The Science is Clear on Renewable Wood Energy

Thanks to the hard work of university scientists and the United Nations IPCC, the case for bioenergy has been made even stronger in 2019.
By Brian Rogers | January 10, 2020

“Keep all trees in the ground and stop using wood! Wood biomass is murdering forests!” These are just a few of the lines we’ve heard over the past few months from opponents of renewable wood energy and the forest products industry.

Big, emotionally charged claims catch people’s attention easier than soberly reciting peer-reviewed academic articles or spreadsheets of data from government agencies. That explains the tactics we witness almost daily now from anti-forestry activists taking aim at the industry. Whether it’s the Dogwood Alliance, the Partnership for Policy Integrity, the Southern Environmental Law Center, Bill McKibben’s or others, they’ve all upped the rhetorical ante.

They believe that if they can be the loudest voice in the room, they can convince everybody—government regulators, elected officials, fellow environmentalists and more—that their distortions are true. But as the old saying goes, everyone’s entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts. And over the past year, the facts have been piling up in favor of bioenergy, as international authorities and university scientists settle the debate once and for all: Renewable wood biomass energy is a key part of solving climate change.

The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—the gold standard for climate science research—continues to embrace renewable wood energy as critical in all strategies to mitigate climate change. In August, the IPCC again doubled down on this recommendation and specifically highlighted bioenergy and sustainable forest management as critically needed in its report “Climate Change and Land.”

Renewable wood bioenergy, when sustainably sourced to replace fossil fuels like coal, significantly reduces net carbon emissions while helping provide a renewable source of baseload heat and power. Recognition of the needed role bioenergy plays has also gone beyond the IPCC in recent months.
First, in September, more than 100 leading university scientists signed on to a letter, published by the National Association of University Forest Resource Programs, that confirms bioenergy decreases carbon emissions compared to fossil fuels. They specifically note, “The long-term benefits of forest biomass energy are well-established in science literature.”

Next, a major report from researchers at the University of Georgia’s Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources and the U.S. Forest Service confirmed what bioenergy and forestry experts have been saying all along, that renewable wood energy grows forests to expand the carbon sink and reduces emissions compared to fossil fuels. The report, published in the academic journal Annual Review of Resource Economics in October, directly dispels the false claims of anti-forestry activists who argue that bioenergy production contributes to “deforestation” and releases more carbon than coal. 

The report found that the wood energy industry actually strengthens forests on the ground by providing private landowners economic incentives to plant and grow more trees. The researchers examined studies of different demand scenarios for bioenergy—high and low demand—and found that when wood pellets are in high demand, thousands more square kilometers of forests are preserved. The researchers also found that the absence of demand for wood bioenergy would actually result in deforestation up to 5,791 square miles, roughly the size of Connecticut.

The report analyzed a host of existing data on carbon emissions, finding that wood bioenergy produces “considerably lower” carbon emissions than coal-based electricity, with savings ranging from 77 to 99 percent. This echoes previous research from the University of Illinois, which found that wood bioenergy reduces carbon emissions compared to coal by 74 to 85 percent on a lifecycle basis.

The science could not be clearer, and it’s leading to international breakthroughs in the fight to reduce emissions and displace dirty coal energy. For instance, in October, CNN profiled how Drax Power Station, once “the biggest polluter in western Europe has made a near-complete switch to renewable energy,” thanks to renewable wood energy. Just 6 percent of the power station’s energy production now comes from coal, a dramatic change in a short time frame.

Drax’s rapid embrace of low-carbon bioenergy shows the promise of this technology, that it is a cost-effective means of embracing renewable energy, and that it decreases emissions and helps countries meet their carbon reduction goals in line with recommendations from the IPCC and leading scientists around the world.

When extreme activist groups attack renewable wood energy, they’re not doing so on the facts. Future Forests + Jobs’ mission is to expose these groups when they rely on false claims by pushing back with the science, which is overwhelming in its conclusion that wood bioenergy is a critical tool in the fight against climate change.

Thanks to the hard work of university scientists and the United Nations IPCC, the case for bioenergy has been made even stronger in 2019. The ball is now in the activists’ court. Will they accept the latest science or continue to dodge and distract from the facts?

While we remain hopeful that these activists will see the light, don’t be surprised if their rhetoric gets even more extreme in 2020.

Author: Brian Rogers
Spokesman, Future Forests + Jobs
[email protected]