Carbon emissions from burning forest biomass will have real consequences for climate in the near term—and not just some distant future 100 years from now. Today, members of a Scientific Advisory Board to the US Environmental Protection Agency (the Board) affirmed this fact. The Board rejected a report that recommends flawed accounting for carbon emissions from biomass fuels.
The report, prepared by an EPA Panel on Biogenic Carbon Emissions (the Panel), spelled out recommendations to the agency on how it should evaluate the carbon emissions from power plants that burn biomass to produce electricity. It asserts that biomass emissions have no effect on climate change in the short term; only emissions that stay in the atmosphere for more than one hundred years matter. The Board's decision rebuts this premise and recognizes that forest biomass emissions can have very damaging consequences for climate change, including melting glaciers, sea level rise, disruptions to agricultural systems, and effects on human health.
The full Board was charged with conducting a "quality control" review and approval of the report. Instead, the Board voted to send the report back to the Panel asking for revisions to key recommendations that were not fully supported by the best available science. Chief among the Board's objections was the issue of "timeframe" for evaluating carbon emissions. When forest biomass is burned it releases carbon emissions to the atmosphere immediately. This excess of carbon persists in the atmosphere - lasting anywhere from several years to many decades before trees regrow and re-sequester carbon. The report suggests that these emissions have no effect on climate change in the short term. This claim was rejected by the full Board.
The full Board's position today affirms what we already know about biomass emissions: "carbon debt"—the increase in carbon pollution from forest bioenergy—is real, lasting, and damaging. The Board's decision also undercuts and discredits the assertions of National Alliance of Forest Owners—which praised the "100-year" accounting earlier this week without disclosing that the Panel's report was still a draft.
The stakes could not be higher. In August, the EPA issued its landmark Clean Power Plan (CPP) aimed at reducing emissions from stationary sources of power, including plants that burn biomass to produce electricity. The cost of getting biomass policy wrong is very high. If instead of accounting for true stack emissions, forest biomass fuel is assigned a value of zero net emissions, (or if expected reductions do not occur in the relevant CPP timeframes—for example, because trees are not replanted), the overall gains from the CPP could be significantly eroded.