- Emissions accounting helps determine whether or not nations are on target to achieve their voluntary Paris Agreement reduction goals. Ideally, the global community’s CO2 pledges, adjusted downward over time, would, taken together, help keep the world from heating up by 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) by 2100 from a 1900 baseline.
- But scientists are raising the alarm that this goal may already be beyond reach. One reason: a carbon accounting loophole within UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) guidelines accepting the burning of wood pellets (biomass) as a carbon neutral replacement for coal — with wood now used in many European Union and United Kingdom power plants.
- Scientists warn, however, that their research shows that replacing coal with wood pellets in power plants is not carbon neutral. That’s partly because burning wood, which is celebrated by governments as a renewable and sustainable energy resource, is less efficient than coal burning, so it actually produces more CO2 emissions than coal.
- Also, while wood burning and tree replanting over hundreds of years will end up carbon neutral, that doesn’t help right now. Over a short timeframe, at a historical moment when we require aggressive greenhouse gas reductions, wood burning is adding to global emissions. Analysts say that this loophole needs to be closed, and soon, to avoid further climate chaos.
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.”
Is this the hyperbole of a passionate but potentially cynical climate researcher? Perhaps. But as the saying goes, nature is indifferent to our opinions; it only responds to our actions.
Some of those actions to curb climate change have been positive: wind and solar continue to grow, and those technologies have never been cheaper per kilowatt hour. Coal use continues to fall. Electric cars are growing in popularity, especially in China.
But tellingly, global temperatures continue rising year after year. And in 2017, planetary carbon emissions hit a record high, even as major industrialized nations, like the United States, reported reduced carbon emissions, according to IPCC statistics.
Nature’s response? More extreme weather. More frequent and ferocious storms. More drought. More wildfires. More Arctic ice melting, along with Antarctic ice melt, too. More sea level rise. More coral reefs dying. More ecosystems imperiled.
A blind eye to carbon cheating?
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.
“Why does the IPCC appear to accept inaccurate emissions accounting?” Professor Doreen Stabinsky asked me, then answered: Because “IPCC scientists are technocrats. It is not a neutral body. There is a lot of politics behind the positions of individuals on the IPCC. Their meetings are often loudly political.” Stabinsky speaks from firsthand knowledge: she studies the nexus between environmental policy and politics at College of the Atlantic, Maine.
Bioenergy representatives, Stabinsky points out, are IPCC members and help write UN emissions guidelines. Likewise, countries with large areas of forest, such as the United States and Brazil, lobby to avoid counting or undercounting forest-related carbon emissions, including that from biomass burning.
Repeated calls and emails seeking comment from US-based wood pellet-producing companies such as Maryland-based Enviva and its trade group, the American Forest and Paper Association, went unreturned.
As for the IPCC, its reports have tens if not hundreds of authors, thus an official spokesperson for the panel does not exist. But contributing IPCC panelists have spoken out on this issue. William Moomaw, a Tufts University professor of international environmental policy and a former lead IPCC author, wrote a scathing report to the panel in 2011 called “The Myth of Carbon Neutrality of Biomass.” He also spoke forcefully on the topic directly to the European Union Parliament in 2015.
“The EU, including the UK, counts biomass used for electric power as carbon neutral by definition,” Moomaw wrote in 2011. “This means that biomass is counted on the same basis as solar or wind, which clearly are low-carbon sources of energy. This is not only incorrect, but ironic, given that developing countries that use wood for fuel that leads to deforestation is counted as contributing to climate change, while Europe and most states in the US count emissions from ‘modern biofuels’ as carbon neutral.”
Woody biomass: a carbon-neutral energy source?
Another irony: The IPCC states on its website that its “guidelines do not automatically consider biomass used for energy as ‘carbon neutral,’ even if the biomass is thought to be produced sustainably.” Yet, IPCC carbon accounting models appear to ignore the panel’s own guidelines, a contradiction which brings us to the essence of Booth’s research, and to a better understanding of what she calls “the controversy in climate modeling.”
North Carolina, where I live, is nicknamed the Tar Heel State because of its abundance of longleaf, white and loblolly pine. It is a leading US producer of wood pellets from fallen limbs, tree tops, lumber mill waste, but mostly, farmed pine trees. Cargo vessels filled with 45,000 metric tons of wood pellets per shipment are sent to the UK and EU regularly and burned for energy.
All those trees and residue in North Carolina are counted as carbon emissions produced by the United States, with the assumption — built into IPCC accounting models — that the organic matter would eventually die, rot and decompose there anyway, thus releasing its stored carbon.
To avoid so-called “double counting,” when those wood pellets are burned overseas, the CO2 sent into the atmosphere over Europe is not counted because of another assumption: new trees are quickly replanted in North Carolina, thus theoretically and immediately soaking up the CO2 emitted across the Atlantic.
And there you have it — carbon neutrality. Except, as Booth fairly screams: “That’s a lie!”
“If in year one, you burn 10 tons of wood pellets, you put 10 tons of carbon into the atmosphere,” Booth explained. “If it were rotting, only a fraction would decompose [over that same period]. You are comparing two pots of carbon” without taking the timeline into consideration.
Put bluntly, the IPCC is allowing some creative accounting around biomass burning. This potentially makes us all victims of magical thinking, as we collectively agree that the CO2 from all those North Carolina trees is not flooding into the atmosphere over a short timeframe, thus contributing to climate change right now — at the moment when we most need to reduce carbon emissions.
Burn now, achieve carbon neutrality later
Rich Birdsey retired from the US Forest Service after 40 years in 2016. Today, he is a senior scientist at Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts, where he studies biomass-for-energy. He explained the problem with the IPCC’s biomass creative accounting method further: newly planted trees take decades to absorb the emissions from the atmosphere created by just a few days of burning woody biomass.
“The carbon neutrality assumption at some point will be correct,” Birdsey said. “But it might be hundreds of years in the future when acres full of new trees mature. Yet, that idea of neutrality became fairly well ingrained, before people realized that emissions accounting was more complicated than that. The idea took hold 20 years ago, and countries and industries don’t want to give it up — especially those with a vested interest in wood and energy production.”
The news gets worse: both Booth and Birdsey explained that wood burning is not nearly as efficient in generating energy as coal burning. As a result, more wood is burned to produce the same amount of kilowatt hours. Burning wood, which is celebrated by governments as a sustainable energy resource, actually produces more CO2 emissions than coal.
“It’s true that the UK and EU are decreasing their emissions of fossil fuels in shifting to wood,” Birdsey said. “But they are not decreasing their greenhouse gas emissions. Yet with a claim of carbon neutrality, they are counting their emissions as if they are.”
The real danger, Booth warned: while wood burning now represents a small part of the UK, EU and US energy mix, “bioenergy is projected to increase 1,000 percent in the coming years. We’re talking about a massive upscaling of wood burning, as much as 9 gigatons a year. And IPCC models allow bioenergy as having the same emissions as wind and solar — zero. And that’s not true.”
To reemphasize the key point: nature is not being fooled.
EPA conundrum and dodge
Interviews with former US Environmental Protection Agency officials revealed that the issue of biomass and carbon neutrality was a conundrum for the Obama Administration. The science was clear; the politics was murky.
Obama’s EPA in creating the now stalled Clean Power Plan, bowed to political pressure from biomass industry lobbyists and members of Congress. In a dubious compromise, the administration called for a five-year study of biomass and its supposed carbon neutrality, and in the meantime allowed continued biomass burning, with all emissions counted as zero.
“Sen. Angus King of Maine [a major timber-producing state] threatened to withdraw his support of the Clean Power Plan if biomass wasn’t deemed carbon neutral,” Booth told me. “And he claims to be a climate champion.”
In February, President Trump’s EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt, wrote a two-page letter to Republican Governor Chris Sununu of New Hampshire hailing the state’s burning of biomass for energy. He reminded Sununu that Trump’s executive order 13777 makes clear that, for emission-accounting purposes, burning biomass should be considered carbon neutral.
“As you and I both recognize,” Pruitt wrote, “continuing to be responsible stewards of our nation’s forests and lands while utilizing all domestic forms of biomass to meet our energy needs are mutually compatible goals.”
On April 23, 2018, Pruitt’s EPA went a step further, issuing “a statement of policy making it clear that future regulatory actions on biomass from managed forests will be treated as carbon neutral when used for energy production.”
Is there hope?
Here’s where Mary Booth’s pessimism concerning the fate of the planet hits home: if the world’s largest carbon emitters — the US, UK, EU, and quite possibly China and India — “disappear emissions” through creative accounting loopholes tolerated by the IPCC, what hope is there for the Paris Agreement of slowing climate change with all its horrific consequences?
“It is depressing. But it’s reality,” said Stabinsky. “Life is political. The IPCC space is highly political. Climate change is a really difficult challenge we’re facing. It takes a long time to fix things. And governments don’t want to fix things they don’t think are broken. There is a reason to try to hide biomass emissions.”
Echoing Booth, I asked: Is the Paris pathway to 1.5 degrees Celsius hopeless?
“Actually, I still think we have a good chance,” Stabinksy responded. “I am a pessimist of the intellect and an optimist of the will. If we just look at the numbers, I think, ‘Wow, the human race is doomed.’ But as an optimist of the will, I think, ‘We can do it.’ We’ve ended slavery. We’ve ended apartheid in South Africa. We have made massive systems changes that have had huge economic impacts.
“Climate change at its essence is a political challenge. We have to completely retool our energy system, which will be massively disruptive. But we know what to do. The technology in wind and solar is available and dropping in price. We can do it. But no one is leading. It’s too easy to hide your head in the sand. Which is what’s happening with biomass accounting.”
Ok, I agreed. Optimism is critical in the face of such a monumental global challenge, and there is historical precedent for a sea change in political will — with the Paris Agreement itself as evidence of that kind of shift. Also, developed nations have said they will strive to make major policy decisions at COP 24, the next UN climate summit, in Katowice, Poland, this December.
But, one last question: do we have enough time?
“I don’t know,” Stabinsky told me.
I don’t either, I responded.
“Right, nobody does,” she said.
Booth, M.S. Not carbon neutral: Assessing the net emissions impact of residues burned for bioenergy. (2018). Environ. Res. Lett. 13 035001 (Vol. 13, Number 3), DOI: https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aaac88
Justin Catanoso, a regular Mongabay contributor, is a professor of journalism at Wake Forest University in North Carolina, USA. Follow him on Twitter @jcatanoso