[OPINION] Renewability: Biomass Energy Not Renewable
[Read the opposing view to this opinion piece, “Renewability: Congress Confirms Biomass Energy is Renewable,” by Roger Sedjo and Stephen Shaler.]
– by Christopher D. Ahlers, Adjunct Professor, Vermont Law School
There has been increased public attention to the use of biomass as a means to address climate change. Recently, the Senate approved the Energy Policy Modernization Act, which would require the federal government to consider certain biomass projects as “carbon-neutral.” The bill attempts to circumvent the authority of the Environmental Protection Agency, which has been working on a policy relating to biogenic carbon dioxide emissions for over five years (biogenic emissions are those generated from the combustion of biomass, or biological materials such as plants and trees).
But the prevailing debate ignores the real problem of biomass. It overlooks the harm to public health.
Smoke is harmful to human beings. It makes them cough and wretch. It exacerbates respiratory problems, including asthma. It causes premature mortality. The World Health Organization estimates that air pollution causes the deaths of seven million people every year. Several million of those deaths are attributable to the burning of biomass. This is particularly a problem in underdeveloped countries, where women and children suffer disproportionately from the burning of solid fuel in rudimentary cookstoves. Indeed, there is an environmental justice component to this problem.
The problem of air pollution is simple. It is all about combustion. In addition to carbon dioxide, fine particulates are also the product of combustion. For over twenty years, there has been an increasingly large volume of evidence demonstrating that fine particulates cause premature mortality in human beings. They are worse than coarse particulates, because they burrow deeper into the lungs, causing respiratory blockages and cardiovascular problems, and ultimately death. The debate over the alleged “carbon-neutrality” of biomass ignores these harms.
Unfortunately, the prevailing debate assumes that biomass is a desirable component of federal energy policy, because it is allegedly “carbon neutral.” The argument runs as follows: A tree that is burned for energy would have died, decomposed, and released carbon dioxide anyway, over the course of time. Therefore, the burning of the tree for energy does not release any more carbon dioxide than would have occurred naturally. The obvious flaw is that the tree would have decomposed over a number of years, and not immediately through combustion.
But there are other significant flaws. Absent a combustion event such as a forest fire, the regular decomposition of the tree would not have released fine particulates, primarily responsible for worldwide deaths from air pollution. As a combustion technology, biomass is like coal, oil, and gas, and unlike solar and wind power.
Moreover, the prevailing debate calls into question the very accounting assumptions on which the claim of “carbon-neutrality” is based. EPA assumes that in the long term, all carbon dioxide inhaled from the atmosphere by all living things equals carbon dioxide exhaled into the atmosphere. Some environmental organizations and the Environmental Protection Agency apparently take the position that some biomass projects could be “carbon-neutral,” but this would depend on a very close economic and engineering analysis of what would have happened to the tree anyway (still, this does not justify a blanket legislative determination of “carbon-neutrality”).
But if the combustion of biomass is sometimes “carbon neutral” and sometimes not, then the same must be said about metabolic emissions, or those emissions of carbon dioxide from the breathing of human and animal life. The agency’s tautology does not take into account short-term fluctuations in carbon dioxide. If the agency intends to continue the debate over biomass as presently framed, it will have to update its accounting assumptions.
Much easier it is to simply deny biomass the honorable status of being a “renewable energy.” We deny this status to other forms of energy, where there are adverse impacts on the environment. Coal, oil, and gas are not forms of renewable energy because they generate harmful impacts on the environment, notably from mining operations. The same can be said about nuclear power, whose fuel is obtained from the mining of uranium.
But human beings are also a part of the environment. In addition to shaping the environment, they are shaped by the environment. If we deny the status of “renewable energy” to fossil fuels and nuclear power on the basis of harmful impacts on the environment, we should do the same for biomass. There is nothing “renewable” about a form of energy that causes the premature death of millions of human beings every year.
Christopher D. Ahlers is a Staff Attorney with the Clean Air Council, a nonprofit organization with headquarters in Philadelphia. He is an Adjunct Professor at Vermont Law School, where he has taught courses in Air Pollution Law & Policy. He has recently published a law review article, Wood Burning, Biomass, Air Pollution, and Climate Change.