understanding of how sound forestry actually works. The fact is that our forests are growing, not shrinking, because we are constantly planting new trees. In fact, twice as much wood is being grown each year than is harvested. The idea that foresters simply harvest every tree at once and then wait a century for another go is not just economically infeasible, it’s detached from reality.

Porter’s piece is printed in the “Business Day” section, but reads more like a pure op-ed built on the questionable assumptions of a like-minded letter from activist groups. In fact, by our count, Porter relies on seven separate activist sources hostile to biomass—and precisely zero forest industry experts. 

There’s a similar problem when Porter laments the EPA’s current recognition that “forest biomass emissions do not increase CO2 accumulation as long as forest stocks are not decreasing.” Porter again cites an activist, openly hostile to biomass, comparing that recognition to “legislating that the sea level cannot rise more than eight inches.”

But this comparison is inapt. The carbon-neutrality of biomass, currently recognized in various forms by the EPA, European Union, and United Nations, and supported by a group of over 100 forest scientists in an open letter to the former, is premised on the power of the full carbon cycle and the continued growth of American forests. If American forests were growing fewer trees than we harvest, the carbon profile of bioenergy would be different. Fortunately for us all, that isn’t the case, thanks in large part to our businesses’ commitment to sustainable forestry. It’s as simple as that.

Lastly, Porter is mistaken when he writes that “investment in carbon capture and storage technologies is virtually nonexistent.” The $223 billion in products manufactured by the forest products industry inherently represents a massive investment in the greatest carbon capture technology ever-devised: trees.  Perhaps what Porter meant to say is that the forest products industry provides massive carbon benefits to society through sustainable forestry, the carbon captured in forest products, and the fossil-fuel displacing energy we provide.  According to the EPA, net annual growth in our forests alone displaces 15% of our nation's industrial emissions.

But for its flaws, Porter’s piece has one thing right: Too often, “the goal of bringing the world’s carbon emissions under control is put at the service of other agendas, ideological or economic, limiting the world’s options.”

We couldn’t have said it better ourselves. That’s why it is so important that Times readers not be misled into believing that biomass is a part of our problem—when it is actually a key, sustainable energy solution.

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. 


Enough Is Enough: Correcting Inaccurate Reporting on Forest Bioenergy

Enough Is Enough: Correcting Inaccurate Reporting on Forest Bioenergy

Forestry science and policy are complex topics, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be explained effectively and accurately to the public. Yet in recent months, as carbon neutral bioenergy has become a political issue, we’ve noticed a number of major publications get the science wrong. Journalists have a duty to present the facts in a balanced and accurate way, and when they don’t, we will step in to make sure readers have all the information.

Take this editorial by The Washington Post, “The EPA’s not-so-green emissions plan,” which contains several distortions and omissions, the most significant of which is a full and scientifically accurate account of the carbon cycle. Only by looking at the big picture—the natural and manmade processes by which carbon flows into and out of U.S. forests in a continuing cycle of carbon sequestration and release—will readers understand the long-term carbon benefits of bioenergy. 

Don’t just take our word on this. An open letter to the EPA from a group of 100-plus forest scientists representing 80 universities makes these basic facts clear.

As the activist group cited by the Post readily admits, the reality is that U.S. forests continue to grow thanks in large part to the forest products industry. In fact, twice as much wood is grown than harvested in the United States, and forest volume has increased 50 percent in the past 60 years. So it’s baseless to suggest that continuing to recognize biomass as a renewable would be “counterproductive.” Carbon storage in U.S. forests continues to increase, offsetting about 15 percent of total CO2 emissions annually. Biomass and sustainable forests go hand-in-hand.

Had the Post contacted forestry experts or any of the thousands of businesses whose success depends on being good forest stewards, their readers might know that many of those advocating for a change in the way EPA accounts for biomass narrowly focus on small samples of forest and use assumption-filled guesswork projections to measure carbon effects. In reality, the only accurate way to capture the health of our nation’s forests is to look at the big picture, using historical and current data to calculate the actual net transfer of carbon to the atmosphere from biomass use. Using complex statistical models preferred by those who want to see biomass disappear—models loaded with questionable assumptions and imperfect projections—results in, at best, an educated guess and often produces bad policy.

Another prime example of inaccurate reporting comes from The New York Times, in an article titled “A Biofuel Debate: Will Cutting Trees Cut Carbon.”

Most critically, the Times assumes that burning biomass magically creates carbon that didn’t already exist, a fallacy that we see come up time and again. But the truth is that carbon flows in and out of forests naturally. It is absorbed by and stored in plant material (and forestry products) and then released through natural biodegrading, wild fires, energy production, and the like, in a continuous cycle.

The writer, Eduardo Porter, leaves readers with the impression that there is doubt or controversy over the central question of whether forest bioenergy that taps into this cycle is carbon neutral. But in fact the carbon benefits of biomass are well established and accepted in science. Indeed, the carbon benefits of biomass are recognized by the EPA, USDA, the European Union, and the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

It’s conspicuous that Porter relies almost exclusively on sources who warn of purely hypothetical harms from future use of biomass but fails to cite any of the countless experts who affirm the USDA, EPA, EU and UN consensus that biomass is a critical part of a sustainable, clean energy future. It’s also odd that an article that purports to describe a “debate” about biofuel fails to solicit any viewpoint from the many thousands of companies that actually take part in the business of caring for forests.

Like the Post editorial board, Porter seems to have spoken only to critics who favor convoluted models to “project” bioenergy carbon emissions, models loaded with questionable assumptions and impractical projections that results in, at best, an educated guess. Had he spoken to any of our forestry scientists, they would have explained that the only truly accurate way to measure the carbon neutrality of biomass is to look at real, historical data—actual measurements and not models—over a broad landscape.

These are just two high-profile examples of inaccurate reporting on bioenergy we’ve seen in recent months, but sadly there are many more. That’s why we’ve created Biomass101—to make sure readers have the facts, and to help the future reporting of such publications as The New York Times or The Washington Post to get the facts right.