Chasing Carbon Neutral

Welcome back to my blog!

This week we’ll explore the meaning of carbon neutral.

According to Merriam-Webster Dictionary, carbon-neutral is defined as, “Having or resulting in no net addition of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.” They also give another definition, “Counterbalancing the emission of carbon dioxide with carbon offsets.” Additionally, according to UK’s Cambridge Dictionary, carbon neutral is defined as, “If a person, organization, event, etc. is carbon-neutral, it does things such as planting trees to reduce carbon dioxide by the same amount it produces.”

Graphic: Brett Leuenberger

The global carbon cycle is a complex earth system. Trees play an important role in mitigating climate change by sequestering atmospheric CO2. The biomass industry relies on a scientific position that accepts burning trees is carbon neutral because their biogenic carbon emissions are part of the “active carbon cycle.”

I’m going to argue the “trees are carbon neutral” theory, based on four simple observations. First of all, woody biomass is the physical embodiment of sequestered CO2, which is exactly what we’re trying to remove from our atmosphere. Our governments are willing to spend billions of dollars on questionable “carbon capture” devices, while our forests and soils have the ability to naturally sequester gigatons of CO2.

Secondly, our atmosphere has reached its carbon tipping point, which means any additional CO2 emissions will be reflected as atmospheric and oceanic warming. Simply replacing fossil fuel CO2 with biogenic CO2 is not reducing atmospheric CO2 levels. Here is an example of Enviva Biomass claiming that burning wood pellets is actually “cutting emissions.” Now that scientists have identified elevated CO2 levels as the major cause of climate change, we should not allow the biomass industry to continue asserting their highly debatable “carbon neutral” emissions.

Thirdly, burning woody biomass is an anthropogenic activity that unnaturally emits carbon that would have remained in the forest as deep soil carbon. The biomass industry selectively uses weak science that asserts CO2 from the active carbon cycle will have no net contribution to the atmosphere. That premise was recently debunked in this report by Danna Smith of Dogwood Alliance and IPCC author, Dr. William Moomaw, “If we halted deforestation, protected existing forests, and expanded and restored degraded forests, we could reduce annual emissions by 75 percent in the next half a century.”

Lastly, another important point that is often overlooked by science; the natural process of carbon reclamation never stops. The Earth is continuously making new fossil fuels, moving active carbon to long-term geologic carbon. Burning biomass interrupts the cycle of carbon reclamation by unnaturally forcing locked-up terrestrial carbon back into our vulnerable atmosphere and oceans.

The big picture issue is whether biomass carbon emissions from the active carbon cycle have the same harmful greenhouse gas effects as compared to burning fossil fuel carbon. The answer is yes, there is no difference in the climatic warming effects of biomass and fossil fuel carbon emissions, in fact, fossil fuels are derived from biomass.

The far-reaching question all of us should be asking ourselves; would we still have global climate change if all of the anthropogenic CO2 emissions ever produced came from biomass? Imagine that we never touched a drop of fossil fuels, instead we only burned bioenergy from native forests, tree plantations and fuel crops. Would the biomass industry’s position of “it’s carbon neutral because its from the active carbon cycle” still hold water? The climate implications of this deep line of questioning forces us to consider that the unnatural movement of biomass (terrestrial carbon) to atmospheric CO2 and oceanic CO2 would likely accelerate global climate change.

For and Against the Carbon Neutral Argument

It’s good to know who is for biomass energy and who is opposed to it. I want you to notice the pro-biomass stance from our U.S. government agencies, higher education institutions and the logging and paper industries, which are also directly profiting from the woody biomass industry.

For instance, the Florida Energy Systems Consortium is comprised of 12 major Florida universities, which receive state and federal bioenergy research funding, and openly promote woody biomass as carbon neutral. Coincidentally, the EPA is the only government agency that has scientifically questioned the carbon neutrality of woody biomass.

Here are some links to pro-biomass sources that claim woody biomass is carbon neutral.
Florida Energy Systems Consortium
Drax Biomass
Middlebury College
International Paper
West Fraser
Green Mountain College
Colby College
ReEnergy Holdings
German Pellets
American Forest & Paper Association
American Wood Council
Weyerhaeuser Timber Company
Biomass Power Association

Here are some links to pro-biomass sources that claim woody biomass provides “carbon reductions and benefits,” but will not publicly say that woody biomass is carbon neutral.
Sierra Pacific Industries
The Nature Conservancy
American Forest Foundation
Northern Forest Center
Alliance for Green Heat
Biomass Thermal Energy Council
Pellet Fuels Institute
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
Enviva Biomass
U.S. Industrial Wood Pellet Association
U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. Forest Service
U.S. Department of Energy
The University of Maine, Forest BioProducts Research Institute
University of Minnesota Morris

Here are some links to anti-biomass sources, (including environmental writers and scientists) that claim woody biomass is not carbon neutral.
Energy Justice Network
Bill McKibben
Southern Environmental Law Center
Mighty Earth
Partnership for Policy Integrity
Dogwood Alliance
Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis
William Moomaw, IPCC Author, Director Intl. Environmental Policy at Tufts University 
Bill Schlesinger, Duke University, Nicholas School of the Environment
John Upton, Climate Central
Union of Concerned Scientists
Natural Resources Defense Council
Chatham House, The Royal Institute of International Affairs

Using the Carbon Neutral Argument to Burn Trees

The biomass industry commonly uses the carbon neutral argument to justify burning trees to replace fossil fuels. For instance, UK-based Drax Energy uses a convoluted carbon accounting method which involves replanting harvested trees and measuring carbon uptake from surrounding trees. Drax is essentially using natural tree growth as their environmental prize. Drax and the biomass industry have repeatedly been called out on this “flawed” carbon accounting for years. In a recent Twitter post (below), Drax publicly asserted its carbon neutral position while quoting EU’s sustainable biomass energy guidelines. Coincidentally, the EU’s biomass policies were recently contested by 190 scientists.


In a recent Baton Rouge article, (former) CEO of Drax, Dorothy Thompson said, “Wood pellets are carbon neutral, so we get a break for using renewable sources.” Drax receives $600 million a year in UK taxpayer subsidies to burn so-called “carbon neutral” U.S. wood pellets instead of coal.

In a related Stornoway Gazette article, the University of Oulu in Finland teamed up with local businesses to utilize solid biomass for combined heat and energy. The Gazette author writes, “A new affordable solution is proposed that uses local renewable solid biofuel in a small-scale micro CHP system. The advantage of this approach is that all fuel used is carbon neutral, transport costs are minimal, and there are reduced CO2 emissions. This helps with carbon legislation compliance, reduced transmission losses from the grid, and the electricity-to-heat production ratio is a good match for the colder parts of Europe.” This is a bold statement by the Gazette, considering they offer no printed scientific evidence that supports their non-industry “carbon neutral” position. This is another clear case of media bias that is fueled by the expanding biomass industry.

It’s a New Atmosphere with New Rules

(Nov 1967) 320.72 PPM – (Nov 2017) 405.14 PPM = 26% CO2 Increase in 50 Years

Our atmosphere is not the same as it used to be. Our continuous anthropogenic carbon emissions from fossil fuels is changing the dynamics of our atmosphere. In fact, our CO2 emissions have steadily increased over 25% in the past fifty years. Why is this so important? Because now that our atmosphere has reached its climate tipping point, removing the excess CO2 from fossil fuel emissions is critical to reversing global climate change. Trees play an important role in sequestering and locking up excess CO2.

In today’s atmosphere, 25% of the CO2 that is absorbed by growing trees comes directly from the excess CO2 emissions of fossil fuel energy. Every time we burn trees for bioenergy, we’re putting fossil fuel emissions back into the atmosphere.

Graphic: Brett Leuenberger

I wanted to point out the hypocrisy of the biomass industry using the “trees are part of the active carbon cycle, therefor, we’re carbon neutral” rhetoric. The biomass industry’s implied “biogenic carbon benefits” of burning trees over fossil fuels is dispelled by the fact that burning woody biomass re-emits sequestered fossil fuel carbon, which is exactly the same carbon they claim to offset.

In today’s atmosphere, 25% of the CO2 that is absorbed by growing trees comes directly from the excess CO2 emissions of fossil fuel energy. Every time we burn trees for bioenergy, we’re putting fossil fuel emissions back into the atmosphere.

Carbon Debt: Replacing Carbon with Even More Carbon

Offsetting carbon emissions with new growth is the premise for the meaning of carbon neutral. But let’s take a deeper dive into the carbon trading process. When we burn trees, they produce new atmospheric CO2. When trees grow they absorb CO2 directly from the atmosphere. In fact, 95% of tree growth comes from absorbing atmospheric CO2.

Graphic: Brett Leuenberger

When CO2 enters our atmosphere, it immediately acts as a greenhouse gas that traps heat energy that is supposed to escape back into space. As trees grow, they absorb CO2 at a slow steady rate, but when woody biomass is burned, all of its stored carbon from years of growth is immediately emitted into the atmosphere. It’s easy to understand that if you burn a 50-year-old tree in one day, you’re going to have a carbon debt (more remaining CO2). Another important aspect of biomass carbon debt is that its CO2 emissions are ongoing and cumulative. The biomass industry isn’t waiting for decades of new tree regrowth to catch up to their daily CO2 emissions, instead they’re willing to call woody biomass “carbon neutral,” from the moment it’s burned, which is actually increasing global CO2 levels.

Thanks for reading.
Next post I’ll talk about “Environmental NGOs” that support burning trees for energy. Cheers.


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