By William H. Schlesinger, Beverly Law, John Sterman and William R. Moomaw
Scott Pruitt, the Environmental Protection Agency administrator, recently announced that his agency would classify the burning of wood from managed forests as “carbon neutral.”Alex Brandon/Associated Press
As Scott Pruitt, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, was preparing to defend himself before Congress last week against charges of extravagant spending and other improprieties, he found time to travel to Cochran, Ga., to address the Georgia Forestry Association.
On the day after Earth Day, he announced yet another policy that will damage the environment he is supposed to be protecting. He told the group that the E.P.A. would now declare the burning of wood from managed forests for energy production by power plants and other stationary sources to be “carbon neutral.”
By that, he meant that, in the agency’s view, there would be no net release of carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere, because replanting the forest that had just been cut and burned could offset those emissions. This determination could make it easier for wood-burning power plants to win regulatory approval.
But Mr. Pruitt’s declaration contradicts some basic facts. Burning wood from forests to generate electricity is not carbon neutral when the direct emissions from combustion, plus emissions from soil and logging and processing the wood, are considered. Scientific studies have shown that it will worsen the consequences of climate change for decades or through the end of this century. This was not a decision based in science, but in politics, a giveaway to the forest products industry. As Mr. Pruitt has put it, it will provide the industry with “certainty” in the “agency’s permitting process.”
The forestry association understandably applauded the decision. “Administrator Pruitt’s announcement today reflects the clear scientific consensus on forest biomass,” said Andres Villegas, the president of the group.
This statement also could not be farther from the truth. We are among 13 research scientists who have joined to challenge these blatantly inaccurate assertions. We are not outliers on this. In January, 796 scientists from the United States and Europe sent a letter to the European Union Parliament warning against a plan that would provide incentives for cutting trees to burn for energy.
“Even if forests are allowed to regrow,” those scientists wrote, “using wood deliberately harvested for burning will increase carbon in the atmosphere and warming for decades to centuries.” And that is the case, the scientists added, “even when wood replaces coal, oil or natural gas.”
It’s basic science. The simple fact is that cutting and burning trees adds carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, trapping radiant heat from the earth and making the planet warmer.
The added carbon dioxide is removed from the atmosphere only if the forest that is cut down is replaced by a new generation of trees. (Trees and other green plants remove carbon dioxide from the air and use it to make leaves, wood and roots through photosynthesis.) But regrowth takes time, a century or more for native forests, assuming they don’t fall victim to wildfire or disease. And regrowth never occurs if the land is developed or converted to pasture or farmland.
Moreover, throughout the many decades before the replacement forests can grow enough to remove the extra carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, the previously added gas will thaw more permafrost and melt more ice, make ocean acidification worse, accelerate global warming, speed sea-level rise, increase the incidence of extreme weather, worsen drought and water stress, and hurt crop yields — effects that will persist for centuries or longer.
We must reduce greenhouse gas emissions now, not increase them.
Atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide would be rising much faster than they are now if there were no forests. In the United States, forests removed about 11.6 percent of the carbon dioxide pumped into the atmosphere in this country in 2016.
Forests are also vital for other reasons, of course, protecting against floods and supporting diverse plant and animal communities. One needs only to visit the southeastern United States to see clear-cutting by the biomass industry and the destruction of some of the most biodiverse lands on the continent. The resulting soil erosion ruins the productivity of these lands and leads directly to the silting of rivers and increased flooding. Furthermore, air pollution from the wood bioenergy industry disproportionately affects low-income communities.
Burning wood for fuel discharges more carbon dioxide emissions than burning coal and is more expensive than utility-scale wind or solar energy. As of early last year, Britain had spent about $1.3 billion over the previous two years to subsidize wood pellets imported from North America and burned for energy. British taxpayers there are paying electricity providers to make climate change worse.
Will the United States now follow this erroneous path as well? In 2016, about 2 percent of total energy consumption in the United States was from wood and wood waste, according to the Energy Information Administration. That’s more than enough. The Trump administration should focus on expanding zero-emitting sources like solar and wind power. Neither produces health-damaging air pollution or greenhouse gas emissions while generating electricity.
Mr. Pruitt’s decision to consider forest bioenergy as carbon neutral is neither scientifically justified nor economically efficient. His justification is a concocted “fact” to support the forest products industry at the expense of the planet.
Reposted from The New York Time. The original posting of this article can be found here.