Burning Trees for Energy is Not a Climate Solution

Photograph Source: Joe Mabel – CC BY-SA 3.0

Recently, AI (Artificial Intelligence), with its access to the entire web library, was asked to make a short film creating a probable encounter between humans and the first aliens to cross the universe to visit.  In the resulting plot, as humans prepare to receive them, the US and Russia go to war over which will be the first to greet the aliens. Missiles fly. The aliens, disgusted, turn on their heel and depart, with the remark that Earth is not ready for cosmic engagement, they’ll try again in a few thousand years when a new civilization appears.

 Clearly AI was not hopeful about our chances of avoiding suicide by war. And, if its alien visitors had waited a minute longer, their conclusions would have been reconfirmed. Global ecocide too is on target to take us out and, to the aliens, we would be looking even less fit for an introduction to the advanced civilizations of the universe.

What is wrong with humans? AI has not yet answered that question. But the advancing climate catastrophe has freaked out  scientists. At the world’s largest  scientific gathering, the American Geophysical Union, last December, the cry was “Out of the lab and Into the streets!”  Frustrated scientists proposed a strike, claiming that the science-society contract is broken, and they were  simply  “throwing indisputable facts and studies into the bottomless pit of public inertia and apathy.”  They proposed declaring

“We therefore call for a halt to further IPCC [International Panel on Climate Change] assessments. We call for a moratorium on climate change research until governments are willing to fulfill their responsibilities in good faith and urgently mobilize coordinated action from local to global levels”.

Governments pay no attention. The Biden administration continues to block the lawsuit (Juliana vs. US) of another terrified contingent, children, whose future is being destroyed, with the assertion that there is “no Constitutional guarantee to a stable climate system”.

The relentless removal of the planet’s forests is one of the issues which keep scientists up at night. As the author John Perlin (“A Forest Journey”) demonstrated, ”the scientific world now sees the entire tree: leaves, trunk, roots and the understory-as a mighty geochemical agent, that has drastically  changed the landscape and the atmosphere for the betterment of all living things.” These tree systems made the planet livable. Forest fixation of carbon made the atmosphere breathable. Tree roots controlled erosion and created soils, which not only fed animal life, but sequestered an additional 25% of our C02 production.  Trees generate 40% of  the planet’s rainfall.

Timber companies employ fear of fire to frighten people into giving up their trees. Now, armed with that argument, plus the attraction of a cheap subsidized alternative to meet their carbon-neutrality commitments, governments are engaging  the biomass industry to assault the world’s forests.

It is incomprehensibly self-destructive behaviors like this which so appall our putative alien visitors, not to mention the scientific community. Unique among “clean energy” alternatives forest biomass combustion actually increases global warming, since it shrinks its own generator. Biomass is not “renewable” in a realistic timeframe. It takes many years for a sapling to sequester the carbon required for machinery to chop down a mature tree. As fuel, biomass releases 1 ½ times more greenhouse gas than coal per unit energy, and many times greater particulate pollution.

Removing biomass doesn’t decrease fire danger. In “Ecological Applications”, an Oregon State University publication, a definitive study reported that “daily fire weather is the most important predictor of fire severity followed by….topography. Estimates of pre-forest-fire biomass were not an important predictor of fire severity.”

On the other hand, trees slow deadly wind speeds, cool the ground, and retain moisture. In catastrophic fires, the role of litter is negligible.

The  woody-biomass industry is driven by profit. This turns the hunt for “feedstock” into another extractive industry, and once the infrastructure in place, demand will become unstoppable.

It is end-stage logging.

Addressing fire danger has nothing to do with profit. As an existential risk for our communities, fire danger must be seriously addressed by science, with attention to successful techniques developed long ago by first nations. As Bill Moomaw of Yale University suggests: “The most effective thing that we can do is to allow trees that are already planted, that are already growing, to continue growing to reach their full ecological potential, to store carbon, and develop a forest that has its full complement of environmental services. Cutting trees to burn them is not a way to get there.”

Ellen Taylor can be reached at ellenetaylor@yahoo.com.