Seeing the Forest for the Trees

It’s time to SEE the forests for all the trees, and all the manufacturing, ecosystem, energy AND carbon benefits those trees contain.

A new study by nine scientists and forestry experts—a broad examination of carbon accounting for forestry, wood products and biomass, to ensure that the full environmental benefits of biomass are realized was recently published in the Journal of Forestry: “Forest Carbon Accounting Considerations in U.S. Bioenergy Policy.”

As a result of their comprehensive literature review, and consideration of a broad range of forest based activities, including regional practices, the authors found four science-based insights are essential to understand forest bioenergy and carbon “debts”:

  1. As long as wood-producing land remains in forests, long-lived wood products and forest bioenergy reduce fossil fuel use and long-term carbon emission impacts.
  2. Increased demand for wood can trigger investments that increase forest area and forest productivity and reduce carbon impacts associated with increased harvesting.
  3. The carbon debt concept emphasizes short-term concerns about biogenic CO2 emissions, although it is long-term cumulative CO2 emissions that are correlated with projected peak global temperature, and these cumulative emissions are reduced by substituting forest bioenergy for fossil fuels.
  4. Considering forest growth, investment responses, and the radiative forcing of biogenic CO2 over a 100-year time horizon (as used for other Greenhouse Gasses (GHG)), the increased use of forest-derived materials most likely to be used for bioenergy in the United States results in low net GHG emissions, especially compared with those for fossil fuels.

As reported in the August 15, 2014, Weekly REsource and Blog, a core group of 25x’25 partners led over 100 agriculture, forestry and energy organizations to raise the issue of biogenic carbon accounting with the White House, and to seek the release of the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) draft policy on the same. The EPA has deferred a decision on the biomass carbon accounting framework for over three years as its Science Advisory Board reviews the issue.

This will be an important federal policy since the EPA will use the carbon accounting system to assess biomass-derived fuels and their net atmospheric contribution of CO2 related to their growth, harvest and use; and, will expect states to use the framework as a resource in developing their own Clean Air Act section 111 (d) Compliance Plans.

The insights from the new study illustrate why it is important to look at the big picture and quantify the full spectrum of forest-based activities when accounting for carbon emissions. Biomass is unique in the carbon cycle—while fossil carbon, once mined and combusted is an irreversible addition of carbon to the atmosphere, biomass combustion returns an equal and opposite quantity of previously sequestered carbon dioxide to the atmosphere which is then absorbed over time by new growth.

The study’s author team suggests considerations for policy making:

  • Wood products and forest bioenergy can play an important and ongoing role in mitigating GHG emissions.
  • Most biogenic carbon accounting proposals are based on a narrow analysis of short-term and direct GHG emission impacts of converting forest biomass to energy and other end uses. The study suggests that consideration of a broader range of forest-based activities such as fossil fuel substitution effects, markets for wood, causes for ongoing gains and losses in forest area and forest carbon, landowners’ motivations, benefits, and timing of investments in forestry, and the warming impact of near-term and long-term increases in CO2 emissions is important.
  • Studies that consider forest growth dynamics, landowner investment responses, and the climate impacts of biogenic CO2 over a time horizon consistent with that used for other GHGs reveal minimal impacts from biogenic CO2 associated with increased use of forest-derived biomass for bioenergy.

The Forest Carbon Accounting Consideration study is an important addition to the growing body of scientific work that recognizes the carbon benefits of forest biomass and forest bioenergy. Collectively, this body of work is very important as the EPA works to issue the draft biogenic carbon framework.

Currently, forest landowners, those in the biomass and bioenergy sector, and policy makers at the state and even federal levels face significant uncertainty about the future because the current rules are based on narrow criteria—if you will, it’s as if program developers are currently looking at only the tree.

In doing so, faulty policy will continue to choke opportunities in the bioenergy sector, hamper the development of beneficial policies, and slow efforts to expand the use of renewable energy.

Taking into consideration sustainability because of its interrelationship with bioenergy will also enable the development of positive policy options which support the use of forest-derived biomass, both purpose grown and residues.

The new Forest Carbon Accounting Consideration study will help the EPA to create a case to improve upon the previous proposed carbon accounting framework by “looking at the forest”—scientific data that considers all aspects of CO2 in biomass and biofuels.

It’s time to look at both the forest and the trees—to make sure that the findings of the “Forest Accounting Considerations” study are widely disseminated through discussions and in policy making sessions, so forest biomass energy and bio-manufacturing can expand to take their rightful place in our nation’s clean energy future.

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