New study: Burning wood from ‘sustainably managed’ forests increases carbon pollution for 40+ years

A pine plantation in Liberty, Mississippi. Taken in October 2018, this photo shows thinning along the bottom and left part of the harvest site, and a final clear-cut harvest in the middle and right portion of the site.

A new analysis by experts in carbon lifecycle modeling reveals that cutting down trees from sustainably managed forests—a practice many in the industry proclaim as a best practice for wood pellet sourcing—and burning them for electricity increases carbon pollution in the atmosphere for more than four decades.

“It all comes down to the timing,” says Attorney Heather Hillaker, noting that massive carbon reductions are needed within the next 12 years, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. She calls this “a timeframe that cannot be achieved by burning woody biomass.”

A new analysis by Spatial Informatics Group shows that even when wood pellets are made primarily from pine plantation thinnings, there’s a negative impact on the climate for more than 40 years.

SIG conducted a carbon lifecycle analysis for three wood pellet mills located in Louisiana and Mississippi and owned by Drax Biomass, a subsidiary of Drax Power, which has used government subsidies to convert four of its coal-fired units to burn biomass in the United Kingdom. Using information obtained from experts in the region, SIG concluded that Drax’s three mills rely mostly on whole trees sourced from thinnings from non-industrial pine plantations, with the remaining wood coming from sawmill residues. According to SIG’s analysis, burning wood pellets from these mills for electricity in the U.K. increases carbon pollution to the atmosphere for more than 40 years.

Notably, the results in SIG’s analysis are conservative estimates due to several assumptions SIG made in favor of the industry, including increasing the relevant percentage of sawmill residues in the feedstock mix compared to what Drax currently uses, and excluding any hardwoods despite evidence that Drax is using between 5-20 percent hardwoods.

“Even under these extremely generous assumptions, SIG’s analysis shows that burning woody biomass is a false climate solution,” says Hillaker.

To achieve meaningful carbon reductions in the next 10 to 20 years will require a shift away from biomass electricity and towards true renewables such as wind and solar.”

—Attorney Heather Hillaker

As the wood pellet industry continues to rapidly expand across the southeastern U.S., the industry is turning towards pine plantations as a way to meet expanding demand. Even Enviva, which has been clearcutting mature, hardwood forests to supply its pellet mills in North Carolina and Virginia for years, has recently shown a desire to shift towards more softwood or pine feedstock.

“Pine plantations, however, are not the answer,” says Hillaker. “It is clear from SIG’s newest study that sustainability cannot be used as a proxy for carbon reductions. To achieve meaningful carbon reductions in the next 10 to 20 years will require a shift away from biomass electricity and towards true renewables such as wind and solar.”

The U.K. government, however, continues to heavily subsidize biomass electricity generation at the expense of wind and solar. In 2018 alone, Drax received £789.2 million in U.K. government subsidies under the guise of carbon reductions. As SIG’s analysis shows, these subsidies are being used on an industry that, even under the proclaimed best case scenario, do not reduce carbon emissions in the timeframe necessary for avoiding the worst impacts of climate change. Instead, the U.K. and European Union must end all subsidies for biomass electricity generation and reallocate existing biomass subsidies to zero-emitting renewables like wind and solar.  

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