Fuels burned by the US industrial and non-industrial bioenergy sectors, 2001–2016. Wood burning for electricity generation in the non-industrial sector increased by about 60% from the beginning of the period. Graphic: Booth, 2018 / Environmental Research Letters

By Justin Catanoso
2 May 2018

(Mongabay) – For the past ten years, Mary Booth, an ecologist with the Partnership for Policy Integrity in Pelham, Massachusetts, has immersed herself in the complex, nuanced, politically charged world of international carbon emissions accounting models as if the planet’s fate depends on it.

In many ways, it does.

Booth studies how countries count and report their emissions. In particular, she evaluates whether generating energy via the burning of wood pellets, or biomass, puts less carbon into the atmosphere than burning coal. In a rising trend, countries, especially in the European Union and United Kingdom, are converting existing coal-fired power plants to burn wood — a renewable, albeit controversial, fuel source.

Emissions accounting helps determine whether or not nations are on target to achieve their voluntary Paris Agreement reduction goals. That agreement also represents the global community’s pledge to keep the world from heating up by just 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) by 2100 from a 1900 baseline (we’ve already warmed 1 degree Celsius).

Emissions tallies are reported regularly to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC. But those figures aren’t just numbers on paper or political aspirations. The data, if accurately calculated, tell us how much greenhouse gas nations are actually putting into the air, and those combined totals help us know whether we are on target to avert climate change catastrophe.

Booth is darkly pessimistic — a price she pays for knowing too much, she told me.

“This is a message that no one has said yet. It’s what I believe to be true: there may not be a pathway to 1.5 [degrees] anymore — at all. Carbon capture and storage is a fantasy,” Booth told me in a series of interviews for Mongabay. “Growing forests may not work fast enough. We’re not reducing emissions fast enough. The sooner that story gets told, the sooner people understand what’s really required to keep the earth from burning up.” […]

Booth’s research — Not carbon neutral: Assessing the net emissions impact of residues burned for bioenergy, published this February in the journal Environmental Research Letters — helps answer some thorny questions critical to our energy and carbon future.

Her study examines the net CO2 emissions of biomass burned to replace coal at the UK’s massive Drax power stations and other EU power plants. Combined, those energy facilities consume tons of wood each year.

One major finding, right out of the gate: Booth reports that — contrary to a largely accepted view — wood pellets aren’t sourced mainly from fallen limbs and lumber waste called residue, but rather from whole trees. However, she based her study on residue-derived wood pellets anyway because the biomass industry “so often claims residues are a main pellet source.”

Even based on the false assumption that only wood waste, not whole trees, are being burnt, Booth found that “up to 95 percent of cumulative CO2 emitted [by the biomass burning power plants] represent a net addition to the atmosphere over decades.” In other words, biomass is not carbon neutral.

More disturbing: Booth’s research opens up the IPCC to charges that its policymaking decisions regarding emissions accounting have been politicized — crafted by negotiators to include built-in loopholes that allow nations to underreport certain emissions while appearing to achieve their carbon-reduction targets.

In particular, both the UK and EU appear to have slipped through a large loophole in order to “disappear” real emissions from their carbon accounting, as one source told me, thus undermining the Paris Agreement’s critically important carbon-mitigation strategies. [more]

UN forest accounting loophole allows CO2 underreporting by EU, UK, US

Cumulative net carbon dioxide emissions for four scenarios of U.S. wood-pellet burning. Graphic: Booth, 2018 / Environmental Research Letters

ABSTRACT: Climate mitigation requires emissions to peak then decline within two decades, but many mitigation models include 100 EJ or more of bioenergy, ignoring emissions from biomass oxidation. Treatment of bioenergy as 'low carbon' or carbon neutral often assumes fuels are agricultural or forestry residues that will decompose and emit CO2 if not burned for energy. However, for 'low carbon' assumptions about residues to be reasonable, two conditions must be met: biomass must genuinely be material left over from some other process; and cumulative net emissions, the additional CO2 emitted by burning biomass compared to its alternative fate, must be low or negligible in a timeframe meaningful for climate mitigation. This study assesses biomass use and net emissions from the US bioenergy and wood pellet manufacturing sectors. It defines the ratio of cumulative net emissions to combustion, manufacturing and transport emissions as the net emissions impact (NEI), and evaluates the NEI at year 10 and beyond for a variety of scenarios. The analysis indicates the US industrial bioenergy sector mostly burns black liquor and has an NEI of 20% at year 10, while the NEI for plants burning forest residues ranges from 41%–95%. Wood pellets have a NEI of 55%–79% at year 10, with net CO2 emissions of 14–20 tonnes for every tonne of pellets; by year 40, the NEI is 26%–54%. Net emissions may be ten times higher at year 40 if whole trees are harvested for feedstock. Projected global pellet use would generate around 1% of world bioenergy with cumulative net emissions of 2 Gt of CO2 by 2050. Using the NEI to weight biogenic CO2 for inclusion in carbon trading programs and to qualify bioenergy for renewable energy subsidies would reduce emissions more effectively than the current assumption of carbon neutrality.

Not carbon neutral: Assessing the net emissions impact of residues burned for bioenergy


  1. Anonymous said...

    There have always been "loopholes" in regards to how emissions were being measured, reported or avoided. This is nothing new. Nor was the propaganda and deception regarding their danger and cumulative effects (always downplayed) anything new. Humanity, except for a tiny few, has consistently lied and deceived itself about how climate change will wipe us all out. We cannot live on a hot planet. We cannot support 7+ billion or the fantasy 10+ billion on a hot planet. We cannot survive the changes we've made at any kind of a level that we have come to expect (and still continue to take for granted).

    There is no such thing as "carbon neutral". These "alternative facts" are just as disingenuous as our lying President. Mankind's over-exploitation and demands of energy are the root causes of devastating climate change. But we cannot admit to this - or discuss how to use less, it's always more, more, more, in all things.

    There is also no such thing as "climate mitigation" under ALL considered scenarios and pathways. These terms are euphemisms for "let's not admit to what will actually happen". Let's just delay actions as long as possible and defer their impacts onto another generation of people who will soon come to be known as "survivors of climate change". Everyone else will be dead.

    In the 20+ years that I've studied this issue, humankind has done virtually nothing to avoid catastrophe except produce endless studies, groups and consortium's to pretend to tell the world "we're working on the problem" while enabling more and more energy extraction, refusing to reduce human populations or carbon footprints, and endorsing capitalism and the continued rape and destruction of the biosphere.

    Ironically, they still believe that growth and technology will somehow, magically and mysteriously "fix" the problem caused by growth and the adoption of technology.

    We're just too stupid to admit to our own hubris. And we deserve to go extinct because of it, being unfit to survive on this only habitable planet. We cannot govern our greed and our excesses and our species (and every other species) will now suffer the consequences because of it.

    But in the meanwhile - we'll generate more studies, like "Glacier loss is accelerating because of warming". Well, duh! Do we really need to waste time and resources on this sort of thing? Is this really the best that we can do? Generate yet another gazillion reports claiming we need to "do something"?

    There is no action plan. There is no solution that we will accept. The essential core of the problem is us and our civilization and our greed. Inordinate demands on a finite planet and the expectation that we can always defer our problems onto some other place, some other people, some other time. We really are that stupid.  

  2. Anonymous said...

    No one "deserves" anything. Saying that humans deserve what they're getting is the equivalent of saying a drug addict deserves to die. After all, they knew the terrible effects of the drug and didn't stop using it! With the minds that humans evolved, they were going to exploit nature for everything they could. Humans are a deeply flawed species. Hight intelligence combined with animal emotion is a deadly combination. Determinism suggests that everything occurring is exactly as it should be, whether we like it or not.  

  3. opit said...

    Fraudulent 'transfers' of 'carbon exemptions' broke the EU scheme for taxing 'carbon emissions' over a decade ago. Nor is there any reason today to think that the UN is doing anything except engaging in a power / tax grab through the existence of an agency custom designed not to provide science, but policy advisories on how governments should represent energy tax measures so as to maximize profit.  


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