Florida Pine Forest — Photo: Kim Seng/flickr/Creative Commons

Carbon Neutral Carbon

An Open Letter to Unity College

Written by: Brett Leuenberger

Everyone knows Unity College takes its sustainability seriously. In lieu of burning fossil fuels, they actively use woody biomass for campus heating. Unity College also ascribes that woody biomass is a carbon neutral renewable energy source and that discipline is part of the curriculum taught in the Sustainable Energy Management (SEM) program. I commend Unity College for continuing to implement sustainability science as an integral part of its education framework and pursuing energy standards that work toward achieving a zero-emissions campus. I’m especially pleased that Unity College recently recognized the carbon accounting issues of woody biomass, and chose not to install wood pellet boilers in the three newest buildings on campus and has no plans for future wood pellet heating systems. However, I’m still concerned about two things; the ongoing environmental impacts of using the existing wood pellet boilers, and how Unity College will define the use of woody biomass in its future SEM program.

President Emeritus of International Environmental Policy at Tufts University and lead author of three Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Reports, Dr. William Moomaw, and Danna Smith, Executive Director of Dogwood Alliance, both assert in their recent report, The Great American Stand, that the growing scientific evidence supports burning woody biomass is actually increasing atmospheric CO2 and contributing to global climate change.

The primary reason the woody biomass industry claims they are carbon neutral is because trees can be regrown to offset their carbon emissions. There are two major problems with this assumption. First and foremost, re-growing trees doesn’t negate the scientific fact that the CO2 emissions from woody biomass are effectively working as a greenhouse gas and contributing to global warming. The “we can grow more trees” position is weak science and allows the biomass industry to greenwash natural tree growth as their environmental prize. Secondly, trees take mere minutes to burn and decades to regrow, creating an ongoing cycle of carbon debt (CO2 emissions) that will amplify global climate change. That’s precious time we don’t have; in fact, according to NOAA, our global CO2 emissions have steadily increased nearly 25% over the past 50 years. Dr. Mary Booth of Partnership for Policy Integrity illustrates a perfect example of how easily carbon debt can accumulate with woody biomass emissions.

Seldom talked about and most important, bioenergy, which includes woody biomass, is the only renewable energy that exacerbates ocean acidification. I recently interviewed Dr. Lawrence Mayer, renowned ocean acidification researcher, marine scientist and Professor of Oceanography at Darling Marine Center at The University of Maine. I asked him, “I noticed here in Maine that we use a lot of woody biomass for renewable energy; is that adding to ocean acidification?” Dr. Mayer resounded, “It does in a sense that if a log was ordinarily going to decay over the course of several tens of years, as you would naturally see in a forest, and instead you chop it up and bring it home and burn it up in a week — then what you’ve done is focused that production of carbon dioxide into a shorter timescale.” In the name of renewable energy, woody biomass is unwittingly accelerating ocean acidification. Considering the economic importance of Maine’s local seafood economy and the fact that in 2014, 92% of Maine’s Class-1 Renewables came directly from biomass; we need to scientifically assess the environmental impacts woody biomass energy has on local ocean acidification levels within the Gulf of Maine.

If a log was ordinarily going to decay over the course of several tens of years, as you would naturally see in a forest, and instead you chop it up and burn it in a week — then what you’ve done is focused that production of carbon dioxide into a shorter timescale. Mayer

Here is what Bill McKibben had to say about woody biomass in a recent Grist article, Burning trees for electricity is a bad idea, “If you burn a tree, you put a lot of carbon into the atmosphere right away, trapping heat at precisely the moment that we desperately need to be cooling the earth. A slowly growing new tree won’t suck it all back up until after we’ve broken the back of the climate.” Noteworthy author and environmentalist, Bill McKibben is the founder of 350.org and his Seattle team was recently instrumental in lobbying with Waxman Strategies, MightyEarth.org, and Oregon Sierra Club to help remove Senator Collins’ controversial “biomass is carbon neutral” amendment in the 2016 proposed U.S. energy bill.

If you burn a tree, you put a lot of carbon into the atmosphere right away, trapping heat at precisely the moment that we desperately need to be cooling the earth. McKibben

Even our President Emeritus of Unity College, Dr. Stephen Mulkey, recently spoke out against woody biomass energy with his Medium post, Switching from whiskey to beer and the false promise of woody biomass. Dr. Mulkey declares, “Imagine that we have decided to denude the Earth of trees, using wood rather than coal to produce electricity, and not replant the trees. Because burning wood releases more CO2 than coal to produce the same energy, the carbon emissions from these power plants would vastly increase the greenhouse gas burden of the atmosphere and accelerate the warming of our planet. Without the regrowth of these trees on a timescale that compensates for the rate of burning, we would rapidly make climate change much worse.” Dr. Mulkey has carefully reviewed the science and concluded that using woody biomass energy poses a direct threat to our climate.

Because burning wood releases more CO2 than coal to produce the same energy, the carbon emissions from these power plants would vastly increase the greenhouse gas burden of the atmosphere and accelerate the warming of our planet. Mulkey

Local U.S. forestry analyst and the founder of Maine Low-Impact Forestry Project, Mitch Lansky, wrote about forest biomass in a recent MOFGA article, Managing Maine’s Forests for the Double Bottom Line. Lansky points out, “Forests sequester carbon through photosynthesis. Most of the sequestered carbon is either on or under the soil surface… Mycorrhizal fungi are a major factor in bringing carbon to lower soil levels, according to new research. The fungi help tree roots get more water and nutrients; in return trees provide carbon for the fungi.” Lansky reveals more, “Biomass markets create incentives for heavier cutting… Cutting small trees that could become sawlogs later is a carbon issue, because lumber sequesters carbon in buildings, while burning biomass instantly releases CO2 to the atmosphere.” Acclaimed forest ecologist, Suzanne Simard’s Ted-Talk, How Trees Talk to Each Other reaffirms Lansky’s position that maintaining healthy forests, which accumulate abundant deep soil carbon, is a natural way to combat global climate change.

Mycorrhizal fungi are a major factor in bringing carbon to lower soil levels. The fungi help tree roots get more water and nutrients; in return trees provide carbon for the fungi. Lansky

Our atmosphere and oceans have reached their carbon tipping point, and until we can dramatically reduce our CO2 emissions, they will continue to warm our planet and acidify our oceans. The one place where we can safely remediate and naturally sequester excess CO2 is in our biosphere, storing it as terrestrial carbon. At a time when we need to desperately remove as much CO2 as possible; burning woody biomass is harmfully releasing all of its stored carbon back into the atmosphere and advancing global warming. Ultimately, when burning woody biomass for energy or heat, the overarching ethical question all of us should be asking ourselves; how is growing our carbon emissions any better than mining our carbon emissions? Carbon is carbon. Our atmosphere makes no distinction between the harmful greenhouse gas effects of carbon grown yesterday or millions of years ago.

As an extractive society, our economic and energy activities have caused land use changes that intensify deforestation and degrade soil quality while inadvertently interrupt the natural cycle of carbon reclamation. Our leaders are willing to spend billions of dollars on questionable carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies that prop up the continued use of coal and woody biomass as a means to meet global climate emission goals. Our forests and organic farmlands provide a natural, cost-effective form of CCS that have the ability to sequester gigatons of atmospheric carbon while creating healthy ecosystems that foster native biodiversity. I believe the natural science of “carbon farming” plays an essential role in the future of Earth’s climate adaptation. To have any chance at mitigating the long-term effects of global climate change, we must first learn how to properly manage the carbon within our biosphere. Maintaining and returning woody biomass back to our forests and organic farmlands, as natural compost that develops deep soil carbon, is an effective part of that carbon management plan.

Our forests and organic farmlands provide a natural form of CCS that have the ability to sequester gigatons of atmospheric carbon while creating healthy ecosystems that foster native biodiversity. Leuenberger

With the recent Chatham House biomass study, Woody Biomass for Power and Heat Impacts on the Global Climate, there is now overwhelming evidence that argues woody biomass is not carbon neutral and increases global carbon emissions. As “America’s Environmental College,” I implore Unity College to help establish a biomass energy public forum that scientifically addresses the environmental impacts of using woody biomass for energy and heat. Unity College was the first to divest of fossil fuels; they should also be the first to publicly divest of woody biomass. The world is looking for guidance on how to effectively use woody biomass in their carbon reduction plans. Unity College has a golden opportunity to grow its curriculum while positioning itself as a global leader in developing advanced carbon management practices that spur new industries and jobs in forestry, agriculture, aquaculture and environmental science.