FOR TOO LONG, burning wood has been wrongly considered “clean” energy, when in fact it is bad for both the climate and human health. With two recent decisions, Massachusetts seems poised to reverse direction on this false solution and prioritize healthier communities and a safer climate. While these are steps in the right direction, they are only the first of what is needed, and the Commonwealth has an opportunity to lead.
Springfield is the nation’s “asthma capital,” where residents face some of the highest rates of respiratory illness in the country as a result of decades of environmental hazards and heightened levels of air pollution. Springfield is also an environmental justice community, whose residents have spent 12 years fighting construction of a biomass plant proposed in their backyard. The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection recently revoked the developer’s Air Plan Approval, citing “the heightened focus on environmental and health impacts on environmental justice populations from sources of pollution” in the nine years since the permit was first approved.
This decision and a new proposal from the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources to strengthen the state’s Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard are welcome recognition that the health and well-being of the community and the environment are inextricably linked.
While these are huge steps in the right direction for Springfield, as well as for other environmental justice communities, in Massachusetts and many other states burning wood to generate electricity is currently considered “renewable” and eligible for incentives under the states’ Renewable Portfolio Standard, a policy that is intended to drive adoption of “clean” energy. But biomass is a false solution that serves neither our climate nor our communities.
For humanity to have a viable future, climate and public health policies must be based on science, not industry messaging. And the science is clear: to have a chance of an acceptable future, we need to immediately and drastically reduce carbon emissions to the atmosphere, and also remove a massive amount of CO2 from the atmosphere. Burning our forests is incompatible with both of those goals and harmful to our health.
Burning wood for energy actually adds more carbon to the atmosphere than burning fossil fuels does (for a given amount of energy generated) and results in elevated levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide which last decades. Elevating carbon dioxide, even temporarily, has irreversible consequences, like loss of land ice, sea level rise, greenhouse gases emitted from thawing permafrost, extreme weather, and more.
Besides ending greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere, science tells us that we must also remove a massive amount of the carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Forests already do this, capturing nearly a quarter of human greenhouse gas emissions yearly. When we cut and burn them, we not only release the carbon they hold, we eliminate their carbon-absorbing capacity for decades to come. And planting new trees does not make up for that, as small trees can absorb and hold only a fraction of what mature trees do. Thus, protecting and restoring standing forests is imperative for stabilizing our climate.
In addition to being incompatible with our climate goals, biomass is also incompatible with public health. Burning wood to make electricity poses a significant health threat to communities adjacent to polluting facilities, as well as those across the globe. In addition to emitting carbon, which produces widespread adverse health effects, biomass plants produce harmful and toxic particulate matter containing mercury and lead that have been directly linked to public health impacts from respiratory conditions like asthma to diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.
To repair our climate, it is essential to let forests grow, not cut them down and burn them. To heal our most overburdened communities, we must stop polluting them and take steps to redress generations of environmental harm imposed upon them. When it comes to biomass, we must heed the science that tells us burning wood for energy is bad for climate and worse for the air breathed in environmental justice communities. Let’s have the recent decisions being made in Massachusetts be the first of many to strip biomass of its flawed designation as a low-carbon source of energy, and spend our effort and resources on solutions that will lead to a healthier climate and cleaner air for all our communities.
Dr. Philip Duffy is president and executive director of Woodwell Climate Research Center in Woods Hole and Dr. Alexander Rabin is assistant professor of medicine at Tufts University School of Medicine specializing in pulmonary and critical care medicine.