Opinion

Why U.S. Climate Policy Should Follow Europe’s Lead on Renewable Wood Energy

This summer, the United States will experience one of the worst droughts and one of the worst fire seasons in modern history. Already, 1 million acres have burned in California alone.

We are seeing and feeling the impacts of the climate crisis: more fires, earlier snow melts, record high temperatures.

But there is reason for hope: Renewed international cooperation, shifts in U.S. policy and new innovations can move us toward real solutions.

One innovation with untapped potential is renewable wood energy. While bioenergy makes up only 4.9 percent of total U.S. primary energy consumption, Europe and Japan have moved aggressively to replace coal and other fossil fuels with renewable biomass.

Policymakers, including E.U. Climate Chief Frans Timmermans, acknowledge that the world cannot meet ambitious climate goals without wood energy. The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – considered the leading authority on keeping global temperatures in check – includes wood bioenergy as an essential piece of the puzzle.

Bioenergy also enjoys broad political and geographic support in the United States – from Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) to Gov. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.) to Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.), the co-chair of the House Working Forest Caucus.

But if bioenergy represents only a small percentage of energy and heat consumption in the energy mix today, why does it matter?

First, a market for biomass can help decrease wildfires on public land. That’s why California passed a law in 2012 to subsidize small biomass plants. The law aims to help stop massive wildfires, while promoting renewable energy at the same time.

California understands that public forests have turned into “tinder boxes” – with a dry understory of small trees that create a “fire ladder” for massive wildfires. State officials have worked with environmentalists on a solution to clear out the underbrush – with the goal of leaving taller mature trees that are less susceptible to fire. But that work is expensive and can only be “paid for” if there is a market for the wood that is cleared off the land.

Bioenergy offers a win-win solution: a market incentive to manage the forestland that also produces renewable energy. Similar ideas have been promoted in DC by Sens. Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Mike Crapo (R-Idaho).

Second, demand for forest products creates incentives to grow trees on private land.  Fifty-six percent of U.S. forestland is privately owned. Landowners have many options for making money: they can grow trees, grow other crops, raise cattle or develop their land. But most landowners won’t grow trees if they can’t make money doing it. That means we need markets for all parts of the tree – not only the high-value pieces that become permanent carbon storage like construction materials, but also the lower-value wood such as tops, limbs and understory trees that may be crooked or knotted, and are therefore unsuitable for other wood products.

We know forest product markets work: In the southeastern United States, where 86 percent of forestland is privately held, and where most U.S.-manufactured sustainable biomass is produced, forest stocks have increased by more than 100 percent since 1953.

Enviva, my company and the world’s largest producer of sustainable wood pellets, opened its first U.S plant in 2010. Between 2010 and 2019, standing forest inventory in our supply base increased by more than 400 million metric tons, adding an estimated 100 million metric tons of additional carbon storage to our forests.

The United States has work to do if it wants to lead on climate change. We are moving slower than Europe and Asia, and missing opportunities to use all renewable low-carbon technologies. Wood energy is not a panacea – but it is a key part of the solution. One that is backed by science, embraced by climate leaders around the world and supported by Democrats and Republicans across this country.

 

John Keppler is the chairman and CEO of Enviva.

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