Greenfield Recorder Column Misleads On Value Of Wood Bioenergy In Climate Change Mitigation

A recent column from Bart Bouricius in the Greenfield Recorder, titled “Business as usual not a wise response to climate crisis,” gets the facts wrong on the value of wood bioenergy in the global effort to mitigate climate change. The piece claims that the use of low-grade wood for wood bioenergy is “not consistent with recent scientific research.” This is simply not true – leading experts from the across the world have confirmed the carbon reduction benefits of wood bioenergy.

Wood Bioenergy Reduces Carbon Emissions

The reasoning behind the carbon mitigation potential of wood bioenergy is straightforward: growing forests absorb carbon from the atmosphere and act as a natural carbon sink. Wood bioenergy, sourced from low-value wood in growing forests in the US South, releases fewer net carbon emissions than fossil fuels like coal because forests absorb the carbon created during the power generation process. This is why experts at the University of Illinois have said that wood bioenergy reduces greenhouse gas emissions by over 74 percent compared to coal, and it is why international bodies like the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have embraced the use of wood bioenergy in all pathways to mitigate climate change.

Column Cites Studies Not Relevant To Wood Bioenergy From Southeast U.S.

Bouricius tries to use a study from Forest Ecology and Management (Nunery & Keeton) to argue that unmanaged forests capture more carbon dioxide than actively managed forests. However, this paper is specific to northern hardwood-conifer forests, and is not representative of the US Southeast, where wood biomass is actually sourced. Bouricius then states that this is the only comprehensive peer reviewed study that looks at this issue. This is not true. Many other scholars have written about this topic. For instance, researchers at the University of New Mexico (Swanteson‐Franz et al.) looked at scenarios in Georgia and concluded that carbon outcomes are heavily influenced by the interaction of forest management activities and wildfire, but that total ecosystem carbon is improved with active management.

Bouricius then cites a study from Dr. Steve Sillett to argue that old redwood trees sequester more carbon than younger redwoods. Using this study makes little sense, as redwood trees are not – and have never – been used for wood bioenergy. Redwood tree physiology is not relevant to the US Southeast or bioenergy sourcing, and it is unhelpful to compare forestlands with wildly different ecosystem functions. It is also misleading to use redwood forests as an example against actively managed forests; redwood forests are themselves actively managed, a fact that Bouricius neglects to point out.

Studies Show That Younger Forests Are Better At Storing Carbon In The Short Term

The broader point that Bouricius is trying to make – that old forests sequester more carbon – is not necessarily true. A number of studies have come to the opposite conclusion, that younger forests, by virtue of faster growth rates, are better at storing carbon in the short term. This is important to note because reducing carbon emissions is critical in the short term if we are to limit global climate change.

When analyzing the sustainability credentials of wood bioenergy sourced from the Southeastern US, it is important that we follow the facts, analyzing the proper types of forests and using data and research specific to this region. Unfortunately, Mr. Bouricius’s column failed to do this, and it leaves the reader with a distorted and inaccurate picture of wood bioenergy, which is today playing a pivotal role in replacing fossil fuels and lowering carbon emissions globally.