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5 Reasons Scientists are Making the Case for Renewable Wood Energy and Forest Products

Could using more trees be part of the solution to climate change? The answer might just be yes, according to the United Nations and an increasing number of scientists.

Renewable wood energy and other forest products are increasingly gaining notice as a critical part of the fight to keep global temperatures in check – while ensuring that private landowners keep growing more trees.

“Using trees to save trees is a hard concept to get our head around; it’s not intuitive unless you’ve really delved into the science,” says Jennifer Jenkins, the Chief Sustainability Officer for Enviva Biomass, the world’s largest producer of wood pellets used for renewable energy. “But the consistent support from the U.N. and other scientists is starting to give people a better understanding of the role that forest products and sustainable forest management must play in an all-in renewables solution.”

closeup image of wood pellets Wood pellets are used for renewable energy. (Photo: stockcreations/Shutterstock)

An August report by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, “Climate Change and Land,” noted that, “Sustainable forest management can reduce the extent of forest conversion to non-forest uses” and specifically calls out forest management aimed at providing timber, fiber, and biomass.

Widely considered the world’s leading authority on climate science, the U.N. IPCC has repeatedly cited the important role of wood biomass and broader forest product industries. According to the IPCC, every pathway to keeping temperature increases under 1.5 degrees Celsius includes sustainable forestry and wood biomass.

Importantly, the IPCC report was prepared by more than 100 climate scientists from more than 50 countries, who examined more than 7,000 academic papers to reach their recommendation that wood biomass is necessary in the fight to combat climate change.

And more scientists are starting to speak out. In September, another group of more than 100 forest science researchers from universities around the world wrote a letter on the importance of displacing fossil fuels with renewable wood energy.

5 Ways that Renewable Wood Energy and Forest Products Help Fight Climate Change

  • Renewable wood energy replaces coal and other fossil fuels. Bioenergy is a critical part of an all-in strategy to reduce emissions and replace coal. Bioenergy helps heat generators and power producers reduce their carbon footprint up to 85% on a lifecycle basis. As the recent letter from forest scientists emphasized, “the long-term [carbon] benefits of forest biomass energy are well-established in science literature.”
  • Bioenergy complements solar and wind. There are times, of course, when it’s cloudy or there is no wind. Absent bioenergy, the backup solution to the intermittent nature of solar and wind is coal. Renewable wood energy helps ensure a 100% renewable solution by replacing coal.
  • Wood buildings mean less cement. Cement accounts for about 8% of the world’s CO2 emissions. But innovative mass timber products are one way to use less cement. Using new wood technologies in buildings 7 to 15 stories tall could have the same emissions control effect as taking more than 2 million cars off the road for one year.
  • Wood-based packaging can eliminate many single-use plastics. “Paper or plastic?” If you go to a store that still uses plastic bags, this is a common question. Unfortunately, overuse of plastic not only means more use of fossil fuels, it also means more garbage. It is estimated that by 2050 there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish. Most single-use plastic products can be easily replaced with recyclable (and compostable) paper substitutes.
  • More forest products = more trees. Most forest land in the United States is owned by private landowners. And, these landowners have choices. They can grow trees, or cotton. They can raise cattle, or sell their land for development. A robust market for forest products means that private landowners will continue planting trees. The U.N. IPCC emphasized this point recently, noting, “a sustainable forest management strategy aimed at maintaining or increasing forest carbon stocks, while producing an annual sustained yield of timber, fiber or energy from the forest, will generate the largest sustained mitigation benefit.”

Each day, foresters are growing more trees and expanding the carbon sink. The total volume of trees grown in the Southeastern U.S. has increased by 50 percent over the last half-century, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Private landowners are growing 40 percent more wood than they remove every year.

The case for forest products as a solution to climate change is continuing to gain support, and as the climate crisis continues to worsen, this could not come at a more important time.