Is burning “Biomass” carbon neutral?

This fundamental question keeps coming back to me again and again from many people. 

Is burning “Biomass” carbon neutral?

FYI: The EIA Greenhouse Gas reporting protocol treats “Biomass” particularly wood or wood-chips carbon neutral.



8 Responses

  1. In some cases, burning organic material to produce CO2 is a net reduction of the greenhouse effect, defying intuition. Methane, for instance, is a much worse greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide (per carbon atom) in terms of the quantity of solar radiation it traps— some feature of the relative infrared transparency of the two gasses. Cow dung contains a lot of methane, which, left on the ground, would escape into the atmosphere and worsen the greenhouse effect. But if the cow dung is burned for fuel, the CO2 it ouputs is not as bad as the methane would have been, and it yields useful energy as well. Clearly, we should be burning all our poop.

    (Source: I heard this from a guest on NPR’s Science Friday.)

  2. Isn’t it obvious, burning wood or oil produced from Rapeseed oil can only ever release carbon that the plant fixed from the atmosphere, IE It cant introduce extra carbon into the universe.
    Just who funds this blog.

    • The issue is timing. Biomass natural decay with the passage of time eventually releases the carbon back to the atmosphere. Not all is released but for the current argument, assume this is the case. Consider the carbon conversion process of forest slash, the stuff left over after the trees are harvested for whatever use. To accelerate the replanting process, the slash is burned and the carbon is released in the form of various gasses most notably, dioxide and monoxide. This is instantaneous in the context of natural decay. If the forest was 39 yrs old as is common in the US NW, it takes that amount of time to reabsorb the released carbon. To sequester the carbon in somewhat real time as much biomass has to be grown in the same year as that burned. As for funding, check out Herbert Spencer’s comment on contempt prior to investigation.

  3. I would be hesitant to call burning biomass “carbon neutral”. The answer seems obvious at first, but with further consideration it raised many questions in my mind. Perhaps I do not fully understand the carbon cycle and bio-systems, but I feel time scales must be considered.

    If I burn a tree that had not been planted for bioenergy, I am converting a solid form of carbon into carbon dioxide gas and releasing it. Carbon dioxide has been collecting by the tree for years and in a matter of minutes, it is released back to the environment. The question in my mind becomes, how many trees do you have to plant to balance the burning of one tree considering an appropriate time scale for both activities (tree burning and tree growing)? Furthermore, if I plant a tree in a forest cleared for bioenergy use, I am replacing one CO2 sink for another.

    Over the time scale of the earth’s life, everything would be carbon neutral – including burning fossil fuels. Plants grew by absorbing CO2 from the atmosphere, brontosauruses ate them, they died and millions of year later, we burned their remains and re-released the CO2 back into the atmosphere. However, if we considered the earth’s life as the time scale for carbon neutrality, we would not be having these discussions.

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