Fighting climate change with bioenergy may do ‘more harm than good’

  • A new study finds land-use like grazing and managing forests for resource extraction may have released more carbon than previously thought. Its results indicate the world’s terrestrial vegetation is currently sequestering less than half its full carbon-storage potential.
  • Of that missing half, the researchers discovered 42 to 47 percent is attributed to land uses that don’t technically change the vegetation cover type. The researchers say that climate change mitigation strategies often focus on reducing intensive land-use like deforestation, with less-intensive uses that don’t change cover type largely overlooked and under-researched.
  • One of these less-intensive uses is managing forests for biomass energy production. Many countries are trying to replace fossil fuels with biomass energy in-line with international climate agreements like the Paris Accord.
  • The researchers warn that strategies developed under the assumption that producing biomass energy doesn’t come at a carbon cost could harm efforts to fight climate change. They urge that in addition to stopping deforestation, the protection of forest functions, like carbon stocks, should be moved more into focus when it comes to land-use and climate change planning.

As nations try to stem emissions to keep the world from warming more than 2 degrees Celsius in line with their commitments towards the Paris Accord, replacing fossil fuels with renewable alternatives is widely seen as a big step in the right direction. A major source of energy oft-extolled as renewable is biomass from trees, which are usually harvested from managed forests either established on land that has already been deforested or planted where forests didn’t naturally grow. But a new study finds land-use like managing forests for biomass production may come at a much higher carbon cost than previously thought.
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