Getting biofuels wrong, wrong, wrong

The European Parliament is about to decide whether to stop counting forest biomass as a “green fuel”, that is, fuel having no global warming impact, and restricting that status to residues and wastes. This is important because their current rules do not assign a carbon cost to whole trees harvested for fuel and burned.  The theory behind the current rule is that the tree got its carbon from the air, but it’s deeply absurd; coal got its carbon from the air too. Forests store a lot of carbon, and putting it into the atmosphere is very much like burning fossil fuel; trees may be replanted and then may be allowed to regrow and recapture carbon, but for the decades that takes, the carbon from the harvest is in the air warming the planet.

Do you live in the EU? Know people who do? Find your MEPs here and give them a heads up, as the authors of the letter at the bottom of this page have done. This is important.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

4 thoughts on “Getting biofuels wrong, wrong, wrong”

  1. Suppose your forests have been sustainably managed since 1300, which is more or less the case in France. Annual carbon fixation is therefore in balance with carbon cut down. If the wood is burnt, the carbon is released instantly: but the forest is still carbon-neutral. Should I feel guilty about burning olive logs in my closed stove? Olives have been grown here for 2,000 years. They aren't grown for wood, it's just a byproduct of the replanting cycle.

    If the trees are turned into paper, the carbon release is delayed by maybe five years. If construction timber, a century – see our joint plea for more of this a few years ago. Burning as fuel loses the valuable delay. Since reafforestation is the only shovel-ready technology for carbon sequestration, it's important not to throw it away on second best.

    The immediate problem is that wood pellets burnt by the shipload at Drax come from plantations in the US Southeast where there is no guarantee of sustainable management.

    I'll write to a Spanish MEP. Unfortunately it's a national party list system, so there is no constituency link – a terrible system.

  2. I expect the carbon cycle for the US Southeast is two decades, not much longer, so that argument doesn't seem applicable. Even for trees with longer regrow periods, that's nothing as compared to coal. I think this argument needs some refinement.

    The non-climate-related sustainability of forests in the US Southeast is another question – monocrop forests etc., but they could be managed better and still be a fuel source.

    More generally, bioenergy plus carbon sequestration is one of the few viable possibilities for negative carbon emissions. I wouldn't rule out bioenergy so quickly.

    1. The scientists' letter compares the new proposed policy encouraging wood burning with the current situation. In that perspective, it makes things worse. Increasing the wood pellet production from existing plantations in Georgia is part of that. Your "bit of both" scenario only works for new plantations. To which I would say, why not plant for timber to get the economic incentive? In Brazil. that's 40 years to cutting, plus sequestration for as long as the timber house or table stays in use. Any commercial plantation generates burnable biomass from intermediate thinnings and branches at final cut. If you are going for biomass directly, the best method is IIRC in temperate latitudes is coppicing, which doesn't generate timber.

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