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Climate, Energy, and Forests: The Need for a Comprehensive Strategy
by V. Alaric Sample

Biogas fermenter, wind turbine and photovoltaics on a farm in Germany. Credit Florian Gerlach (Nawaro), CC BY-SA 3.0On June 2, the US EPA released its long-awaited proposed federal regulations aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions from electric power plants to 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. The actual mechanisms by which these reductions are to be achieved are left to individual states to decide. California and states in the Northeast will move forward more assertively with their existing carbon cap-and-trade programs, and other states may join them. Some states may opt for a carbon tax. Most every state is likely to adopt President Obama’s unofficial national energy policy of an “all of the above” strategy in terms of shifts toward wind energy, solar power, biomass, natural gas, and other reduced-carbon energy sources.

Reflecting some of the key findings in the 2014 National Climate Assessment, EPA’s proposed rule notes specifically that “biomass-derived fuels can play an important role in CO2 emission reduction strategies,” perhaps offering a glimpse into the agency’s development of an accounting framework for biogenic carbon emissions, due later this year:

“The plant growth associated with producing many of the biomass-derived fuels can, to varying degrees for different biomass feedstocks, sequester carbon from the atmosphere. For example, America’s forests currently play a critical role in addressing carbon pollution, removing nearly 12 percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions each year. As a result, broadly speaking, burning biomass-derived fuels for energy recovery can yield climate benefits as compared to burning conventional fossil fuels . . . Many states have recognized the importance of forests and other lands for climate resilience and mitigation and have developed a variety of different sustainable forestry policies, renewable energy incentives and standards and greenhouse gas accounting procedures. Because of the positive attributes of certain biomass-derived fuels, the EPA also recognizes that biomass-derived fuels can play an important role in CO2 emission reduction strategies. We anticipate that states likely will consider biomass-derived fuels in energy production as a way to mitigate the CO2 emissions attributed to the energy sector and include them as part of their plans to meet the emission reduction requirements of this rule and we think it is important to define a clear path for states to do so.”
The conservation community has always been of two minds about the potential role of wood biomass in the nation’s future energy portfolio. Substituting renewable wood biomass energy for fossil fuels while maintaining the overall volume of carbon stored in forest ecosystems can help achieve significant net reductions in carbon emissions over time. In addition to helping reduce the nation’s dependence on fossil fuels, factoring biomass energy into existing sustainable forestry programs can help improve the resiliency of forest ecosystems to the effects of climate change. On private lands, expanding markets for thinned materials and wood waste helps improve the economics of forest conservation in the face of increasing development pressures. On public lands, markets for wood biomass could help offset at least some of the costs of forest restoration and hazardous fuels treatments urgently needed to reduce wildfire risks, or to enable forests to better withstand the increased vulnerability to insects and pathogens that comes with prolonged droughts and temperature stresses.

 On the other hand, there are concerns over “too much of a good thing”—new biomass energy facilities that, when added to existing forest industry and other sources of wood demand, begin having unacceptable impacts on wildlife habitat, biodiversity, water, and other essential values and environmental services provided by ecologically-intact forest ecosystems. Limiting the development of any new biomass energy capacity in the US is seen by some as the surest means of avoiding these potential impacts.

Since the passage of the Energy Independence and Security Act in 2007, which established highly ambitious goals for “advanced biofuels” including cellulosic ethanol from wood, the Pinchot Institute has led a series of studies focused on ensuring forest sustainability as the use of wood for energy increases. These studies have carefully examined the implications of using wood biomass for electric power generation here in the US; they have also considered trends in Europe and other regions of the world that import large—and rapidly increasing—quantities of wood pellets derived from US forests. Almost monthly, there are announcements of new wood pellet manufacturing and export facilities to be constructed in the US, many of them with a capacity of 500,000 tons or more annually. Where these planned facilities are located—and where their wood comes from—will have important implications for local forest ecosystems and economies, as well the nation’s climate and energy strategy.

The Pinchot Institute remains committed to working with all interests in the development of sustainable sourcing programs that conserve and protect the nation’s forests, even as wood biomass plays an increasing role in climate and energy strategy. American and European interests are both approaching this from their own perspectives—and they are finding more common ground than anyone expected, as described in recent Pinchot Institute reports. Existing regional biomass harvesting guidelines, best management practices (BMPs), and various forest certification programs will all play a role in facilitating a better understanding by all parties for what is at stake, and coming to agreement on an achievable pathway to clearly defined objectives. Ultimately, everyone shares a common goal—improving environmental sustainability in all of its dimensions. This can be achieved only through an intelligent, comprehensive, and good-faith effort by the full range of stakeholders, each of them committed to finding solutions that address society’s parallel needs in mitigating climate change, shifting to renewable energy sources, and sustaining forests for all the other essential values and environmental services they provide.
 
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