Burning sustainably harvested wood pellets emits far less carbon than burning coal or gas. That’s the main reason why it should be used in the global energy transition, argues Jennifer Jenkins at Enviva. Coal is declining, but not fast enough. Gas consumption is rising. Forest biomass can more easily be swapped in than wind and solar to provide dispatchable power. But it must be done sustainably. Referencing her white paper, Jenkins sets out the principles for sustainable harvesting, the most obvious being that the forest stocks remain stable or increase. She emphasises that not all forest biomass is sustainable. That’s why strict rules should govern what is allowed and how it is done. But to exclude all biomass from clean energy support would be a mistake, says Jenkins.
Studies have shown that sustainably sourced wood pellets reduce GHG emissions by more than 85% on a lifecycle basis compared to coal and by more than 70% compared to natural gas. However, tension still persists across the policy and scientific landscape about the utility of sustainable biomass in the transition to a low-carbon economy. There is some vocal opposition to the use of biomass as a replacement for fossil fuels in some quarters.
On the other hand, some leading scientists have broadly included bioenergy with and without carbon capture and storage (from forest and non-forest feedstocks) as a replacement for fossil energy as a key element in scenarios to meet mid-century decarbonisation targets and to stabilise the increase in global temperatures.
The full picture of woody biomass cannot be assessed without considering the forestry and energy sectors together. International authorities such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) continue to warn that we remain off track in phasing out fossil fuel use if we are to limit global warming and meet mid-century targets to achieve net- zero emissions. These same experts find that bioenergy (from both forest and non-forest sources) can play a significant role.
Forest biomass complements wind and solar, whose intermittency requires dispatchable generation to ensure the grid meets demand at all times. Forest biomass displaces fossil fuels in the heating sector, where fewer non-fossil alternatives are available.
Sustainably harvested forest biomass
Again, not all forest biomass is an appropriate low-carbon solution. However, we believe that forest biomass that is sustainably harvested from forest landscapes with stable or increasing carbon stocks can serve as an important low-carbon substitute for fossil fuels.
In our view, because of the urgency of the climate problem, arguments for the removal or significant restriction of any of the tools relied upon in these decarbonisation pathways (whether it be nuclear power, hydropower, or forest biomass) face a high burden of proof. Even with all of the tools in these pathways available, the world is well behind the pace of decarbonisation we need, in large part because we are failing to rapidly phase out the use of fossil fuels.
We do not believe that any and all forest biomass should be used for energy. Others believe that it is rarely (if ever) an appropriate energy source. We believe that somewhere between these extremes lies a science-based, environmentally responsible approach that can effectively contribute to mitigating climate change, and we explore that in the whitepaper “Seeing the Forest: Sustainable Wood Bioenergy in the Southeast United States.”
As the world’s largest producer of industrial wood pellets, Enviva’s aforementioned white paper discusses the sustainability, scientific, and economic principles that underpin our business. The predominant source for Enviva’s wood is the privately-owned working forests across the U.S. Southeast that are managed at the landscape scale to provide a steady stream of forest products over time.
Enviva’s sustainably sourced wood pellets are used as fuel to displace fossil fuels used for power and heating in markets around the world. We recognise that the use of forest biomass can be controversial, so our goal in publishing “Seeing the Forest” white paper was to share insights about the ways in which our business respects both forest management and mitigating climate change objectives.
Forest biomass principles
The white paper organises our analysis around the following six points, and we believe that the right policies and positions on forest biomass should take each into account:
- Wind and solar alone cannot solve our energy sector needs; we also need dispatchable and reliable non-fossil energy generation.
- Not all forest biomass is appropriate for energy production, but the best policy approach will enable a scalable use of forest biomass that does not contribute net greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions over the near or long term while protecting the health and growth of forests.
- Essentially, all wood used to produce bioenergy needs to pass a litmus test: Are the carbon stocks on the forest landscape where the wood is sourced going up, going down, or staying the same over time? If stocks are stable or increasing, that means the amount of wood and carbon in that landscape are steady or growing year over year while sustainable harvests are occurring in that very same landscape.
- The climate is not concerned about national boundaries or individual country carbon accounting per se, as much as it is with the net GHG emissions to the atmosphere over relevant time frames from both the energy and the land sectors.
- Assessments of the impact of forest bioenergy use on carbon stocks that focus on a single tree or stand do not provide an accurate assessment of net GHG emissions over the near or long term.
- The generally accepted carbon accounting treatment for biomass – in other words, how stack emissions of CO2 are treated when biomass energy is used to help countries meet their emissions targets – does not automatically treat biomass as carbon neutral. Instead, it is tied to the carbon stock status of the forest landscape where the wood is sourced.
- One should not assess the net carbon impact of forest biomass sourced from privately owned working forests (like those in the U.S. Southeast) without considering the economics of that ownership and the feedbacks on land-use decisions. In general, the robust market for forest products drives forest growth and economic activity.
- Forest biomass production in the U.S. Southeast, where Enviva sources all of its wood, has the following attributes:
- Harvest decisions are not driven by biomass demand.
- Entire mature forest stands are not being clear-cut for pellets.
- Biodiversity protections can prevent — and are preventing — the loss of sensitive forests.
- There is no evidence that biomass harvest is depleting soil carbon.
We embrace the urgency with which the global community must address climate change. The challenge is immense and meeting it will require unprecedented commitment on the part of individuals, nations, and corporations. The outlook for 2030 is presently not very encouraging and requires better solutions and actions, with global coal consumption slowing but not yet rapidly decreasing, and with natural gas use soaring. However, despite slow progress thus far, groups like the IPCC confirm that the tools we have at our disposal today and in the near future are sufficient to address climate change. What’s important is that we use these tools in the ways that are appropriate to achieve these aggressive goals.
Jennifer Jenkins is Vice President and Chief Sustainability Officer at Enviva