One of the major causes of the increasing carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere is deforestation. We chop down about 15 billion trees each year. Over time, our activities have reduced the number of trees on earth by about 50%. We do plant trees – these days, about 9 billion a year. It is a substantial number, but still leaves a net loss of 6 billion trees annually.
Deforestation is one of the largest contributors to climate change. Forests cover about 30% of the world’s land area and are a crucial sink for carbon dioxide. Over time, we have been steadily reducing the amount of forest in the world to obtain wood and timber, open up farmland, build towns and cities, produce paper, make palm oil, and mine for minerals.
Many power plants in Europe and elsewhere are replacing coal with wood. For example, the Drax Power Station in Britain was its largest coal-burning plant and is now using wood pellets shipped from the southern U.S. in its boilers. According to the carbon accounting rules at the EU and elsewhere, the process is considered to be “carbon neutral.” But is it?
The idea is that new trees are being planted in the forests where the trees are cut to be burned in power plants. So, there is carbon neutrality. In principle.
European countries have embarked on a massive effort to switch to generating power from renewable energy. While there has indeed been major growth in wind and solar power in the 28 countries of the European Union, much of the new “green” power has come from burning wood in converted coal power stations.
A group of 200 scientists wrote to the EU last September insisting that bioenergy from forest biomass is not carbon neutral and that there must be tighter rules to protect forests and their carbon. Wood burning has become a loophole in controlling carbon emissions.
There are problems with the claims of carbon neutrality. There is no way to know whether enough new trees are actually being planted to replace those being burned. And then there is the time lag for tree replacement. Trees don’t grow overnight. There are also the carbon emissions associated with harvesting, processing and transporting wood.
There are most certainly ways in which burning biomass can be carbon neutral and can represent real progress over the use of fossil fuels. But caution must be taken to avoid exploiting loopholes in current climate rules that might actually result in increased carbon emissions.
Photo, posted April 26, 2014, courtesy of Flickr.