Is Burning Trees Carbon Neutral?

By, Zachariah Ralph

This past week Sustainable Woodstock, in collaboration with the Sierra Club Upper Valley Group, and Pentangle, hosted a screening of the newly released documentary, BURNED. Are tree the New Coal? The filmmakers and producers joined us for a post screening panel discussion. DISCLAIMER the contents of the film and in this article describe extreme examples of bad practices from the forest products industry, which is not necessarily reflective of forestry practices in VT, and especially for wood heat. In many cases, forestry practices in Vermont are very sustainable and should be an example of how other states should manage their forests.

Filmmakers Alan Dater, Lisa Mertons, and Chris Hardee answer questions during a panel discussion.

Filmmakers Alan Dater, Lisa Mertons, and Chris Hardee answer questions during a panel discussion.

BURNED is a documentary that explores the wood to energy industry in the U.S. by specifically looking into three operations across the U.S. The film works to debunk myths propagated by the forest products industry about wood being carbon neutral. It also explores how policies in the European Union are leading to deforestation in the southern U.S., and global activism working to stop these types of practices.

BURNED was produced by Marlboro Productions which is based in Marlboro, VT. The screening of BURNED in Woodstock was part of the “Barn Brainstorming” tour which has so far taken them to venues in North Carolina, Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland, and Michigan.

Even before the film screened we ran into opposition from proponents of modern wood heat who were afraid of being put on the defensive despite the film not being about burning wood for heat. The documentary instead focused on industrial deforestation for the production of wood pellets to be shipped abroad to facilities in the European Union, and specifically the United Kingdom, where the wood pellets were burned to create electricity. So while the film did not talk about burning wood for heat, it was a warning about how myths around wood burning being carbon neutral can lead to bad practices of deforestation.

Policies in the U.K. recognize burning wood for electrical generation as being carbon neutral because of an error made in calculating how new tree growth offsets the carbon footprint of burning them. This has led the many formerly coal burning power plants to start burning wood pellets. In order for U.S. wood pellet manufacturers to keep up with the massive demand of these facilities, they are not using sustainable forestry practices. Wood pellets are typically described by manufacturers as being from the debris left over from the harvesting of trees for lumber. The film showed that wood pellet companies are harvesting whole trees and deforesting large areas of land and replanting the area with a single tree species which is destroying the natural ecosystem. In addition to bad forestry practices in the South, in the Upper Peninsula in Michigan, residents are dealing with air pollution from an incinerator, which is burning chipped railroad ties covered in chemicals. In Berlin, NH residents struggle with the idea of creating jobs by bringing in wood pellet manufacturer or focusing on a local economy. Meanwhile wood products industry lobbyists continue to push the myth that burning trees is carbon neutral leading to massive subsidies from the federal government and states, which continue to drive this industry and exacerbates the problem.

The discussion after the film was lively. There was a great turn out of people including several foresters and loggers who rightfully pointed out that what they do in VT is different from what is done in the south.  John Dumas from Hartland pointed out that there are many foresters and loggers in VT who are very vigilant about making sure that they are using healthy forestry practices. This sparked a debate amongst the panelists and audience about what is sustainable. Vermont is seeing a decline in its forest coverage for the first time in 100 years according to a 2016 USDA report on Vermont Forests, but this is primarily due to development.

The most important and poignant question of the night, in my opinion, was “what do we do to replace burning wood for electricity?” The answer to this of course is to create more renewable energy resources like wind and solar. The longer we wait to create renewable energy resources to meet all of our electrical needs the more we will see deforestation, pollution and monoculture from wood pellet production.

JUST DO ONE THING. Invest in Renewable Energy!

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