Washingtonians take climate change seriously. Our laws reflect that, by counting renewable biomass energy from our forests as climate-friendly in part because we sustain our working forests. But gridlock in the other Washington threatens to cripple investments essential to our state’s climate policy. Congress could change this.
Until recently our federal government treated biomass energy as carbon-neutral, reflecting a well-established body of peer-reviewed science. Then in 2010, against the predominant view of science, the Environmental Protection Agency announced it would regulate biomass the same as fossil fuels. Congressional opposition and the science community’s concerns led to the policy’s suspension pending revision by 2014. As of today, EPA hasn’t acted.
Consistent with widely accepted, peer-reviewed science, Congress is considering requiring federal agencies to recognize the carbon benefits of biomass. Forest biomass is second only to hydropower as the country’s largest source of renewable energy. But opponents to using biomass for energy charge that it emits more greenhouse gasses than fossil fuels.
In fact, it is well established and widely understood that using biomass instead of fossil fuels reduces carbon accumulations in the atmosphere over time. It does this by substituting the two-way flow of carbon in forests for the one-way flow of carbon from the ground to the atmosphere when we use fossil fuels instead of biomass for energy.
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According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the most significant impact on global temperature is the effect of an energy source on eventual peak global temperatures, which is related to long-term cumulative emissions of carbon dioxide rather than near-term releases. The IPCC affirms that “a sustainable forest management strategy aimed at maintaining or increasing forest carbon stock, while producing an annual sustained yield of timber, fiber or energy from the forest, will generate the largest sustained mitigation benefit.”
Thanks to strong markets throughout the United States, forest owners grow twice as much wood each year as they harvest. The volume of U.S trees is 50 percent larger now than in the 1950s, and forests offset about 13 percent of U.S. CO2 emissions annually.
Washington has some of the most sustainably managed forests in the world, thanks to strong markets and an operating environment that encourages forest practices and wood uses that optimize carbon benefits.
More than a dozen of our state’s forest product companies meet most of their energy needs with biomass, not fossil fuels. The savings help keep over 30,000 Washingtonians employed in forestry and paper and wood products manufacturing. Federal recognition of biomass’s carbon benefits will help Washington and other states to achieve real climate results consistent with prevailing science while also supporting an important economic sector.
Congressional action this year would restore certainty and help keep our climate efforts on track. If we are serious about addressing climate change, the time to act is now.
Elaine Oneil is a research scientist at the University of Washington’s College of the Environment. She obtained a doctoral degree from the University of Washington with a focus on forests, carbon and climate change.