Want to Fight Climate Change? Burn More Trees

Want to Fight Climate Change? Burn More Trees
Robert Franklin/South Bend Tribune via AP

Seven in ten Americans are worried about global warming -- the highest share ever.  And they're acting on those concerns. Voters in both parties have urged their representatives to boost funding for renewable energy sources like wind and solar.

However, these environmentally conscious Americans largely aren't talking about one of the cheapest, most abundant renewable technologies -- one that's already played a huge role in reducing emissions in Europe.

That technology? Wood biomass -- the wood the timber industry can't use. It's far more environmentally friendly than fossil fuels, but just as reliable. Americans who want to fight climate change ought to follow Europe's example and push for greater use of this proven energy source.

Europe is in the midst of an energy revolution. A decade ago, the member countries of the European Union promised to generate 20 percent of their energy from renewable sources by 2020. Renewable energy production surged 64 percent from 2007 to 2017. The EU is on track to hit its goal. 

Solar and wind played a big part in this shift. In 2017, solar accounted for 6 percent of renewable production. Wind constituted 14 percent. 

But wood and other biofuels played an even larger role. They accounted for 42 percent of renewable energy production in the EU -- the largest source by far.  

The process of producing wood biomass is simple. Producers gather sawdust, limbs, tree tops, and other low-value timber. Then, they grind and press this wood into pellets, which are burned for energy. Most of that wood would have otherwise gone to waste.

Solar and wind are certainly crucial components of the transition to renewable energy. But they depend on the weather and time of day. And the energy they produce is difficult to transport. Wood biomass, on the other hand, is generally more reliable and can be easily transported. 

Wood biomass can also sub in for dirty fossil fuels when solar and wind are unable to. Right now, America's power plants mostly run on coal and natural gas, which are both cost-effective and reliable. 

But they're bad for the environment. In 2017, coal accounted for 14 percent of U.S. energy consumption but caused 26 percent of U.S. carbon emissions. And it also creates other toxins that cause lung cancer, asthma, and other diseases. Natural gas is a bit greener -- but only a bit. It still generates half as much carbon as coal. 

Wood biomass, by contrast, is much cleaner than either baseload fuel. It produces 90 percent less carbon than coal.  

Better still, it would take relatively little funding to convert current coal power plants to wood biomass plants. Right now, much of our power plant infrastructure is designed to use a combination of wood biomass and coal to produce energy. With minimal investment, a plant can be converted to 100-percent wood biomass use. 

Wood biomass is widely available. Each year until 2030, the United States could make nearly 680 million tons of biomass -- including wood and other forms of biomass like sugarcane-- available in a sustainable way, according to an analysis by the Union of Concerned Scientists. That's enough to generate roughly one-fifth of the electricity used in the United States each year. 

America already produces plenty of sustainable wood biomass. We just export most of it rather than using it here. In 2014, the United States accounted for 58 percent of the United Kingdom's wood pellet imports. Wood biomass accounts for just 1 percent of U.S. electricity production.  

To combat climate change, America needs to increase its reliance on renewable energy. Wind, solar, and wood biomass should all be part of our approach. 

Radovan Potočár is the editor of Energie-Portal.sk, an online media outlet focused on energy issues in Slovakia. Mr. Potočár also serves as a policy analyst for agricultural and environmental issues at the Conservative Institute of M. R. Štefánik, a leading European think tank based in Bratislava.

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