Burning forests

I never thought we’d be scraping the bottom of the barrel like this.
While Nova Scotian forests once yielded European fleets and some of the world’s best lumber, today we have degraded them so completely that, in our desperation to continue the roller-coaster ride of clearcut forestry, we’ve begun chopping down the scraps and torching them for electricity, a process known as biomass.
There’s a long standing and poisonous idea that forests have no value outside industrial use, that we can replace their ecosystem services with a Brita filter or air freshener, and that indulging an industry of old ideas justifies the levelling of what little wilderness we still possess. Today, when we are painfully aware of the importance of standing forests, we must expect better.
Burning wood to heat your home is actually quite efficient, depending on your wood stove and sourcing, but to burn forests to boil water to turn turbines to produce electricity, is extremely inefficient.
The Port Hawkesbury biomass plant has a maximum efficiency of around 20 per cent, meaning only one-fifth of the wood it consumes produces electricity. The rest is waste. Consequently, biomass electricity is the most expensive power on the Nova Scotian grid.
So how, then, did biomass electricity take the global market by storm as it has this past decade, chipping forests across eastern North America and shipping them off to domestic or European incinerators? A lie, that’s how.
Using kindergarten logic, members of government and industry alike claimed the burning of forests is carbon neutral, because the carbon emitted from an incinerated tree would be reabsorbed when another tree grew in its place. I’m not sure who made this claim first, but as country after country formulated their renewable energy strategies to address climate change, a staggering number listed biomass electricity generation as carbon neutral, establishing the myth which swept the world.
In 2010 even Nova Scotia, whose scientific community certainly knew better, declared biomass carbon neutral under its Renewable Electricity Plan. But of course, it’s not.
When you clearcut a forest (a routine treatment in eastern North America and especially Nova Scotia) you don’t just remove the trees. You also remove the canopy, drying out and killing the exposed undergrowth and leaving the soil completely unprotected. Much of this soil washes away with the first rain and whatever’s left begins to rapidly decompose under punishing sunlight, releasing its stored carbon in great plumes that scientists estimate amount to twice as much carbon as was stored in the departed trees. This released carbon is not counted in the claim of carbon neutrality.
A forest’s ability to absorb and store carbon in the first place depends a great deal on its maturity and diversity. Clearcutting destroys both. In some cases these forests took centuries to establish themselves and will take longer still to regrow in depleted soils. We don’t have centuries to reabsorb that carbon from the atmosphere. We don’t even have decades.
The regrowth and protection of mature, diverse forests and the ecosystems they support is one of our most effective tools in combating of climate change. But because of reckless and faulty arithmetic we’ve made a bad situation worse; some experts say biomass emits more carbon in the near-term than coal. Not unlike the blatant lies of “clean coal” and “natural gas,” we the public were fed enough half truths about biomass to avoid serious progress for another decade, even if that decade proves the most consequential in human history.
Our forests, battered from centuries of unsympathetic abuse, are still very capable of beauty and widespread regrowth. We need to nurture that regrowth and speed up that protection with everything at our disposal, and put an end to the age of biomass just as swiftly as we can. Our climatic future is tied, irrevocably, to the state and treatment of our forests, and if they burn today, we burn tomorrow.

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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