Biomass Industry Forest Carbon Accounting Explained Simply (Investors, Take Note!)

The biomass and forestry industries often claim that cutting trees to burn in power plants has no carbon emissions, because emissions from cutting and burning trees over here are offset by trees growing and taking up carbon over there. Here’s an analogy to explain why this argument is deceptive.

Imagine a Savvy Investor who has all his money at an investment firm where it’s growing and compounding.  But one day he decides to pull out all his money and spend it on a new Camaro, leaving him with nothing in the account.

“Not a problem! he says. “I’ll just go to my investment advisor, and say, hey, this firm did such a great job growing my money, and it’s making money for other people, too. Why should I have to pay for that Camaro? I’ll just have the firm credit the interest being earned in other accounts over into mine, and that will rebuild my account.”

What answer do you think he would get? And what kind of returns could a firm realize if they managed money like that?  It might keep making money for a while – but the amount of money held at the firm would be less than before Savvy Investor bought that Camaro.

This is the same reasoning that the biomass energy industry uses to claim that even though they’re cutting trees for biomass fuel, this won’t increase atmospheric carbon emissions, because “trees somewhere are still growing,” or, “foresters are replanting trees.”

To think about this analogy, it helps to know that growing one ton of forest wood takes just over one ton of CO2 out of the atmosphere, and likewise, that burning one ton of wood emits one ton of CO2.  (Also, while we’re at it, let’s pretend that policymakers actually care about reducing atmospheric CO2 enough that there’s a cost to emitting it.)

Here’s the bioenergy analogy.  Imagine – no wait, you don’t have to imagine, this actually happens – a Savvy Biomass Profiteer who clearcuts a forest for biomass fuel, reducing the forest to “stumps and mud,” and liquidating tens of thousands of tons of forest carbon into the atmosphere when the wood is burned.  Emitting this carbon carries a penalty.


Before and after shots of 65-acre hardwood clearcut along the Roanoke River in North Carolina. (36.163996, -77.285538). At average standing biomass of North Carolina’s forests, this clearcut liquidated about 6,045 tons of forest biomass. This clearcut is 20 – 40 miles from three Enviva pellet plants.  Enviva is pelletizing US forests to send to Europe and is a sponsor of a conference intended to show US utilities how to keep “aging” coal plant assets operating by switching to wood pellets. 

“Not a problem!” says he. “This forest was growing before I cut it, and other American forests are doing a great job growing wood and taking carbon out of the atmosphere, too. Why should I have to pay for the CO2 emitted by obliterating that forest? I’ll just tell people that I’m taking credit for forest carbon uptake that’s happening somewhere else, and wipe away my debt.”

Just as for the investment analogy, forests as a whole may continue to grow and accumulate carbon under this scenario – but the amount of carbon held in the forest “account” will be lower than before Savvy Biomass Profiteer clearcut the forest. Unfortunately for the public that’s been suckered by this argument, the balance of forest carbon will be in the atmosphere, warming the climate and acidifying the oceans just as effectively as fossil fuel carbon (also unfortunate:  the public is paying the biomass industry millions in tax credits and subsidies to cut forests and increase carbon emissions).

If you’re someone who’s been taken in by industry arguments that cutting forests doesn’t emit CO2, don’t feel bad, because as the biomass industry loves to explain, forests are big, and they’re complicated, and there are a lot of dynamics, see – so ordinary folks should just leave forest carbon accounting to the very people who have everything to gain from burning trees and claiming this has zero carbon emissions.

But if you are still buying their claims, maybe try asking your investment advisor or banker if they’ll transfer money from other peoples’ accounts into yours. Good luck!

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