Bioenergy from the US is a critical tool in the UK’s climate strategy

August 31, 2017 (source)

Enviva’s Jennifer Jenkins says biomass helps protect the existence of US forests from land use change and drives emissions cuts in the UK

This post first appeared in businessGreen on August 31, 2017. 

The international community of scientists agrees that deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions must be made in order to avoid the most harmful effects of climate change. In the developed world, this means seeking an 80 per cent reduction in 1990 emissions levels by 2050. This is a difficult goal, and globally, we need to deploy every tool at our disposal to achieve it.

Displacing fossil fuels and increasing renewable energy is central to success. This means that power derived from biomass, as well as wind, solar, hydropower and geothermal, are key resources.

Biomass is directly displacing coal today in the UK, and policy incentives are in place to achieve that end, as they are for wind and solar. This is not unusual; incentives exist in other industries as well, and this is the right approach. Biomass allows the UK to integrate more renewables to complement wind and solar, which are intermittent energy sources that cannot be dispatched when the wind is calm or the sun is not shining. In order to have an energy grid we can rely on, we must use dispatchable sources of power and without biomass, more of that dispatchable power would have to come from coal.

We can set the record straight on an important point. Using biomass from the Southeast US reduces carbon emissions, and here’s why: carbon released from fossil fuels is carbon that had been stored safely underground for hundreds of millions of years, i.e., fossil carbon is a pure new addition to the atmosphere. In contrast, emissions released when biomass is burned are part of the short-term active carbon cycle. Working forests in the Southeast United States are managed on rotations from 30 to 75 years depending on the forest type, such that regrowth and emissions occur within decades rather than millennia. In fact, every year a thriving forest takes in more carbon than it releases.

The private, industrial forests of the Southeastern United States are sequestering carbon reliably, precisely because there is economic value in maintaining and growing forests.
Conversion to non-forest uses such as agriculture or development is a significant threat to the climate and that conversion is very likely what will happen if we remove the economic incentive for them to continue to grow. Using biomass for energy is an important part of how we create robust forest products markets to keep these forests intact and healthy.

The industry is an integral part of the economy in the Southeastern United States, and working forests in the region represent one of the world’s most important timber baskets. Every year the Southeast supplies about one-sixth of timber used globally, and more than half of wood used domestically in the US.

The Southeastern United States is incredibly diverse. A single forest harvest might produce five or six types of timber products, all going to different mills for processing. Landowners generally decide to harvest when sawtimber is mature in order to maximise revenue, because high-quality wood sold to a sawmill can fetch many times what a pulp mill might pay for the lowest-quality wood. The wood Enviva uses to make pellets is either the least desirable, lowest-quality wood from forest harvests or secondary by-products from sawmilling operations, and it comes into our mills in the form of low-value roundwood, chips and sawdust. When we purchase wood from a harvest, we receive, on average, 30 per cent of the volume. The rest of the wood goes to other forest products markets.

Periodic scheduled harvest at sawtimber maturity is what makes owning and growing these forests advantageous for their owners. As the International Energy Association (IEA) Bioenergy explains in its rebuttal to the Chatham House report, “it is not plausible to suggest that the forest would remain unharvested and continue to grow in the absence of bioenergy.” Working forests are part of the backbone of local economies in the Southeast United States, and the rest of the world relies on them for the forest products we use every day. To suggest that (a) the alternative to bioenergy is to leave forests intact, and that (b) this hypothetical no-harvest state would result in greater forest growth, defies simple economics and ignores the reality on the ground.

Flawed models like the ones used by Chatham House can be engineered to reach any conclusion, but facts are facts. A recent analysis by Forest2Market used measured data to show that, over the six decades since record-keeping began in 1953, “[i]ncreased demand for wood did not deplete forests in the US South; instead, it encouraged landowners to invest in productivity improvements that dramatically increased the amount of wood fibre, and therefore the amount of carbon, contained in the South’s forests.”
Measured data from the USDA Forest Service Forest Inventory and Analysis program, essentially the nation’s forest census, is the first work to demonstrate the clear cause-andeffect relationship between increased forest utilisation and overall forest growth. What this data tells us is that, unlike the static models used in analyses like the Chatham House report, which does not incorporate forest economics into their predictions, forest harvests do not lead to forest depletion. Instead, it shows us the opposite: the more wood we use, the more wood we grow.

For each ton of biomass harvested from the forest, more than a ton of biomass regrows, and this regrowth more than offsets any emissions created when the biomass is combusted. This is what the climate sees.

The science is clear and unambiguous: bioenergy displaces fossil emissions and increased harvest leads to increased forest sequestration, both of which reduce carbon in the atmosphere on a lifecycle basis.

Enviva has shown that, at scale, we can improve transparency and enhance forest stewardship, helping to raise the standards for the entire forest products industry. Our proprietary Track & Trace data system enables us to provide unmatched transparency about the origins the wood we source directly from the forest. Track & Trace is just one of the initiatives we have implemented to ensure that we go above and beyond the requirements of third-party certification schemes to ensure that we are sourcing wood in a way that is consistent with the value we place on the forest.

The real policy debate around biomass is how we can ensure a practical, robust solution to our shared climate crisis that takes full advantage of all of the tools at our disposal without falling prey to unsubstantiated claims about sustainability and carbon emissions. Let’s work together to ensure the best outcome for the people, the environment and the climate.

Jennifer Jenkins is chief sustainability officer at Enviva.