A UK government-commissioned report finds that economic decision-making driving forestry practices in North America: the main value of a tree is in sawlogs, not biomass for wood pellet production.
In July 2014, the UK Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) published the Bioenergy Emissions and Counterfactual (BEAC) model, which investigates the impact on carbon emissions of various ways of sourcing woody biomass from North America to produce electricity in the UK. The calculator estimates the greenhouse gas (GHG) intensity by taking into account the counterfactual land use for the scenario (i.e. what the land or wood would have been used for if it was not used for bioenergy).
BEAC shows that some scenarios could save considerable carbon emissions compared to fossil fuels, whilst if others occurred they could cause emissions greater than fossil fuels. BEAC did not assess the likelihood of particular scenarios so, in spring 2015, DECC commissioned an independent study, “Use of North American woody biomass in UK electricity generation: Assessment of high carbon biomass fuel sourcing scenarios“, led by Ricardo-AEA and including North American forestry experts, to assess the likelihood that the most carbon intensive BEAC scenarios are happening now or if they might happen in the future, and what might drive or constrain them.
Economic decisions drive forestry
The study, recently made public by DECC’s successor, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) found that the majority of the high carbon scenarios identified in the BEAC report are unlikely to occur, but there are four that may be already happening or may happen in the future, although their scale is likely to be limited or uncertain.
The research identified economic decision making as driving forestry practices: the main value of a tree is in sawlogs, not biomass for wood pellet production. Therefore, it is unlikely that demand for biomass would cause foresters to change behaviour to harvest sooner than they intended or to switch to supplying wood for bioenergy, but they may increase the intensity with which they manage forests.