That means Enviva isn’t just cleaning up around the edges of the logging industry—it’s increasing demand for wood in the South. And that means additional trees would need to be logged to feed the paper mills that are losing trees to Enviva; the increased demand for pulpwood will require an increased supply of pulpwood. Even if new trees are planted in their place, many studies suggest they will take decades, and in some cases centuries, to absorb enough carbon to “pay back” the carbon debt from burning the older trees. That’s a problem, because scientists don’t believe the world can wait decades, much less centuries, to cut emissions. So at a time when global demand for pulpwood is already rising, the U.S. is already the top supplier, and the world is supposed to be expanding its carbon sinks to avoid climate calamities, the green-sounding technology of bioenergy is pulling even more carbon-rich wood out of U.S. forests.
Timothy Searchinger, a Princeton University climate expert who helped organize the letter from scientists and economists, points out that the reason Americans recycle their paper and cardboard instead of incinerating it is to help save pulpwood. They probably don’t think they’re saving trees so they can be logged, crushed, shipped across the Atlantic and incinerated in Europe.
“There’s no reason to go through the trouble to recycle to save trees and then go ahead and burn the trees,” Searchinger said.
IS RENEWABLE ALWAYS GREEN?
The rapid growth of biomass power over the past decade is in part a story about the unintended consequences of the arcane accounting rules that countries use to track their progress toward global climate goals.
It’s complicated, but the United Nations basically set up global reporting rules that were designed to avoid double-counting emissions, and inadvertently ended up making it easy not to count the emissions at all. In theory, countries were allowed to ignore the emissions from burning wood in power plants as long as they counted the emissions from logging the wood in forests. In practice, countries have let their power plants burn wood without counting the emissions anywhere, which has made biomass seem as climate-friendly as wind or solar.
As a result, European nations with renewable energy mandates have poured money into biomass plants that claim to provide round-the-clock zero-emissions power. The gigantic Drax facility in England, which was the U.K.’s largest coal plant before it switched most of its operations to wood pellets, receives well over $1 billion worth of annual subsidies. For now, the U.S. is merely supplying the wood, but if Biden and the Democratic majority in Congress succeed in enacting similar renewable energy mandates, and wood-burning is still deemed inherently carbon neutral, the U.S. could see a similar boom in biomass power plants.
Biden has set a goal of a net-zero nation by 2050, and Enviva officials suggested that I should look into a recent Princeton study of a net-zero America, because it envisioned scenarios where biomass could produce as much as 5 percent of U.S. electricity by 2050. When I spoke to Eric Larson, a senior research engineer on the study, he cautioned that most of those scenarios assumed the biomass would come from residues. “We’re certainly not talking about using pulpwood,” Larson says. In any case, the study didn’t exactly support the biomass industry: It found that for the next decade, the best way to reduce power-sector emissions would be to build as much wind and solar as possible.
In a way, the whole argument boils down to what we actually need from our future energy sources: Just because biomass is renewable doesn’t mean that it’s better for the climate. Congress did insert language into a budget bill stipulating that biomass should be considered carbon neutral as long as America’s forest stocks are stable or increasing, but that had less to do with climate math or science than the forestry industry’s strong bipartisan support on Capitol Hill. The anti-biomass documentary Burned features a clip of Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine, the sponsor of the language, repeating talking points from an industry group’s website almost verbatim on the Senate floor.
Even some defenders of the industry acknowledge that carbon neutrality is a stretch. When I asked Enviva to suggest experts to explain the importance of biomass power, the company suggested I speak to Center for Climate and Energy Solutions president Bob Perciasepe, who was Obama’s deputy EPA administrator and co-authored that pro-biomass op-ed with Biden senior agricultural official Robert Bonnie. Perciasepe did endorse modest amounts of biomass to replace coal, but he also called the industry’s notion that biomass power is inherently carbon neutral “just wrong.”
“I’d say the people who are very enthusiastic should temper their enthusiasm, just as the opponents should probably temper their opposition,” he said.
The enthusiasts acknowledge that the case for biomass power is a lot more complex than the grow-trees-don’t-burn-trees mantra of their opponents. To understand it, they say, you need to understand how trees are grown today, and you can’t miss the forest for the trees.