Biomass — fuel derived from growing things like trees and other plants — has long enjoyed a reputation as a clean, green and renewable alternative to fossil fuels. That green reputation, however, is tarnishing — and rightly so. The latest science shows that burning biomass for energy emits more carbon dioxide than coal and gas per megawatt-hour. This is because wood is much less energy dense than coal, so you have to burn a lot more of it to produce the same amount of electricity. And even though burned trees might grow back someday — or the wood used for energy might otherwise have decomposed — it can take decades or even centuries to recapture or offset the initial emissions increase caused by biomass burning.
We must move away from fossil fuels quickly, but swapping gas and coal for wood may only be making the climate crisis worse.
As more and more biomass power plants come online, the widespread conversion of native forests and croplands for biofuel production threatens both biodiversity and human food supplies. American forests will come under incredible pressure to generate fuel, further degrading habitat and water quality in forest lands across the country.
Biomass energy is also just plain dirty. Inefficient, costly wood-fired boilers spew particulate matter, nitrogen oxides and other dangerous air pollutants that exacerbate chronic respiratory health problems and damage ecosystems.
Climate scientists are warning that global emissions must decline to near-zero within the next few decades if we wish to avoid the very worst impacts of climate change. This is precisely the period during which today’s biomass burning is certain to increase global CO2 concentrations. Burning biomass thus makes no sense as a strategy for dealing with global warming. Instead of looking for more things to burn, we should be focused on clean-energy options like wind and solar.
The Center for Biological Diversity, in coalition with other advocates from coast to coast, is pushing back against the biomass juggernaut. We’ve begun by tackling the longstanding myth that biomass is “carbon neutral.” This industry argument claims that CO2 emissions from burning biomass don’t actually affect the atmosphere because the plants may grow back or because they would have died and decayed anyway. A plethora of recent scientific articles and studies have demolished this myth, demonstrating that even when biomass is burned as a substitute for fossil fuels, the resulting CO2 emissions may actually be worse for decades or even centuries to come.
The Center’s achievements in debunking the “carbon-neutral” biomass myth began when we successfully challenged statements in the Environmental Protection Agency’s annual greenhouse gas inventory claiming that biomass is carbon neutral. After we filed a petition under a little-known federal law called the Data Quality Act, the EPA quietly removed carbon neutrality assertions from its latest inventory.
Working with allies, the Center won a major legal victory in 2013 when we convinced a federal court of appeals to invalidate an EPA rule that unlawfully exempted biomass CO2 emissions from crucial Clean Air Act permitting programs. And we’ve reviewed dozens of air permits, submitted comments on a wide range of biomass facilities, and initiated challenges to particular biomass plants in order to head off threats to the climate and our forests. Our message has been consistent: Government and industry must account honestly for the carbon emissions and climate impacts of biomass facilities — not perpetuate the baseless falsehood that biomass helps in the fight against climate change, when it in fact could be a significant factor, in these critically important next few years, in pushing us past the point of no return.