Replacing Coal With Trees Won’t Scale
A report written by the British arm of Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace titled “Dirtier than Coal” criticizes their government’s plan to burn trees to make electricity. In my opinion, these two organizations seem to get things right about as often as they get things wrong, so you would be just as well off flipping a coin.
For me, this is largely an academic exercise. As a species, I suspect that we are incapable of overriding our instinctive drives for self-promotion, subconscious biases, and propensities for self-deception to the point of tackling a problem of this magnitude — global warming. We will always find ways to rationalize what we do and think, especially if doing so brings home the bacon.
In this case they got one thing right (IMHO) by calling for the withdrawal of public subsidies for making electricity by burning imported trees (roundwood and sawlogs). Their report is based on input from Tim Searchinger who was asked to review the studies done by the British Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC).
You can download this podcast from BBC Radio to hear Tim Searchinger try to explain to the CEO of the Renewable Energy Association in the U.K. the difference between renewable and carbon free; why burning a tree can be worse than burning coal when you account for the time it takes to grow another tree to absorb the carbon from the burned one.
“It is difficult to get a man woman to understand something when his her job depends on not understanding it”–Upton Sinclair.
Here’s how the CEO thinks it works; for every tree you cut down, you plant a seedling to take its place.
Here’s how it really works; ten years later you have sent tens of millions of 20 to 30 year old trees into the atmosphere while on the ground you have replaced them with the equivalent number of trees ranging in age from ten years old to freshly planted seedlings. The oldest are about ten feet tall and as big around as your arm. The youngest are twigs as big around as your little finger. It will be several decades more before those trees will pull from the atmosphere the carbon put there by their incinerated ancestors, meanwhile, hundreds of millions of more trees will be sent into the atmosphere in those coming decades.
Finding the truth can be very difficult. The first barrier is one’s own bias. My bias in the case of combusting biomass (directly as for electricity and indirectly when first converted into a liquid) for energy is my affinity for nature, or as E.O. Wilson would say it, my innate sense of biophilia– ” …our natural affinity for life—biophilia—is the very essence of our humanity and binds us to all other living things.” (Read More: The Unintended Consequences of Government Mandated Biofuel Consumption)
According to the International Committee on Climate Change, the problem is twofold. We must:
- Stop adding more carbon
- Remove much of what is already there
Here is the key; without meeting both of these goals, you have no solution. Think of it as an egg omelet without the eggs.
We have only two ways of removing carbon:
- Continued acidification of the oceans
- Allowing forests and grasslands to sequester it (expand area of carbon sinks and/or age of trees).
Britain’s plan in a nutshell: stop wasting trees as carbon sinks by turning them into smoke and electricity …save the biosphere by burning it (and no, this is not a Monty Python skit).
This scheme, especially if emulated by other countries, will at best, reduce the ability of forests to store carbon. It is therefore not a solution (an eggless egg omelet). At worst, the plan will also increase the amount of carbon in the atmosphere until enough trees regroup to replace the ones being burned, which takes decades. However, because most trees are already spoken for and with the human population still heading for 9 billion, it seems very unlikely that the demand for conventional wood products is going to go slack. Trees are also used for things like lumber (which typically sequesters carbon for many decades and then can be used as energy from recycled waste or reused) and paper, as well as for fuel in many third world countries.
Obviously, replacing coal with trees won’t scale. It would not work if every country decided to import logs to replace coal for the simple fact that there are not enough trees to do that. So, what happens if more and more countries decide to emulate Britain? How and at what point would you put a stop to the practice? The best time to stop it is now, before it’s too late.
The plan is to have American, Canadian, and Russian timber companies cut down trees, put them on logging trucks, haul them to seaports, place them on ships to Britain where they will be chipped, dried, and finally burned. I am hard pressed to think of a more ecologically destructive, ham-fisted way to turn solar energy into electricity!