By Maura Adams and Rob Riley

Climate change is scientifically complex and politically fraught, yet very clear. Long-term data combined with local observation tell us that natural cycles are changing, and with significant effect. 

Maine forest webAt the Northern Forest Center, we pay special attention to news and studies about the role forests and forest products play in mitigating climate change – and to media stories that mischaracterize the carbon impact of using wood in our context. And there are many.

For example, we would have expected a more nuanced piece from climate activist Bill McKibben when he attacked every form of biomass energy in a recent New Yorker article: “Don’t Burn Trees to Fight Climate Change – Let Them Grow” (8/15/19). Like others, he fails to recognize essential lifecycle distinctions that affect the equation for carbon impact of using wood for energy in places like New England. 

By condemning use of wood for energy under all circumstances, McKibben and others dismiss an important means of reducing carbon emissions: displacing fossil fuels by instead heating homes and buildings with advanced wood heating systems using regionally-produced wood pellets or chips from managed forests. In many cases these pellets are made of sawdust that is the by-product from dimensional lumber, furniture, flooring, and other wood products manufacturing. 

In 2015 the Northern Forest Center commissioned an independent analysis of the greenhouse gas impacts of using state-of-the-art wood heating systems in the Northeast. The study conducted by The Spatial Informatics Group-Natural Assets Laboratory considered the entire life cycle – fuel sourcing, harvesting, processing and combustion – and concluded that using regionally-produced wood pellets immediately cuts greenhouse gases by 54 percent when it replaces heating oil, and by 59 percent when it replaces natural gas. 

Fifty to sixty percent greenhouse gas reduction is an excellent place to start in loosening the grip that fossil fuels have on heating our region, especially when we can make this vast improvement using local and sustainably managed wood and waste from wood products manufacturing. Good forest management is good carbon management.

We frequently read articles that conflate very different uses of wood energy and claim they all have the same climate impact. McKibben, for example, mentions Middlebury College’s wood energy system as though its impact is on par with England’s giant Drax electric plant, powered by hundreds of thousands of tons of wood pellets from the southeastern U.S. In contrast, Middlebury uses wood chips from forests within a roughly 50-mile radius and its plant primarily produces heat – a much more efficient use of the wood resource.

Climate change is a paramount issue and we embrace continuous learning in this field. At the same time, we implore climate activists and the academic community to be clear and precise in their communications about it – lest they inadvertently turn people against products or technologies that could, in the appropriate context, significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. 

In the Northern Forest we should be applauding not only the people who drive electric cars and have solar panels on their roofs, but also those who heat with wood for their contribution to carbon reduction. 

Feel Good Heat. Enough said.  

Rob Riley is President and Maura Adams is a Program Director of the Northern Forest Center.