Canadian Biomass Magazine

One Way or Another

November 29, 2012
By Dr. Chuck Ray

Misleading information about sustainable forestry, bioenergy and how the carbon cycle works is prevalent in society. 

Misleading information about sustainable forestry, bioenergy and how the carbon cycle works is prevalent in society.   

Information posted earlier this year on the website of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) is an example of just such misleading information and illustrates clearly the lack of understanding of forest ecosystems and the carbon cycle in general.

A video and its accompanying text on the website decry the use of forest harvesting for biomass energy. However, the organization admits, “Biomass can be harvested and utilized in ways that reduce pollution and protect forest habitats, but only with sustainability safeguards and proper accounting for carbon emissions – including carbon released due to deforestation.” This definition of sustainable biomass production includes agricultural biomass and woody biomass from short-rotation biomass plantations, but not natural forests.

A “biomass carbon deficit” argument is put forward, along with an overly simplistic example of one forest harvested, and one left to grow. The claim is that the harvested forest creates an immediate carbon deficit compared to the one that is left, and that the deficit is closed slowly over the years, until eventually, the harvested forest will start producing carbon reductions.


What this comparison fails to take into account is the cumulative effect of multiple forest stand harvesting over continuous time periods. Rather than comparing one forest harvested immediately and one left for 50 years, consider the forest as one made up of 50 different forest stands harvested at a rate of one per year, and growing at a rate of 2% each year. This is closer to reality and yields a cumulative impact of a sustainable harvest in perpetuity, with no real starting or ending point to the carbon cycle.

Also consider that each of these stands was collecting carbon from the atmosphere before it ever reached harvesting age. In the example, the stand harvested in Year One had been growing for at least 50 years on the harvest date. It will be ready to be harvested again at the end of another 50-year cycle. Thus, the “carbon deficit” is only real if you ignore the fact that the trees gobbled up carbon before they were harvested.

The NRDC videos do make valid points about relative efficiency of wood versus fossil fuel energy production. It’s lower, and this does result in relatively more emissions per unit of energy, at a higher cost in large-scale applications. That’s the reasoning that went into our discussion of using biomass energy in appropriate applications. But by presenting biomass energy production as a “one size fits all” proposition, opponents of natural forest biomass energy are able to misrepresent the resource potential and mislead the public into thinking that harvesting the forest for biomass is a bad thing in general.

While some studies theorize that certain scenarios of biomass-to-energy harvesting and conversion may in fact increase overall carbon emissions, the science is ongoing, and government-funded research tends to focus on large-scale processing. This is a practice that many in the industry believe is a suboptimal use of the forest resource compared to right-sized biomass harvesting that can improve the overall ecosystem quality of the forest.

By following sustainable harvest guidelines, society will benefit from the capture of woody conversion of carbon stock to energy in our homes and businesses.

Ultimately, if we don’t, the carbon is returned back to the atmosphere anyway, one way or another.

Would you prefer that forest biomass and its carbon molecules heat your home or local business, or that they heat the atmosphere out in the woods?

Ultimately, it’s one or the other. No forest lives forever. It’s continually dying, being reborn, growing, aging and dying again. Those who think they are “defending” the forest seem to be instinctively against human management and utilization of natural resources, despite the fact that forests in most areas of the world that have been responsibly managed for the last 50 years are larger and healthier now than they’ve been in centuries. They imagine that we’ll all be better off if we just leave the forest alone and use other resources they deem to be more environmentally friendly.

In fact, the use of misleading “carbon deficit” accounting seems to be just the latest angle at stopping forest harvesting, period. Just like “clearcutting” in the 1980s and “endangered species” in the ’90s, “carbon deficits” is the cause célèbre for those who would like to see a day when no forest tree is ever cut down. But this too will pass, and in the end, we’ll benefit from the knowledge gained by further, more balanced research into the workings of forest ecosystems and the carbon cycle.


Dr. Chuck Ray is associate professor of wood operations at Penn State University in College Station, Pennsylvania. Visit his blog at .

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