May 18, 2011

Carbon Accounting and the Titanic Analogy

In a Forest Business Network article May 15th, it was reported that:

The National Alliance of Forest Owners (NAFO) told the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) today that they support the proposed rule to defer the regulation of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from biomass for three years while the agency studies the science and policy of regulating biomass energy the same as fossil fuels.

I join NAFO in supporting this rule to defer, too, because carbon accounting has become an incredibly controversial issue between the bioenergy industry and those who seek to obstruct its emergence as an alternative to fossil fuel. Finding clarity on this issue appears to be a losing battle in Massachusetts but there is no reason for the federal EPA to compound their mistake of confusing fossil with biogenic carbon emissions.

I would like to offer an analogy that I think puts in proper perspective the difference between carbon accounting of biogenic feedstock sources (biostock) with those of fossil origin.

GHG emissions was not an issue during pre-Industrial times because the carbon cycle – which includes plowing and tilling of land and harvesting of timber – was closed loop. Whatever the fluctuations, the carbon content of the atmosphere stayed relatively constant.

The advent of the Industrial Age was characterized by the need for denser fuels. Cheap sources of dense fuels were found in subterranean geologic formations in the form of fossil fuels (carbon sequestered as coal and oil). The carbon cycle was violated (open looped) with carbon that had been sequestered for millions of years. Hence the carbon cycle gained input that had been successfuly sequestered. It is estimated that, as of 2009, the carbon content in the atmosphere is a full 39% greater than the pre-industrial levels. The rate of change is increasing (see breakdown of sources in the chart below). That increase from fossil carbon reintroduction to the atmosphere is what should be considered carbon positive.

Carbon accounting that measures biogenic emissions (wood and biomass) and compares it with fossil atmospheric impacts is like comparing the arrangement of deck chairs (biogenic) to the fatal impact of the iceberg (subsurface fossil) on the Titanic.

Fossil carbon is carbon positive and without mitigation, a climate and health threat that is within the authority of the EPA to regulate. Biogenic sources are carbon neutral and should be exempt from EPA comparative accounting.

I welcome comments that support or challenge this analogy.


technorati , , , ,

1 comment:

C. Scott Miller said...

The "losing battle in Massachusetts" was set in motion by the unfortunate press negative interpretation of the results from the so-called "Manomet Study." This study used a model of carbon accounting for forest biomass (whole trees) as a carbon "debt-then-dividend" scenario where the carbon debt of harvesting of a tree is "paid off" over a long time before there is any dividend.

A more accurate perspective is the "dividend then benefit" scenario in a paper by FutureMetrics President, Dr. William Strauss (see He portrays a view of a forest system that is continually regenerating and storing carbon, thereby never passing carbon neutral. The dividend accrues when the harvested trees are used for energy generation to replace fossil fuel usage that is blatantly carbon positive (adding carbon to the atmosphere that wasn't there before).