What Happens if We Burn the Trees?

In August of 2015, President Obama and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a proposal called the Clean Power Plan. Its aim is to reduce carbon pollution from power plants by generating a fair, flexible and strong national standard for clean energy and lower pollution. Just recently, on October 23rd, the EPA released its final rule for Obama’s Clean Power Plan, which is set to go into effect on December 22nd. The rule details expectations for states to regulate their carbon dioxide emissions by examining performance rates of pre-existing fossil fuel-fired electric generating units (EGUs).

While many are on board with the plan there is still a strong opposition to it in the courts. Back on October 4th, twenty eight states challenged the Plan by arguing that trees should be seen as a renewable resource, claiming that “burning forests to generate electricity does not add carbon dioxide to the air but instead ‘carbon neutral’.” The bipartisan collection consists of global-warming deniers and administrative strategy supporters, and if they succeed it will add 620 metric tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, which is equal to 48 million additional tons a year and about three-fourths of the carbon emission produced by forest fires in the US in 2013.

The flaw in this argument though, is that by assuming biomass neutrality there will be removal of trees which are currently offsetting thirteen percent of carbon emissions. In addition, the time that it takes to regrow the deforested areas is time that the U.S. doesn’t have. In terms of the Clean Power Plan, biomass neutrality would encourage the creation of biomass generators which by 2030 would require deforesting six to eight million acres. Power companies could produce less carbon emission by burning coal; burning trees to produce electricity creates more carbon per unit of power than using coal.

The economic costs of global warming are already extremely high. In an article by TIME, there was a featured study that calculated that unmitigated climate change would leave global GDP per capita 23% lower in 2100 than it would if there was no global warming at all. The study accounts for nonlinearity on a macro scale and shows how the damage is large even for slight increases in warming, concluding that continuation of increasing climate change will substantially reduce global economic output and potentially increase current economic inequalities. Thus, the effects of global warming extend beyond environmental impacts, they are economic and social as well. With such negative effects, now is not the time to be arguing against science for claims that burning trees for energy is a greater alternative than green energy.

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