New Research Shows Clean Energy Does Not Grow on Trees

by Amy Moas

May 19, 2020

Pulp and paper companies also love to claim they are helping our climate because they similarly plant huge numbers of trees. But as you can imagine, it is not quite that simple. 

© Greenpeace / Andrew Male

Many of the energy industries who have perpetuated climate denial would now love for you to believe that they have solved the problem. Most often, trees are sold as the solution. Sounds great! We can all get behind planting more trees, right?

Unfortunately, it is the cutting down of the trees and burning them for energy that gets us into some trouble. Biomass energy, as it is called, is often sold as a carbon neutral clean energy because more trees can be planted every time some are cut down. Similarly, pulp and paper companies also love to claim they are helping our climate because they also plant huge numbers of trees. But as you can imagine, it is not quite that simple.

Back in 2017, we set out to better understand the climate impacts of clearcut logging (removing virtually every tree in an area), especially in carbon rich ecosystems like Canada’s boreal forest. We commissioned Dr. Jay Malcolm, a professor and scientist at the University of Toronto, to shine a light on this important topic. The results are in, and published in the academic journal Climatic Change. Here’s what you need to know:

1. Clearcutting intact forests creates a big carbon debt

An old intact (or “primary”) forest holds a great diversity of trees, vegetation, and wildlife. According to the research, these forests also contain more carbon than a forest that has been logged. So when we cut down these forests, we are emitting significant carbon. Even when these forests are allowed to regrow either naturally or after the planting of trees, it takes many decades, even centuries to recover. The effect of this harvesting over time means that less and less carbon is stored in the landscape, which is termed a ‘carbon debt’.  Dr. Malcolm’s study found that paying off that debt takes more than 90 years, even under the best-case scenario. There is no way around it — logging will increase greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere for very long periods of time!

2. Burning wood to replace fossil fuels is a terrible idea for our climate

Despite what the current administration and energy executives want you to believe, burning trees for electricity generation (biomass energy) to replace coal, oil, or natural gas, is not a useful climate mitigation strategy.  When wood pellets are used to replace coal, oil or natural gas, the carbon debt lasts for 155, 200, and 356 years respectively. We are in a climate crisis now; we cannot afford anything that emits more carbon for centuries.

Clearcut affected forest in Cree territory, Northern Quebec. The Cree Nation of Waswanipi of Northern Quebec organize an international media expedition in their traditional territory, the Broadback Valley, to bring attention to the struggle they face to protect their last intact forest from industrial logging.

3. Clearcutting intact forests makes the climate crisis worse, regardless of how the trees are used

Currently, most logging in Canada is not for wood pellets, but rather for the production of timber and other products. The research points out that clearcut logging of our natural forest ecosystems always results in a carbon debt, irrespective of the forest type or end product — energy, paper or construction materials. This carbon debt can last for centuries — meaning these industries are making the climate crisis worse for future generations.

Our work at Greenpeace relies on the latest and best available science to shape our campaigns. In the case of forests, this science is telling us that biomass energy is a false solution that is hurting our climate for long periods of time. Instead we must slow down, keep forests standing, and let nature take care of us.

Amy Moas

By Amy Moas

Amy Moas, Ph.D. is a senior forest campaigner for Greenpeace based in Las Vegas. She focuses on combating the drivers of deforestation around the world including palm oil, pulp and paper, and illegal logging.

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