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Video: Science on must-fix biomass carbon accounting error

Nathanael Greene

Posted October 26, 2009

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Last Thursday, Science published a very important article by a group of prominent scientists and ecologist about a common error in accounting for carbon from biomass and bioenergy. This might seem really boring at first but it's critically important to stopping global warming and protecting our wild forests and grasslands.

My colleague, Dan Lashof, did a great blog on this report last week. In an effort to explain the accounting error in a potentially more gripping format and suggest some solutions, I prepared the the following video. Homemade, you bet! Watch out for bad lighting and bad drawing. But I hope that it helps.

In the video, I mentioned how many make the common error of pointing to past carbon absorption by plants as an excuse to assume that all biomass emissions are carbon neutral. Here's a timely example in a statement released last week by Bio.

I also talk about how getting this wrong threatens all the world's wild forests and grasslands. Another study in Science from earlier this year (here's a bit more info with a key graphic), actually modeled the balloon effect I demonstrate so vividly.

Wondering what I'm talking about? Check out my video below:

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Peter StaatsOct 26 2009 07:13 PM

Of course burning biofuels creates CO2 just as fossil fuels do. So what? The influence of anthropogenic CO2 on global warming is miniscule. All of this effort to tax carbon emissions will not not have any effect on global warming, but will fill a lot of pockets in industry and government.

Nathan MuellerOct 28 2009 04:02 PM

Oscar material - nice video!

Bruce DaleOct 29 2009 09:44 AM

Thanks for the helpful and entertaining video, Nathanael. I realize that not everything can be addressed in 5 minutes, so I want to raise a couple of issues for the conversation.

First, biofuels are not "just" about greenhouse gas reduction, as important as that is. Biofuels fulfil other important policy roles including reduction in oil imports and improving farm incomes. I realize the NRDC has its own priorities, but it is important not to slight these other priorities in an exclusive emphasis on carbon emissions.

Second, the video did not address the critical issue of indirect land use change...the biggest controversy currently surrounding biofuel carbon emissions. Indirect land use analysis makes biofuels "responsible" for the greenhouse gas emissions of other products such as animal feed, pulp and paper, etc. Therefore, indirect land use change analysis is a severe misuse of life cycle accounting principles that this video aims to correct.

I would have felt much better about the video if the indirect land use change issue had been identified by name and if it had pointed out the discrepancy between the correct carbon accounting NRDC is trying to promote and the misuse of carbon accounting that is carried out under the umbrella of indirect land use change.

Geoff CooperOct 30 2009 03:34 PM

Dr. Dale is right: the issue is land use cange. And right now there's no credible evidence that positively and defensibly links a decision to clear land in Peru with a decision to increase biofuel production in the U.S.

Lumping biogenic emissions from biomass combustion together with emissions from land use just obfuscates the issue and doesn't solve anything. If the goal of the "accounting fix" is to discourage or stop deforestation, how exactly does the "fix" do that? Requiring U.S. biopower or biofuels producers to hold allowances or purchase offsets for biogenic CO2 emissions from sustainably harvested biomass will do nothing to stop deforestation in the Amazon or Malaysia. Until every country in the world agrees to hold its own industries responsible for their direct carbon impacts, the shell game will go on. If you're trying to punish a thief for stealing, do you throw his innocent brother in jail? Of course not. Then why does it make sense to penalize U.S. biomass users for behaviors that are unrelated to their supply chain and over which they exercise no control?

And saying that a biogenic carbon emission is the same as a fossil carbon emission is like saying a beer can made from recycled aluminum is the same as a can made from aluminum recently mined from the ground.

So land use emissions should be accounted for seperately from biomass combustion emissions. And there's no defensible reason not to assume the biogenic emissions aren't offset by the CO2 uptake of the next growing crop. In other words, this isn't an accounting error. And if ain't broke, don't fix it.

Nathanael GreeneNov 1 2009 09:52 AM

Actually, Geoff, your aluminum can analogy is perfect for explaining why you've got this wrong. No one would argue that just because a can can be recycled, we should automatically assume that all cans are recycled, but that's what we're doing with biomass. There's no debate that some land management practices sequester carbon and other release it. We don't allow recycled content claims until the aluminum has actually been recycled; we shouldn't allow claims of carbon neutrality until the land is actually being managed in a carbon neutral way. The current blind assumption of carbon neutrality isn't just broke, it's a pure fantasy.

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