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Diving Deeper

Our Work in Biomass

Related Focus Area: Bioenergy

Research shows that the climate impact of biomass-burning power plants depends greatly on the type of biomass being burned, and that nominally “carbon neutral” biomass power systems can take many decades to produce a net climate benefit.

CATF engages with scientists, policymakers, and energy companies to ensure that climate change policies properly count and regulate the greenhouse gas emissions from biomass power.

CATF works to promote policies that tackle head-on the complex assortment of impacts that biomass-based power production has on climate change. Policies that ignore these impacts and treat biomass power as uniformly “carbon neutral” undermine the real opportunities for climate change mitigation that can be achieved through comprehensive forest protection and management initiatives.

However green it may sound, biomass power suffers from the inescapable fact that burning wood in a power plant and using the heat to produce electricity emits significantly more carbon dioxide per watt generated than coal-fired power generation. Harvesting that wood from forests can also reduce the forests’ capacity to sequester carbon dioxide either temporarily (if the harvested forest is allowed to regrow) or permanently (if the land shifts to some other use).

Biomass Emissions Rate Graph

Some climate regulations ignore the greenhouse gas emissions from biomass-burning power plants, on the assumption that the emissions will be recaptured as trees grow back. But the harvested forest may not regrow, or it may regrow only partially, in which case the combustion emissions are not offset. And even if emissions are reduced by regrowth later in time, the offsetting reductions are significantly delayed.

Research shows that the climate impact of biomass combustion depends greatly on the type of feedstock being used. Using certain kinds of carefully selected biomass to generate power can result in near-term climate benefits; in most cases, though, it takes years, decades, or even centuries for biomass-based power generation to achieve a net reduction in carbon dioxide emissions as compared to fossil fuel-based power generation.