Climate Forests


Last week’s epic essay by Bill McKibben in the New Yorker was followed up by his weekly newsletter, in which he mentions the organization above. Visit and see what they are doing. And the newsletter is a useful footnote to the essay:

…It argues that the time has come for us to end—after 200,000 years—the central place of combustion in human affairs, and rely instead on the fact there’s a flaming ball of gas hanging 93 million miles away in the sky. I won’t repeat the argument here, but I do want to extend it a little.

I concentrated mostly on coal, oil, and gas in my essay, devoting only a paragraph to the burning of biomass—trees, often—to generate power. But there’s a very real chance that cutting down forests and feeding them into power plants could grow dramatically. If coal is an 18th century technology, then burning wood is a 12th century technology—12th century BCE. It sounded appealing ten or fifteen years ago, because people reasoned that if you cut a tree another would grow in its place, eventually absorbing the carbon. But as Bill Schlesinger, the former dean of Duke’s School of the Environment, lays out in a recent piece, the math simply doesn’t work—by the time that tree grows back, the carbon emitted will have helped break the climate system.

Wood containing 43,730 tons of carbon could be obtained from the harvest of 875 acres of land with 40-year-old trees.  Granted, a young forest replanted on this land would take up more carbon each year than the old forest it replaced, but it would take 40 years of regrowth to recapture the carbon from the harvest. Thus, until the year 2062, a harvest in 2022 would leave a legacy of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. And, of course, the harvest would be repeated on another 875 acres in 2023.  This is not a particularly helpful contribution to net zero emissions by 2050 and to reducing carbon dioxide emissions during the period of greatest impact on future climate.

The power of the “forest products” industry has so far been sufficient to ward off common sense, both here and in Europe. But people are fighting back. In Massachusetts, advocates from a hundred different groups have come together in a campaign to to ban subsidies for biomass burning. In Europe—where biomass is big business (and where many of the trees cut in the U.S. end up—activists have gone to court to try and force the EU to re-evaluate its policies.

Read the whole newsletter, and/or subscribe to it here.

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