New NRDC video animation shows risks of burning trees for energy

Our forests work hard for us every day, absorbing and storing vast amounts of carbon. This makes forests one of our best defenses against global warming, one we Americans rely on to offset 13% of our annual greenhouse gas emissions each year.

Unfortunately, power companies are increasingly turning to our forests for fuel, and they try to get away with it by claiming that trees are a “sustainable” and “carbon neutral” source of biomass.  But trees are not the same as perennial grasses or harvest residues that can either regrow quickly, would otherwise be burned in the field, or are not needed for other purposes. We need trees.  And we need full grown trees because saplings require decades of care before they can absorb the same amount of carbon dioxide as full grown trees. 

As if that weren’t reason enough, the science is also clear that harvesting and burning whole trees for energy will result in as much if not more carbon emissions than burning coal for decades.  But our policies have all too often not kept pace with science, and EPA’s current policy fails to differentiate between the good, the bad, and the ugly when it comes to biomass and threatening our forests.

Let’s dig a little deeper: power companies and the forest industry sell the idea of burning trees as a renewable alternative to fossil fuels like coal with a simple argument: Trees grow back, right?  So how can burning trees not be better in terms of carbon pollution than burning coal?

I briefly explained the answer up above, but to fully understand it requires an explanation of the forest carbon cycle— not exactly most peoples’ idea of a good time. To help make what can be a wonky issue a bit more accessible, NRDC is releasing a new fact sheet today, along with a video animation showing what happens to the balance of carbon between and forest and the atmosphere when we burn forests to produce energy instead of allowing them to keep their day jobs—as massive carbon storage facilities. 

As the video shows, just like coal, when trees are burned in power plants, the carbon they have accumulated over long periods of time is released into the atmosphere. But unlike coal, trees will continue to absorb carbon if left alone. So burning forests for energy not only emits a lot of carbon, but also degrades our carbon sinks. Taken together, this creates a “carbon debt”—an increase in carbon pollution over the fossil fuel alternative—and forests can take decades to repay this debt, even if they are replanted immediately and managed carefully.

NRDC believes we must quickly transition from burning dirty fossil fuels like coal for energy to renewable resources like wind, solar, and low-carbon sources of biomass that can scale up sustainably and deliver real carbon savings. We cannot afford to wait multiple decades for biopower systems to start delivering carbon benefits.

But burning the worst forms of biomass, such as whole trees, will take us in the wrong direction, increasing carbon pollution at a time when we can least afford to. To avoid this, we need policies that differentiate between biomass that delivers carbon benefits soon—for example, sustainably produced energy crops like switchgrass grown on non-forested land—and unsustainable forms of biomass, like whole trees. Only biomass that is carefully chosen, grown responsibly, and efficiently converted into energy can reduce carbon pollution and other emissions compared to fossil fuels.

For more information and to tell Congress that our forests aren’t fuel, go to: http://www.nrdc.org/energy/forestsnotfuel/ .

About the Authors

Sasha Stashwick

Senior Advocate, Energy & Transportation and Food & Agriculture programs

Join Us