Is carbon-neutrality a magic and straightforward solution?

Carbon neutrality is a word that often appears in discussions about climate change. It refers to achieving a balance between emitting carbon and absorbing carbon from the atmosphere in carbon sinks. A carbon sink is any system that absorbs more carbon than it emits and the main natural carbon sinks are forests, oceans, and soil.

In order to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius–a threshold the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) suggests is safe–carbon neutrality by the mid-21st century is essential. Yet, it may not be enough, we might need to find solutions where we can remove carbon dioxide from the air to ensure that global warming does not reach the 1.5 degrees Celsius threshold. At the moment there are no artificial solutions to natural carbon sinks that can remove carbon from the atmosphere on the scale to fight global changes.

It is tempting to look for simple solutions to combat climate change. A switch to burning wood as pellets appears to offer a simple and in theory carbon-neutral alternative to coal-fired power stations. Trees take up carbon dioxide from the air as they grow and as long as the burned trees are replaced with new plantings, there is no net addition to the stock of carbon in the atmosphere.

Replacing coal, one of the world’s biggest sources of carbon emissions, with cleaner sources of power such as pellets made from trees may seem like an ultra-solution. It is regarded as a sustainable solution but it takes many decades for the process of carbon take-up to work and burning wood actually releases more carbon dioxide per unit of energy compared to burning gas, oil, and what may seem surprising even coal. Thus, burning wood pellets means that we accelerate carbon dioxide in short term and it could mean that it is impossible to meet the Paris Agreement goal of keeping the global heating below well 2 degrees Celsius and working towards limiting the temperature increase fur than 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Is Biomass a great Economic Opportunity?

In 2009, biomass energy was classified as carbon-neutral and the demand for energy from wood as an alternative to coal took off when EU obliged member states to source 20 percent of their energy from renewable sources by 2020. Sadly, according to to Goodhart’s law: “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.”

Using what can be described as low-quality wood to make biomass could be seen as an economic opportunity. Yet, unless the other factors are analysed as well it is tempting to only explore economic considerations. Several other aspects need to be explored such as the ecological or cultural value of trees.

Subsidies and taxes

Subsidies and tax exemptions have been used to support the use of biomass. Now, these are being scrutinized and voices are raised to cease the carbon-tax exemptions for biomass in the UK.

According to the Ember report: “ Policymakers and investors considering biomass generation must become familiar with the concept of ‘carbon debt’–that biomass emissions released into the atmosphere today create an immediate spike that may not be sequestered by growing forest for many decades. ¨

“The Paris Agreement requires reductions over much shorter timescales, meaning biomass generation should pay a carbon tax proportional to its carbon impact over these timescales.”

Management Thinking

Trees are not cut down specifically to be turned into pellets. Biomass is made of materials that are not suitable for other industries, for example, high-quality logs for sawmills or the plywood industry.

The benefits of using biomass “can only be realised if biomass feedstock is sourced responsibly and takes into account impacts on life cycle carbon emissions, land use change, soil, water and air quality and the living conditions of those involved in the supply chain”, says Biomass and Sustainability

For example, a properly managed forest can boost carbon stock as the younger, faster growing trees that are replanted after felling absorb more CO2 than older, over-mature trees. Thinning operations also increase the growth of the biggest and best trees, ensuring more carbon is stored in longer term solid wood products.

Generators should be able to demonstrate they are avoiding biomass sourced from higher-risk areas where extracting biomass could cause long-term carbon stock decreases in soils or ecosystems, and other factors such as biodiversity loss, soil erosion or depletion of water sources.

A way forward

Carbon-neutrality is not a straightforward solution. Rather, we need to deliberate the risks involved with any solutions where we try to solve problems related to climate change. It is easy to use a similar type of thinking that lead to the problems with climate change.

Economic benefits such as subsidiaries are tempting to use but we need to ensure that the risks involved with any solution are carefully explored.

Using sustainably managed forests to combat climate change is not as simple as it might first sound.

Photo by Daria Shevtsova from Pexels and Photo by Trace Hudson from Pexels

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