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The Future of Biomass After Paris

Amid conflicting assessments of the Paris Agreement, two things are clear: World governments still love carbon markets, and COP21 went a long way toward simply giving slash-and-burn agriculture a makeover.
Future of Biomass

A technician holding wooden pellets that will be burned at France's largest biomass-fired power plant in Gardanne, near Aix-en-Provence. (Photo: Boris Horvat/AFP/Getty Images)

After 80 percent of the Kyoto's Joint Implementation projects failed to curb emissions to any grand effect, COP21 adjourned back in December amid serious doubts that the approach of "enthusiastic literary revisions now and technical reparations sometime before 2020" would prevent further shortfall in emissions-reduction goals. And while the Paris Agreement largely recapitulated the Kyoto policy, the final document's wording around the regulating of carbon markets foreshadows a significant windfall for sustainable woody bioenergy (that is, burning trees to create energy).

The biomass industry would have us believe that woody bioenergy is carbon neutral. Unfortunately, though, powering the future through incinerating forests isn't as "sustainable" as the Paris Agreement seems to suggest.

The rickety carbon-neutral status of woody bioenergy has been sold to the public on a deceptively simple principle: Although a tree's carbon is released during combustion to produce energy, there are no net emissions because a new tree will absorb the resulting carbon dioxide. This model assumes that the CO2 sequestered by immature woodlands and forest plantations full of saplings is instantaneously equal (that is to say, without a 35- to 50-year deficit) to the centuries of carbon captured by the old-growth trees of a mature forest.

The summit has gone a long way toward simply giving slash-and-burn agriculture a makeover.

Look beyond decades of carbon capture deficit, though, and you'll see biomass plants that release a bit more greenhouse gasses—as in 50 percent more CO2 and nitrous oxide than coal plants, and (across all pollutant categories) eight times more than a natural gas plant.

Math fails to bridge the gap between "carbon neutrality" and the 90 to 150 million tons of unaccounted CO2 every year, and policymakers tend to fall back on false carbon-neutral talking points.

After 20 years of erroneous accounting, there were high hopes that COP21 would establish a more conscientious framework for carbon markets.

In calling for the development of new carbon trading mechanisms, the Paris Agreement has theoretically established the foundation for a carbon market focused more on mitigating than on offsetting pollution. Nevertheless, it ignores a glaring limitation on efforts to create a carbon-neutral future. By failing to improve oversimplified biomass policies, the summit has granted an out to petroleum concerns that are avoiding pressures to become more efficient. Rather than actually lowering emissions, power plants can simply do so on paper, by burning "carbon-neutral" biomass alongside fossil fuels.

On the whole, the summit's narrative of a carbon-neutral future depends on the confusion of change with progress. Biomass is projected to provide 57 percent of the European Union's renewable energy needs by 2020, but the Paris Agreement does little more to manage that growth than shovel more ambiguous verbiage atop the same old loopholes.

Additionally, as policy amendments on REDD+ move toward crediting forests as tradable carbon offsets, forestry management entities stand to benefit from new economic incentives. You would think that plan would promote forest preservation; in fact, it classifies plantations inaccurately as forests, and will likely bolster burgeoning demand—already at 28 million tons annually—for wood biomass pellets. An indiscriminate approach to crediting carbon sinks, such as this, could prove to be more disastrous to forest management than the ham-fisted accounting of Kyoto that first fed the rise of woody bioenergy.

This is because the Agreement has missed the trees for the forest, and mistaken chemical-soaked monocultures of the former for the latter. In reality, biodiversity-challenged plantations are a far less reliable carbon sink than forests. Plantations can sequester only a quarter of the CO2 that functioning woodlands can, and converting forests to plantations actually releases carbon trapped in soil. Nonetheless, the Paris Agreement, continuing a long tradition of theoretical accounting in international climate matters, considers plantations a carbon sink equivalent to any other forest. And having promised economic incentives for replacing harvested woodlands with monoculture plantations, under the guise of sustainable forest management, the summit has gone a long way toward simply giving slash-and-burn agriculture a makeover.

Though the Paris Agreement boasts an unprecedented international commitment to sustainability, its implications for carbon markets so far have simply recycled a lexicon of deceptive semantics—which means the Paris Agreement could well be the prologue to yet another generation of policy abuse. But true to the tedious spirit of political suspense stories, it will be a four-year second act in which individual countries finalize their respective climate action targets that will etch the legacy of the summit in stone. It will be up to the international community to see that the shaky foundation of the Paris Agreement and REDD+ can actually make conservation a sustainable endeavor—by regulating the unchecked growth of bioenergy.


Catastrophic Consequences of Climate Change is Pacific Standard's year-long investigation into the devastating effects of climate change—and how scholars, legislators, and citizen-activists can help stave off its most dire consequences.