Biomass: Carbon neutral or worse than coal? Burning plants and trees to generate energy complicates CO2 equation

By Nelson Bennett
Business in Vancouver
September 14, 2022
Category: Special Feature
Region: Canada, Canada West

As of 2020, 22 per cent of Europe’s energy came from renewables. But 60 per cent of that is bioenergy – much of it wood biomass. It’s an industry that has come under intense scrutiny and criticism of late from environmentalists. …Despite what IPCC scientists say about bioenergy’s role in shifting the world’s energy generation away from fossil fuels like coal and natural gas, environmentalists say bioenergy’s climate benefits no longer add up. …As biomass energy demand grows, they say the industry is running out of wood waste and increasingly resorting to harvesting forests. BIV put that question to five scientists:

  • Generally, biomass as an energy source is much better than coal, said Joana Portugal Pereira, senior scientist for the IPCC’s Working Group 3 on Mitigation of Climate Change.  …However, there may be genuine concerns about the carbon deficit – the time it takes for regrowing trees to absorb the CO2 released on combustion. The deficit may widen the more whole lives trees are used, instead of wood waste that is already being generated through forestry anyway, especially if the forests are not sustainably managed. 
  • As long as wood waste that is already being generated is used to make wood pellets, the carbon deficit is less of an issue, said Chris Bataille, adjunct professor at Simon Fraser University and a lead author for the IPCC Working Group 3’s sixth assessment.
  • Mark Jaccard, an SFU sustainable energy economist and contributor to the sixth assessment of the IPCC Working Group 3, says, “… even if it was dedicated biomass plantations managed for soil conservation and sustained annual allowable cut, it would still be fine to use bioenergy and it would still be net-zero emission.” 

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