Research examines carbon neutrality of sustainably sourced biomass in U.S. Southeast
February 17, 2023 | 11:18 am CST
Enviva Waycross GA Wood Pellet Plant

Enviva biomass plant in Georgia.

BETHESDA, Md. – A peer-reviewed study has been published in the scientific journal, Nature, that found that the wood pellet industry has met the overall condition of forest carbon neutrality in the U.S. Southeast between 2000 and 2019.

Enviva Inc., the world’s leading producer of sustainably sourced woody biomass, along with the U.S. Industrial Pellet Association (USIPA), welcomed the study, titled “Impacts of the US southeast wood pellet industry on local forest carbon stocks." 

biomass chart
Total wood pelletization capacity in the US coastal southeast, 2000–2019. Source: Researchers adapted a chart from FORISK Consulting. U.S. Wood Bioenergy Database (2020). 

The 2022 study in Nature reports that carbon neutrality guidelines have been met by biomass producers in the U.S. Southeast, which is the world’s leading region Afteruction and export. Between 2000 and 209, data and observations were collected from more than 19,000 forest inventory tracts maintained by the U.S. Forest Service.

At the completion of the study, researchers concluded that, “our estimates offer robust evidence that the wood pellet industry has met the overall condition of forest carbon neutrality.”

Meeting carbon neutrality is important to the environmental message that Enviva and the association are trying to impart.

According to a 2020 report International Energy Agency (IEA), if harvest volumes (for wood products and energy) and losses related to mortality and disturbances do not exceed the growth across the whole forest, there is no net reduction in forest carbon stock.

In parallel to the IEA, The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s “Special Report on Climate Change and Land” stated, “In the long term, a sustainable forest management strategy aimed at maintaining or increasing forest carbon stocks, while producing an annual sustained yield of timber, fiber, or energy from the forest, will generate the largest sustained mitigation benefit.” 

“These studies build on the scientific literature that consistently shows existing regulations are working as intended to ensure biomass is responsibly sourced in the U.S. Southeast to provide a positive impact on the climate and the environment,” said Amandine Muskus, executive director at USIPA. “Woody biomass critics often argue that wood pellet production in the U.S. Southeast reduces carbon stocks and creates a carbon debt that accelerates climate change. However, there is no published research that has been subjected to the rigors of independent peer review that supports these claims. Indeed, they are directly refuted by the weight of empirical scientific evidence.”

Enviva pellets

According to Enviva, the aforementioned study corroborates a growing body of scholarly research on the topic that has been subjected to peer review and published in leading academic journals. For example, published in 2017, in Forest Ecology and Management, was a study titled “How is wood-based pellet production affecting forest conditions in the southeastern United States?” That study concluded, “benefits accrue when sustainable forest management provides wood pellets for energy that keep fossil fuel in the ground.” Likewise, another study was published in Nature in 2020, titled “Expansion of US wood pellet industry points to positive trends but the need for continued monitoring.” This study found that wood pellet production in the U.S. “is compliant with current European Union Renewable Energy Directive (RED) biofuel trade requirements for the preservation of carbon stocks in biomass sourcing areas.”

“Enviva remains committed to sourcing wood pursuant to our strict, global Responsible Sourcing Policy and in line with the principles set out in the Glasgow Declaration on Sustainable Bioenergy launched at COP 26,” said Enviva’s Chief Sustainability Officer, Brandi Colander. “Enviva augments the productivity of these working forests by expanding the wood products market for the parts of the harvested wood that are not fully utilized in other higher-value markets. Markets drive demand. The stronger the demand is for forest products, the more forests grow, and that is because private landowners continue to invest in forests where there are markets for forest products.”

In addition to peer-reviewed studies, third-party data, such as the U.S. Forest Service’s Forest Inventory and Analysis (FIA) Program, shows that increased demand for forest products in the U.S. Southeast has resulted in more, not less, forest inventory in the region year over year. In fact, since 1953, FIA data indicates that forest inventories in the U.S. Southeast have more than doubled while the region has continued to be an important wood basket.

Further corroborating the scientific arguments from the three peer-reviewed papers, the Biden administration recently reaffirmed the carbon neutrality of forest bioenergy in the $1.7 trillion omnibus spending bill, provided the use of forest biomass for energy production does not cause conversion of forests to a non-forest use. This significant declaration provides additional avenues for the use of sustainability-sourced woody biomass in the U.S.’s renewable energy plans, particularly valuable for hard-to-abate heavy industries like lime, steel, and aviation.

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About the author
Larry Adams | Editor

Larry Adams is a Chicago-based writer and editor who writes about how things get done. A former wire service and community newspaper reporter, Larry is an award-winning writer with more than three decades of experience. In addition to writing about woodworking, he has covered science, metrology, metalworking, industrial design, quality control, imaging, Swiss and micromanufacturing . He was previously a Tabbie Award winner for his coverage of nano-based coatings technology for the automotive industry. Larry volunteers for the historic preservation group, the Kalo Foundation/Ianelli Studios, and the science-based group, Chicago Council on Science and Technology (C2ST).