We’re all familiar with climate change deniers, cheerfully and/or willfully ignorant folk who refuse to accept that human-caused carbon emissions are responsible for the climate crisis — or that there even is a climate crisis. Those of us who value science and common sense typically have as much patience for these twenty-three percent of Americans as we do for anyone who believes that maggots arise spontaneously from rotting meat, witches cause disease, or the Earth is the center of the universe.
Recently, a subtler breed of climate change denier has emerged, spreading their propaganda and even infiltrating aspects of the environmental movement: biomass boosters. These advocates for the biomass energy industry often avoid detection by professing concern with carbon emissions. Yet, while cursing fossil fuels out of one side of their mouths, out of the other they bless the burning of one of the world’s greatest buffers against runaway climate chaos — our forests — for energy.
If the climate movement wants to win over the American people and influence policy, it needs to have credibility, which only comes through consistency, and that means distancing itself from the climate change deniers in our midst.
Forests = Carbon
Forests store and sequester mind-boggling amounts of carbon and are one of our last best hopes in fighting climate change. Cutting forests and burning them for energy in polluting biomass incinerators is perhaps the worst thing we can do when it comes to the climate threat.
Biomass incinerators emit higher levels of carbon dioxide per unit of energy than most coal-fired plants, the dirtiest fossil fuel, with some studies demonstrating up to a centuries-long time frame for the reabsorption of this carbon by future forests, and others showing a permanent increase in atmospheric CO2. Some of the more optimistic (and flawed) studies show it will still take decades for the carbon to be reabsorbed by forests cut for biomass energy. Yet, this assumes a forest cut for biomass will be protected and not logged again (a highly unlikely scenario), and will maintain the same rate of growth despite soil compaction, nutrient depletion, and erosion from past logging and impacts from climate change, including drought.
Even if that best case scenario were true, it’s irrelevant. Climate scientists insist the only way to reverse runaway climate change is to drastically cut our emissions now, not at some undetermined point in the future after emitting a massive pulse of carbon out the smokestacks of biomass incinerators.
Only when you bring up this point to biomass boosters do they reveal their true colors, proving that, despite pretensions, they really aren’t taking climate change that seriously at all.
Magic Tree Carbon
When pressed on the reality of curbing emissions today rather than in the year 2114, biomass advocates typically admit that carbon emissions from biomass incineration don’t count because they don’t come from the bad kind of fossil fuel carbon, but the good kind of “biogenic” carbon. In other words, you can cut and burn all the trees you want for energy, because the carbon they emit is harmless, basically a kind of magic tree carbon.
Of course, an eighth grade grasp of Earth science proves that the atmosphere doesn’t give a fig whether the carbon comes from trees, fossil fuels, or unicorn poop, because carbon is carbon is carbon.
The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been spending the last few years deciding how to measure carbon emissions from biomass energy (even though the only honest way to account for it is to tabulate what comes out of the smokestack), with vague plans to come out with its accounting framework for “biogenic” carbon by the end of 2014. The agency’s willingness to even entertain industry’s notion of magic tree carbon exposes the EPA for what it truly is: a political, rather than scientific body. The Obama administration has come out in support of biomass energy, chopping down the low-hanging fruit of “green” energy to make it seem like it’s actually doing something about the climate crisis.
One final point to bring up if you’re ever in a conversation with a biomass booster and really want to watch them squirm. Remind them that the supposedly “biogenic” carbon stored in any given tree actually includes some carbon sequestered from hundreds of years of burning fossil fuels, and when that tree is burned for energy, that carbon too is released back into the atmosphere. If they have a response to this, please contact me and let me know what it is, because I’ve yet to hear one.
Of course, chances are, no matter how much you question biomass boosters on carbon emissions, you won’t get any good answers out of them. Maybe that’s because most of them secretly believe — though they’ll never admit it, perhaps not even to themselves — that climate change simply isn’t that big of a deal.
Josh Schlossberg is editor of The Biomass Monitor. You can contact him at thebiomassmonitor AT gmail.com