Don't Bogart That Tree: It's Not Really Carbon Neutral

biomass boiler middlebury photo

Boiler at Middlebury College; The Independent/ Trent Campbell
Mason Inman at National Geographic News is excited about large-scale use of wood as fuel. Looking at Middlebury College's new biomass boiler and generator, he writes:

Trees suck CO2 out of the air as they grow and then release roughly the same amount of CO2 when they're burned in the advanced power plants, said Jack Byrne, director of the college's Sustainability Integration Office. So the process of growing, harvesting, and burning wood is close to carbon neutral, Byrne said.

But is wood really carbon neutral in a meaningful way? Bruce Lourie doesn't think so.


Illustration by Clive in Alternatives Journal

The Author and President of the Ivy Foundation explains in an Alternatives Journal article "Don't Bogart That Tree" how the Kyoto Protocol allows a tree to be burned without having to account for the carbon released, because it assumed that replacement trees would suck that carbon dioxide right back up again. But Lourie notes that there is a slight time lag:

There may be no loss of biomass if forests are sustainably harvested, and we are considering a 100-year carbon cycle. But from a climate-urgency perspective it is wrong headed. When trees are cut down and burned, the carbon enters the environment in minutes. New trees need 50 to 100 years to reabsorb this carbon. It does not require a degree in atmospheric chemistry to realize that at least in the short term, this practice will cause - not stop - global warming.

He also points out that it is not exactly the highest and best use of the material, and that "These proposals also fly in the face of added-value. The lowest-value use of wood is burning it; humans mastered that technology hundreds of thousands of years ago."

In Middlebury, the Biomass project is eliminating the need for a million gallons of No.6 fuel oil every year, creating local jobs in the lumber and processing industries and reducing waste, not to mention the trucking jobs created moving 20 to 35 tons of wood chips every day. Right now the wood costs half as much as the fuel oil, so they are saving lots of money; these are all good things. But can you really call it carbon neutral under the circumstances?

More in National Geographic and Addison Independent

More in TreeHugger on Wood as Fuel:
How to Save Fuel Costs with a Wood-Powered Pickup Truck
Wood Heat Rises Again

Don't Bogart That Tree: It's Not Really Carbon Neutral
Trees suck CO2 out of

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