Mitigating the 2 Leading Causes of Climate Change and Global Warming

By Seth Ginther | March 23, 2014

A recently released United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report argues that it is extremely likely that human activity is the dominant cause of climate change and global warming.  The report states, “the atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide have increased to levels unprecedented in at least the last 800,000 years . . . [and c]arbon dioxide concentrations of greenhouse gases have increased by 40 percent since preindustrial times.”  What are the two factors contributing most to this alarming news according to the IPCC?  Fossil fuel emissions (releasing more fossil-based carbon into the atmosphere) and deforestation/net land use change (less natural sequestration of carbon because of deforestation). 

Clearly the global strategy for mitigating climate change and global warming needs to include a suite of alternative energy sources, but woody biomass has the benefit of being the only alternative energy source that directly mitigates the two leading underlying causes of climate change.  

CO2 molecules are the same, regardless of where they come from.  But burning fossil fuels to produce electricity releases carbon that would have remained sequestered in the ground for millions of years.  It is a one-way process that adds greenhouse gases to the atmosphere and fuels climate change.  Woody biomass for energy on the other hand, is part of a natural process known as the biogenic carbon cycle.  Trees absorb CO2 as they grow.  That same CO2 is released during the combustion process and in an equivalent amount, or even more, is removed from the atmosphere as the forest regenerates itself. 

Replacing coal with woody biomass through this process has been shown to reduce fossil fuel emissions of carbon dioxide, sulphur oxides and nitrogen oxides.  Indeed, the U.K. Environmental Agency found that switching to woody biomass from coal can reduce carbon emissions 74 to 90 percent.  Moreover, studies by the U.S. EPA, the National Renewable Energy Lab and the National Council of Air and Stream Improvement show that woody biomass is lower in sulfur, chlorine and nitrogen than coal.  Woody biomass also has lower concentrations than coal of trace metals including arsenic, beryllium, cadmium, lead and mercury and releases much less of these elements into the atmosphere.

The key to realizing these benefits, though, brings us to mitigating the second leading cause of climate change—deforestation and other land use change.  The biomass-to-energy industry is contributing to the growth of forests and carbon capture.  The net volume of trees per acre has increased in all regions of the U.S. for more than 50 years, and the total acreage of forestland is within one percent of what it was 100 years ago.  This means that U.S. forests sequester a substantial amount of carbon, with anywhere from 58 million to 84 million grams per hectare thought to be stored in the nation’s wooded areas.  By creating additional markets for low-grade wood fiber, the woody biomass-to-energy industry helps ensure that forest stocks continue to increase thereby naturally sequestering more carbon.

To those unfamiliar with our industry, it may seem counterintuitive, but the best way to ensure against deforestation and other land use change is to provide robust markets for forest products such as woody biomass.  Forest owners are rational economic actors, which means that they will always be looking to maximize the economic value of their asset, the forest.  Accordingly, the only way to incent forest owners to keep their forests working is to economically incent them to do so.   The robust market for low-grade wood fiber that the woody biomass-to-energy industry provides to the forest owner helps to ensure that those forests continue as forests, instead of converting them to other uses, such as agriculture or development.  This is leading to more forests, not fewer, which is the opposite of deforestation.   

Reduced emissions and increased forests, according to the IPCC, will help right the global ship on a path to mitigating climate change and global warming.  Biomass hits the right policy notes yet again.
Author: Seth Ginther
Executive Director
U.S. Industrial Pellet Association