Clear-cutting old-growth forests to produce wood pellets to replace fossil fuels in electricity generation would release more carbon into the atmosphere than it would save

A new scientific study argues that wood pellets, considered a “carbon neutral” product may not be so neutral. Carl Meyer explains in an article on the National Observer website.


Wood pellets from clear-cut, old-growth forests may not be carbon neutral

Clear-cutting old-growth forests to produce wood pellets to replace fossil fuels in electricity generation would release more carbon into the atmosphere than it would save “for many decades,” according to a new scientific study.

The findings raise questions about the wood pellet industry’s claims that their product is “carbon neutral” and that switching from burning coal to burning pellets would reduce “100 per cent” of greenhouse gas emissions. Greenpeace Canada, which partially funded the study, said it has “huge implications” for Canadian policy.

But the Forest Products Association of Canada (FPAC), a group representing timber, pulp and paper producers, said the study is based on a “hypothetical” scenario that doesn’t represent the sector’s current practices and commitments, including to sustainable forest management and the low-carbon transition.

‘Unlikely to be useful’ in fighting climate change

The manufacturing of wood pellets, made by compacting together wood material, has been embraced by B.C. Premier John Horgan as a way to create “good jobs” while turning “waste” into “clean, renewable electricity.” Pellets are one of several bioenergy sources being examined as fossil fuel alternatives. Canada is now the second-largest wood pellet exporter worldwide, and Vancouver is home to the third-largest global supplier.

In a study published April 11 in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Climatic Change, Jay Malcolm and Paul Piascik from the University of Toronto and Bjart Holtsmark from Statistics Norway looked at the emissions of harvesting and processing timber, the pellet manufacturing process, transportation to a power plant and combustion for fuel, and measured it against other elements such as carbon savings from coal, forest regrowth and wildfires.

The researchers found that clear-cutting undisturbed, or “primary” boreal forests for material to make wood pellets, in order to replace fossil fuels in electricity generation, is “unlikely to be useful in mitigating climate change in the near term” — and, in fact, would be likely to “exacerbate carbon dioxide emissions for many decades.”

While it would ultimately help reduce carbon pollution in the atmosphere compared to continuing to use fossil fuels, the study says that, even under a best-case scenario where the forest is left to regenerate for a century, it would not reach the point of carbon neutrality for more than 90 years.

Malcolm said this is because old-growth forests are a “carbon-rich landscape” that can’t be easily replaced. “When people think about forests and carbon, they tend to get fixated on the fact that, as trees grow, they absorb carbon out of the atmosphere. So people get fixated with this idea of, ‘Oh, we want to have lots of young, active, fast-growing trees,’” he said.

“You can’t forget about the fact that forests, as they are right now, store a lot of carbon that’s not in the atmosphere. You don’t want to liberate that carbon, you want to keep it in the landscape…if you want to help the climate, you shouldn’t be doing clear-cutting of unmanaged forests, or primary forests.”

The team studied a slice of northern Ontario for their research, in the area around Lake Abitibi that straddles the Quebec border. The research was funded by Greenpeace Canada and by a discovery grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.

“I think this has huge implications for Canada in terms of policy with forestry,” said Greenpeace Canada nature and food campaigner Reykia Fick.

“What we need to be doing is moving towards focusing on disturbed forests, or already-harvested forests, and moving towards longer harvesting periods and lighter harvesting techniques. It just illustrates the importance of these forests from a climate perspective, and the importance that we should be placing on protecting them.”

Industry calls study ‘hypothetical and atypical’

Questions sent to two directors at the Wood Pellet Association of Canada on May 8 concerning the study were not returned before publication.

In a statement sent May 10, Robert Larocque, senior vice president of FPAC, the forest products industry group, said the scenario being evaluated in the study was “hypothetical and atypical.”

He said an examination of a “more real-world situation of a portfolio of wood products,” instead of one that zeroed in on wood pellets, was “strangely absent in the discussion.”

The forest products sector has a “commitment to waste reduction and advancing a lower carbon economy,” said Larocque, and he argued that “most” pellets produced in Canada are from “wood waste,” or leftover material from sawmills such as sawdust or small tree branches.

The industry uses “what would otherwise be wood waste to make products we need like word pellets, toilet paper, medical masks and hospital gowns, sanitary wipes, and paper towels,” he said.

Not all wood pellet manufacturing comes from waste, however. The B.C. government told National Observer on April 27 that timber harvesting has “evolved” and that the industry now sends logs not suitable for manufacturing due to age or fire damage to facilities such as pellet mills.

Larocque also argued that in Canada’s managed forests — the areas used for logging, fire management and parkland, which represent about 65 per cent of Canada’s total forested area — the activities of the industry and the wood products harvested from them represent a carbon sink.

Environment and Climate Change Canada’s National Inventory Report, released last month, says the net balance of “managed” forest land amounted to 150 million tonnes of carbon dioxide removed in 2018, while emissions from wood products coming from managed forests was 125 million tonnes that year.

But the bottom line, said Malcolm, “is that the standard way we harvest wood in the boreal forest in Canada is not a good idea if you’re trying to help the atmosphere.”

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