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The Full Story

In an op-ed touting the Governor's Clean Fuel Standard Act in 2022, a thinly veiled attempt to establish a carbon credit and trading market in the NM under the guise of a climate action bill, Secretary of NMED Kenney writes: "In addition, this bill creates opportunities for the state’s farming communities to capitalize on converting biomass — plant and animal waste — to renewable natural gas and additional opportunities for other biomass, including the production waste from some of our proudest crops, chiles and pecans. The Clean Fuel Standard Act provides opportunities for New Mexico farmers and ranchers to supply the biomass to produce clean energy fuels. This is the hallmark of a circular economy and the Clean Fuel Standard Act is just the spark we need to ignite it." 

Burning biomass, especially wood, in huge volumes for energy releases greenhouse gases (GHG) into the atmosphere. In fact, burning wood for energy produces at least as much CO2 as burning coal per unit of energy produced, and usually more. Yet many countries treat biomass energy as zero carbon or carbon neutral and therefore give it financial and regulatory support as a ‘renewable’ energy.

The carbon emissions released when biomass is burned to produce energy are not reported nor accounted for in the energy sector accounts of the country where the biomass is consumed. This is in stark contrast to how emissions are recorded for all other energy sources, which are accounted for in the energy sector of the country where they are consumed. Treating biomass differently creates a false impression of zero emissions for biomass energy, in comparison to emissions from burning fossil fuels. Instead of counting biomass emissions at the smokestack, the GHG emissions from biomass energy are supposedly accounted for in the Land Sector where the biomass is logged. However, in the land sector, the emissions sources are never broken down to show emissions resulting from biomass burning for energy, instead they show only the overall change in forest cover from all causes.

The assumption is often made that trees and forests will grow back and, in doing so, reabsorb the carbon emitted from burning as part of the natural carbon cycle. At that point biomass energy would become carbon neutral, but this is a false assumption.

A carbon debt is created as soon as the biomass is burned. If the expected regrowth happens it will take anywhere from decades to centuries to pay back that carbon debt, depending on the type of wood that was burned and the ecosystem or manmade plantation from which it was logged. In the meanwhile, the GHGs emitted are in the atmosphere contributing to climate change.

The Paris Agreement contains important timelines for action in reducing emissions that must be met if we are to have any hope of limiting climate change to 1.5 or 2 degrees of warming. These targets are for 2030 and 2050 – too short a timeframe for the volume of emissions from biomass burning to ever be captured through forest regrowth (sequestration). And the burning continues year on year.

And do logged forests really grow back? Nobody is officially checking the assumption that the forests or plantations will grow back to what they were before. Observations from on the ground, are that they often are not.

The consequences

Failure to account for emissions from burning biomass in the energy sector is resulting in:

  • Dramatic expansion of the biomass energy industry with wood pellets comprising the major commodity supplying it. Having already doubled to 14 million tonnes in the preceding decade, global supply and demand for biomass is likely to exceed a 250% increase by 2027, to over 36 million tonnes.

  • Harm to the clean energy transition. Biomass energy dominates ‘renewable’ energy production, dwarfing wind and solar and undermining their prospects by soaking up subsidies that should be applied to genuinely low emissions technologies.

  • Global inequity and injustice. When biomass is traded from one country to another, responsibility for emissions is externalized from the biomass consumer to the biomass producer. This trend will escalate as biomass is increasingly sourced from outside the big biomass energy consuming blocs of Europe, the UK, South Korea and Japan and the Global South is drawn into the supply chain. In this scenario, countries in the Global South will bear responsibility for the emissions from biomass burned in the Global North, who in turn will be able to claim emissions reductions.

  • Expansion of monoculture plantations. Conversion of forests and other ecosystems to industrial monoculture tree plantations for biomass has serious impacts on communities, ecosystems, food production, water availability, and the climate.

  • Undermining of community rights. Demand for biomass and the associated increase in monoculture plantations, exacerbates conflicts over land and forest resources, including land grabbing. This threatens the rights and very existence of Indigenous and tribal peoples and local communities, as well as businesses relying on forest resources. The negative effects can also have impacts on food security for the wider populace.

  • Diminished ability of natural forests to remove carbon from the atmosphere. Using biomass for energy entrenches, intensifies and expands logging, which degrades forest ecosystems and results in large immediate emissions. It also diminishes the ability of those forests to sequester carbon. Biodiversity and soils are depleted, as are ecosystem services like clean drinking water, flood protection, and clean air. These impacts come at a time when we recognise that rights-based protection and ecological restoration improve the health and well-being of forests and make them more resilient to climate change and other environmental disturbances.

  • False claims that Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS) could be carbon negative when it relies on the premise that biomass energy is carbon neutral, which it is not. This is in addition to serious doubts over the feasibility of carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology.

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