Posted by: Dave Neads | December 11, 2007

CO2, Trees and Electricity

There is a myth being put about by the provincial government, logging companies and bioenergy investors. If it were harmless, this myth would not be so bad, but this myth has the potential to cause great harm to us and our children.

The myth says that burning trees to create electricity is carbon neutral when, in fact, nothing could be farther from the truth. Burning trees to create electricity increases carbon dioxide emissions substantially and rapidly, contributing to the global warming problem. Instead of looking to other technologies, we’re engulfed in a gold rush mentality to burn trees. We really need to slow down, take a breath and look at the energy options before we make a huge mistake and commit money and infrastructure to an unsustainable process which just throws more gasoline on the fire.

First we need to examine the claim that burning trees is carbon neutral. ….

This Forest is NOT dead!

The proponents of this view say that the tree has already taken the carbon out of the environment so putting it back by burning does not increase risk of warming. Such nonsense! That is like saying burning coal does not add to the emissions problem because the carbon was taken out of the air by plants long ago, so putting it back doesn’t add to the global amount. In fact, if you use this logic, all carbon emissions are neutral because all carbon is locked up in a biological or chemical processes at one time or another before being oxidized and released into the air around us. In the end, releasing carbon is releasing carbon no matter when it was locked up or by what process.

The second claim of the myth says that the trees are going to rot anyway, so we may as well burn them and get some benefit. This claim ignores the fact that a tree takes 20 to 40 years to rot. Therefore burning it today automatically releases the carbon at 20 to 40 times the rate of the natural process.

In addition, when a tree rots not all of the carbon is oxidized. Much of it is fixed by anaerobic bacteria and other ecosystem elements, thereby going straight into the soils and plants without making CO2. So the amount of carbon released by rotting is much less than by burning.

Finally there is the most colossal claim of all, the proposition that the forest is dead and that we must ‘rehabilitate’ it.

A sober, scientific look at what really happens in the forest reveals some surprising facts and shows just how false this claim really is. Typically in a forest there is as much wood in downed and woody debris as there is in the standing trees. This means that there is actually twice as much carbon locked up in the whole system as there is in just the standing forest. Rates of decay normally match rates of uptake, so the forest over time is in a steady state. Beetle-killed trees will fall over, and as they decay, the rate of uptake in new growth of the regenerating stands will be more than normal. This means that when combined with the carbon sequestered in the fallen trees, the amount of carbon stored in the forest in the short term will actually increase. In the longer period, a return to a steady state will occur. So, over the span of 100 years the whole beetle event will actually be carbon neutral.

If the downed and coarse woody debris is removed for burning, the amount of carbon released will rise dramatically. This is just the opposite of what happens if you leave the trees on the forest floor to contribute to the cycle.

But that is not all. There are two basic processes in the forest. Some organisms fix carbon (trees, plants etc) and some organisms use this fixed carbon (ants, small animals, fungi etc). Up to one third or more of the biological activity and diversity in the forest is found in this interaction between soils and small to microscopic life.

If logging which already removes huge amounts of the material that fuels this process is increased and more of the coarse woody debris is removed for industrial purposes, then this element of the forest ecosystem will be starved out and disappear.

While we may not care if these small critters die out, the consequences for the soils and forest management is huge if they do.

As any good farmer knows, to get good crops you must manage organic matter in such a way as to enrich soils, retain moisture and provide for resistance against disease and changing climate conditions.

Forest management which strips the organic matter from the forests interrupts this process, resulting in increasingly impoverished soils which will change the basic forest structure. Many species of organisms will die out, other invasive ones will move in, and forest function will be altered drastically. The natural bounty we have come to rely on will disappear and we will have to increasingly intervene in forest management which inevitably increases carbon release through processes such as fertilizing and thinning. At the same time burning all the extra wood that needs to be left on the forest floor will release far more CO2 into the already overburdened atmosphere; just the opposite of what needs to happen.

The new young trees growing under the dead pine trees are doing just fine. They are locking up carbon, providing habitat and starting the process of renewal. Just left alone, the forest will regrow, will respond to the new climate issues in a way far better than clear cutting, roading and burning of slash piles can ever do.

On top of that is the CO2 released during logging, transporting, making chips for burning. All these processes create emissions above and beyond what can ever be balanced.

Taken together, these factors clearly demonstrate that burning trees to make electricity is adding more greenhouse emissions into an already overheated system. The self-serving myth that burning forests to make electricity is a good thing is just another example of the same old thinking that has gotten us into the current mess. It must be abandoned.

In the past, we have always looked for the ‘Silver Bullet’. The one big fix to solve our problems. Build a big dam. Burn several hundred thousand cubic metres of wood. Bigger, bigger, bigger.

This is not a survival strategy, this is a continued slide into oblivion. The successful survivors on this planet use the principle of diversity to stay strong and well. From the human body to forests, the principle invoked is the same. Many small inputs are used to keep the process healthy. If we apply this type of thinking to our energy needs we can come out ahead.

A little co-gen from hog fuel, a little run of the river, a little solar, a little conservation, a little change in our expectations–add these up and you don’t have to burn the trees and dump huge amounts of new CO2 into the air.

There are alternatives. Now is the time to investigate them before we make another set of decisions which will hasten the demise of our lifestyle and reduce the chances of us surviving on this planet.

Many interior communities are among the sunniest places in B.C. Suppose thse towns installed solar plants to make hydrogen to run the turbines? Suppose there was a 30 percent reduction in consumption? Suppose there was a hybrid garbage/hog fuel system? Suppose we became green leaders, showing the rest of the province what the Interior can do?


  1. Dave, I like that you have grounded all of this information in the reality of your solar-powered existence. Makes your recommendations more credible.

  2. Hi Dave,
    thanks for that, it’s always helpful when someone takes the time to explain something like forest floor regeneration in detail.

  3. Thank you for the explanation. Not being involved on a day to day basis looking at and reading environmental subjects, I get swayed by what I hear from the people who will profit from doing things. Until now, I thought it would be good if we could burn waste wood to generate electricity. Now I’m not so sure.
    However, I would like to see us use up the logging waste which is now just piled up and burned on site…if we are going to burn it anyway.

  4. how do solar panels create good paying jobs for people who need to pay their mortgages and feed their families? I already have energy star appliances in my home, and use electric space heaters instead of my 80 percent effiency nat. gas furnace, because gas is so expensive . We have r-60 insulation in our attic, and use cold water to wash laundry. Our winters last from Oct. to mid May here in Mackenzie. It seems to me that people in the south don’t understand that we in the north like to be clean and warm, just as they are.

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