Conservation and Biodiversity

The Truth About Biomass: Burning Trees is not a Green Alternative

From the spruce and cedar of the Alaskan Tongass National Forest, to the hardwoods of New York’s Adirondack State Park, North America’s native forests are not only magnificent, but they provide incomparable benefits to our planet and wellbeing. Not only do they combat climate change by storing carbon, but they also serve as homes for a wide variety of different species of animals and plants. 

Wood has been used to fuel human civilizations for generations, and it was the main source of energy until the mid 1800s. However, the rise of coal in the late 18th century would completely transform the industrialized world, at a deep cost to the environment. As concerns regarding climate change and energy use began to arise in recent decades, the European Union (EU) looked for alternative energy sources, so they returned to wood since biomass is often considered a carbon neutral resource. Across the Atlantic, 7 million metric tons of wood pellets are shipped from the United States to the EU annually. The industry itself has boomed, reaching an estimated $10 billion in 2020

Even though the wood is not sourced from old-growth or protected U.S. forests, environmentalists are not in agreement that this is a supposed “green fuel” alternative. In a letter, hundreds of scientists and environmental professors argued burning trees creates a “carbon debt,” that will lead to increased warming for many decades if not centuries. Unlike coal and oil, trees are capable of regrowth, so the argument is that replacing a tree which was burned for fuel will absorb any of the excess carbon that was released. However, the process is a little more complicated. Other than the excess carbon dioxide released in the manufacturing and transportation process, native tree species are better suited for carbon sequestration than planted non-native trees. Therefore, replanting trees used for wood pellets will not absorb the same levels of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration claims using wood as a biofuel is “almost the same” as burning fossil fuels. On the contrary, burning wood emits 2.5 times more greenhouse gasses than natural gas and 30 percent more than coal. Additionally, they claim re-planting the same trees will capture “almost the same amount” of carbon dioxide through photosynthesis. However, for trees to be considered a renewable resource, and therefore carbon neutral, they must be given ample time to grow.

So is wood a renewable resource? Technically, it can be if the harvested area is given ample time to regrow. However, this is an extensive, decades-long process with detrimental health implications. The use of wood as an energy source can actually worsen climate change. If the aim is to explore cleaner sources of energy, there are other alternatives, such as wind and solar energy which are not detrimental to the environment.

As the demand for wood pellets and the price of raw wood increase, attention may redirect to harvesting native forests. For a myriad of different reasons, it is integral that our native forests stay intact. By donating to the Canopy Project, a reforestation and conservation effort, you can play a part in the protection of our precious forests and all the life they support.