Burning Forests

Online First The Local Climate

I never thought we’d be scraping the bottom of the barrel like this. While Nova Scotian forests once yielded European fleets and world class lumber, today they have been degraded so completely that, in our desperation to continue the roller-coaster ride of clearcut forestry, we’ve begun chopping down the scraps and torching them for electricity, a process known commonly as biomass.

There’s a long standing and poisonous idea that forests have no value outside the industrial theatre, that their ecosystem services can be replaced by a Brita filter or air freshener, and that indulging an industry of old ideas justifies the levelling of what little wilderness we still possess. In this day and age, when we are painfully aware of the importance of standing forests, I expected better.

Burning wood to heat your home is actually quite efficient, depending on your wood stove and sourcing, but to burn forests to boil water to turn turbines to produce electricity (biomass in a nutshell), is extremely inefficient. The Port Hawkesbury biomass plant has a maximum efficiency of around 20 per cent, meaning only one fifth of the wood it consumes produces electricity; the rest is waste. As a consequence, biomass electricity is the most expensive power on the Nova Scotian grid. So how, then, did biomass electricity take the global market by storm as is has this past decade, chipping forests across eastern North America and shipping them off to domestic or European incinerators? A lie, that’s how.

Using kindergarten logic, members of government and industry alike claimed the burning of forests is carbon neutral, because the carbon emitted from an incinerated tree would be reabsorbed when another tree grew in its place. I’m not sure who made this claim first, but as country after country formulated their renewable energy strategies to address climate change, a staggering number listed biomass electricity generation as carbon neutral, establishing the myth which swept the world. In 2010 even Nova Scotia, whose scientific community certainly knew better, declared biomass carbon neutral under its Renewable Electricity Plan. But, of course, it’s not; not even close.

When you clearcut a forest (a routine treatment in eastern North America and especially Nova Scotia) you don’t just remove the trees. You also remove the canopy, drying out and killing the exposed undergrowth and leaving the soil completely unprotected. Much of this soil washes away with the first rain and whatever’s left begins to rapidly decompose under punishing sunlight, releasing its stored carbon in great plumes which, it’s been estimated, amount to twice as much carbon as was stored in the departed trees. This released carbon is not being counted in their claim of carbon neutrality.

Furthermore, a forest’s ability to absorb and store carbon in the first place depends a great deal on its maturity and diversity, both of which are swept away by clearcutting. In some cases these forests took centuries to establish themselves and will take longer still to regrow in depleted soils. In case you’re unfamiliar with the apocalyptic progress of climate change, we don’t have centuries to reabsorb that carbon from the atmosphere. We don’t even have decades.

The regrowth and protection of mature, diverse forests and the ecosystems they support is one of our most effective tools in combating of climate change, but because of reckless and faulty arithmetic we’ve made a bad situation worse; it’s been suggested that biomass emits more carbon in the near-term than coal. Not unlike the blatant lies of “clean coal” and “natural gas,” we the public were fed enough half truths about biomass to avoid serious progress for another decade, even if that decade proves the most consequential in human history.

Our forests, battered from centuries of unsympathetic abuse, are still very capable of beauty and widespread regrowth. We need to nurture that regrowth and speed up that protection with everything at our disposal, and put an end to the age of biomass just as swiftly as we can. Our climatic future is tied, irrevocably, to the state and treatment of our forests, and if they burn today, we burn tomorrow.

Shown above is a clearcut outside Sheet Harbour, Nova Scotia.  (Zack Metcalfe photo)

Zack Metcalfe is a freelance journalist, columnist and author active across the Maritimes. zack.metcalfe@gmail.com