Presented by


Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Frost, Tolstoy and Wanniski Weigh in on the Folly of Carbon Accounting

Last weekend some old friends contacted me from beyond the grave on the subject of my last post, the issue of carbon accounting. First up on the ghostly cycle was the famed New England poet, Robert Frost. Mr. Frost reminded me that he himself had witnessed the carbon cycle in the woods and written of it. In his poem "The Wood-Pile", published in 1914, he wrote of following a small bird into a frozen swamp until it disappeared behind a wood pile. Of the pile, he wrote,
It was a cord of maple, cut and split 
And piled -- and measured, four by four by eight.
And not another like it could I see.
No runner tracks in this year’s snow looped near it.
And it was older sure than this year’s cutting,
Or even last year’s or the year’s before.
The wood was gray and the bark warping off it
And the pile somewhat sunken. Clematis
Had wound strings round and round it like a bundle.
What held it, though, on one side was a tree
Still growing, and on one a stake and a prop,
These latter about to fall. I thought that only
Someone who lived in turning to fresh tasks
Could so forget his handiwork on which
He spent himself, the labor of his ax,
And leave it there far from a useful fireplace
To warm the frozen swamp as best it could
With the slow smokeless burning of decay.
His last three lines reminded me of my closing points in the previous post, although he said it so much better.

As I was contemplating that last line, Leo Tolstoy intruded into my thoughts to remind me that the application of discrete accounting methods to natural processes was also an exercise in futility, even though that is frequently how we approach things. He wrote in the beginning paragraphs of Book Eleven of War and Peace...

A modern branch of mathematics having achieved the art of dealing with the infinitely small can now yield solutions in other more complex problems of motion which used to appear insoluble. 
This modern branch of mathematics, unknown to the ancients, when dealing with the problems of motion admits the conception of the infinitely small, and so conforms to the chief condition of motion (absolute continuity) and thereby corrects the inevitable error which the human mind cannot avoid when it deals with the separate elements of motion instead of examining continuous motion. 
In seeking the laws of historical movement just the same thing happens. The movement of humanity, arising as it does from innumerable arbitrary human wills, is continuous. 
To understand the laws of this continuous movement is the aim of history. But to arrive at these laws, resulting from the sum of all those human wills, man’s mind postulates arbitrary and disconnected units. The first method of history is to take an arbitrarily selected series of continuous events and examine it apart from others, though there is and can be no beginning to any event, for one event always flows uninterruptedly from another. 
The second method is to consider the actions of some one man – a king or a commander – as equivalent to the sum of many individual wills; whereas the sum of individual wills is never expressed by the activity of a single historical personage. 
Historical science in its endeavor to draw nearer the truth continually takes smaller and smaller units for examination. But however small the units it takes, we feel that to take any unit disconnected from others, or to assume a beginning of any phenomenon, or to say that the will of many men is expressed by the actions of any one historic personage, is in itself false. 
It needs no critical exertion to reduce utterly to dust any deductions drawn from history. It is merely necessary to select some larger or smaller unit as the subject of observation – as criticism has every right to do, seeing that whatever unit history observes must always be arbitrarily selected. 
Only by taking infinitesimally small units for observation (the differential of history, that is, the individual tendencies of men) and attaining to the art of integrating them (that is, finding the sum of these infinitesimals) can we hope to arrive at the laws of history.
 "What has this application of the calculus to history got to do with carbon accounting?", I asked Mr. Tolstoy. He gave me that wise old Russian smile, took a puff of his pipe, and waited a minute for me to consider. Then he said, "Do you think that taking an arbitrarily selected series of carbon conversions, claiming that they started today, and then assuming if the state of Massachusetts counts only the actions of a subset of certain subsequent events, that the sum total of carbon conversions has been accounted for, and was the result of the state's decision?"

I saw his point. He was implying that application of accounting techniques for natural processes, like historical processes, not only required the over-simplification of a chaotic process, but it unfairly attributed effect to the most visible "cause", even though that particular cause had little more, if any, effect on the outcome than any of an infinite number of other causes. What he was suggesting was that we need an environmental calculus to measure ecosystems processes, not accounting ledgers. Based on my experience with life-cycle assessment, I had to concede his point.

But, I thought to myself as Mr. Tolstoy's vapor returned to his century, isn't it somewhat high-minded to think that we can or will ever develop an environmental calculus that will help us analyze and explain entire ecosystems?

That's when the contemporary economist Jude Wanniski interrupted my thoughts. "Ah, don't you recall my modest tome, The Way the World Works?", Mr. Wanniski asked me. "In my chapter titled 'Energy in Abundance', I explained to you why environmental accounting, especially accounting for carbon and fossil fuels, never has, and never will work."

Well, I had to refer back to that. And I found this beginning to his chapter...

There has never been a shortage of energy on earth. Certainly the planet is not energy “scarce” now, nor will it be at the end of the century [he was right!]—or at the end of the next thousand centuries. The planet itself is a ball of energy that rides in a sea of energy.  Earth has been absorbing energy from the sun for the billions of years of its existence.  The sun’s energy has nurtured plant life, which thus captured and preserved energy in the form of coal and gas. The plant life also nurtured animal life, thus preserving energy that now exists in the form of petroleum and gas.  In this sense, the human species now warms itself with sunbeams that were cast millions, if not billions of years ago, and have been locked in the earth’s crust for eons, waiting to be found and tapped.  The earth’s crust is layered with solar energy – petroleum, coal, and natural gas – only the tiniest fraction of which has been discovered by man. The notion that these organic hydrocarbons are “exhaustible” is correct only in the sense that they may be depleted some millions of years from now.  Indeed, it can be argued at present, there are more organic hydrocarbons being formed than are being consumed by the entire world population. That is, the plants and animals that inhabit the oceans, lakes, and swamps, are dying, decaying, and being absorbed as methane into these waters and the icecaps at a faster rate than mankind is now burning coal, oil, and gas.  Of course, we do not at this moment have the technology to tap this hydrosphere methane economically. But hundreds or thousands of years from now, when the more easily exploited hydrocarbons have been diminished, our descendants will have the technology to extract ocean methane economically, if it is necessary to do so.
The rest of the chapter goes on to explain that energy availability is much more a phenomenon of political systems than of natural supply. It's a great read.

Ok, I understand that energy is a lot more abundant than we commonly realize. And it rings true that whenever prices rise for a given energy source, we suddenly are able to produce a lot more of it; whether it's "renewable" energy, or fossil fuels.  Very few people of twenty years ago could have envisioned that Pennsylvania would soon be a natural gas boom-state, or that the mid-western U.S. and Canada would be producing amounts of oil from shale tar-sands that boggle the imagination. But does it follow that even if energy sources are apparently inexhaustible as we develop technology to tap it, we are free from the need to and expense of monitoring and "managing" our climate?

Perhaps not. Doing something has got to be better than doing nothing. Right?

Well, least, if you're on the receiving end of the money spent to do it. But if you're like I was yesterday, pumping $109 of gasoline into my car, it's got to make you stop and think.

Best fuel for best use, and let the markets drive the technology. Trust the people to learn stewardship of the planet's resources as the dynamics of society change - the markets will reflect our increasing knowledge and preferences. Don't over-think it, and don't try to control temperature and hurricane activity through regulation and taxes tied to dubious accounting schemes. Trust that the environmental calculus has already been taken care of, and use the available resources to ease the burdens of society, not to increase them.

And oh yeah, use wood whenever possible. ;-)

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Sustainable Forestry, Bioenergy, and the Carbon Cycle - Misunderstood and Misrepresented

Earlier this week I received an email from a colleague directing me to the following video, a product of the Natural Resources Defense Council. On a web page entitled "Our Forests Aren't Fuel" the video and its accompanying text decry the use of forest harvesting for biomass energy, although they admit that "Biomass can be harvested and utilized in ways that reduce pollution and protect forest habitats, but only with sustainability safeguards and proper accounting for carbon emissions -- including carbon released due to deforestation." Under their definition of sustainable biomass production fall agricultural biomass and woody biomass from short-rotation biomass plantations, but not natural forests.

Note the use of the phrase "proper accounting for carbon emissions". Here the folks at NRDC are relying on a policy-targeted carbon accounting framework utilized in the Manomet study we discussed last May in a post entitled "Wood Biomass and Carbon Neutrality". They have posted a longer video explaining the "carbon deficit" logic in more detail.

These videos are misleading and illustrate clearly the lack of understanding of forest ecosystems and the carbon cycle in general. Key to the "biomass carbon deficit" argument is the logic explained beginning at 1:45 of the above video. The overly-simplistic example used is of one forest harvested, and one left to grow; the claim being put forward is that the one harvested creates an immediate "carbon deficit" compared to the one that is left, and that deficit is slowly closed over the years, until eventually, "at some point in the distant future, [the forest that is harvested] will start producing carbon reductions".

What this scope-constrained comparison fails to take into account is the cumulative effect of multiple forest stand harvesting over continuous time periods. Rather than comparing one forest harvested immediately and one left for fifty years, consider the forest as one comprised of fifty different forest stands harvested one per year, and growing at a rate of 2% growth rate each year. This is closer to reality, and yields a cumulative impact of a sustainable harvest in perpetuity, with no real starting or ending point to the carbon cycle.

Also consider that each of these stands was collecting carbon from the atmosphere before they ever reached harvesting age. In the example, the stand harvested in Year One had been growing for at least fifty years on the harvest date. It will be ready to be harvested again at the end of another fifty-year cycle. Thus, the "carbon deficit" is only real if you ignore the fact that the trees gobbled up carbon before they were harvested.

Narrow arguments against forest biomass energy such as the NRDC's also tend to ignore some basic realities of sustainable forestry and markets...

  1. Biomass harvests are rarely, if ever, stand-alone operations. For fundamental economic reasons, forest biomass (which is typically called "pulpwood" in the industry) is harvested as a co-product of sawlog harvesting, either at the same time as the sawlog harvest or prior to the sawlog harvest as a thinning treatment. Natural forests will not be treated merely as "fuel depots" within the construct of sustainable forest management; all the other products of the forest, including lumber, air and water quality, wildlife habitat, and recreation are optimized to meet the management objectives of the land owner.
  2. Any biomass energy industry that develops here in North America is able to do so only because the pulp industry here has been on the decline for the past two decades. Pulpwood harvested for biomass energy is simply filling a vacuum created in the marketplace by the decline of pulp production. And all biomass that was harvested in the past for pulp and paper production ultimately returned to the atmosphere as carbon, either through its use for mill energy in the form of black liquor, or as waste paper that ended up in landfills. 
  3. As pulpwood markets have shrunk, large portions of the northeastern, Great Lakes, and western forests have become overburdened with small-diameter stems that are densely-packed and growing far more slowly than the healthier forests of previous decades when an appropriate pulpwood component was being harvested. Dense, slower growing forests mean less carbon sequestration per acre and more hazard of wildfire, both situations that can be reversed by increased levels of biomass harvesting.
  4. This harvesting of the pulpwood component is an essential component of forest health and restoration.  The growing bioenergy industry provides a way to pay for this benefit to the forest. Without it, the balance of forest ecosystems will come under even more pressure as "sawlog only" harvests become ever more prevalent.
  5. Biomass energy production will always be driven, and limited, by the marketplace. As more facilities are built, local market prices for the biomass will rise and biomass energy operations will be harder to justify economically. Fears that biomass harvesting will wipe out the forest are overblown, as even today the market works as a natural constraint against a broad expansion of biomass energy facilities.
  6. Biomass energy production is an enabling technology for more advanced biorefinery processes and products. Bioenergy-related companies seeking to add value to the biomass raw material will be the ones that bring us advances in cellulose and lignin utilization, and produce the miracle bio-products of tomorrow, including those that replace products of fossil fuels. Without biomass energy providing the economic incentive to resurrect the pulpwood harvesting industry, these future miracle bioproducts will never see the light of day.
  7. All other forms of energy production, including the solar, wind, and agricultural biomass touted on the NRDC videos, also have environmental and societal drawbacks to some extent. Can we say which is better or worse? In general, no. But in specific applications, we usually can...and sometimes, biomass energy from natural forests is the best option.

The NRDC videos do make valid points about relative efficiency of wood versus fossil fuel energy production. It's lower, and this does result in relatively more emissions per unit of energy, at a higher cost in large-scale applications. That's the reasoning that went into our discussion of using biomass energy in appropriate applications, or as we put it, "Size Matters" when determining the best use of biomass for energy applications. But by presenting biomass energy production as a "one size fits all" proposition, opponents of natural forest biomass energy like the NRDC are able to misrepresent the resource potential and mislead the public into thinking that harvesting the forest for biomass is a bad thing in general. And while some studies theorize that certain scenarios of biomass-to-energy harvesting and conversion may in fact increase overall carbon emissions, the science is ongoing and government-funded research tends to focus on large-scale processing, which we here at Go Wood posit to be a sub-optimal use of the forest resource compared to right-sized biomass harvesting that can improve the overall ecosystem quality of the forest.

The following video produced by the National Geographic Society demonstrates modern understanding of and technology utilization in sustainable forestry, and features some of our forest industry friends here in Pennsylvania...

By following sustainable harvest guidelines, society will benefit from the capture of woody conversion of carbon stock to energy in our homes and businesses. Ultimately, if we don't, the carbon is returned back to the atmosphere anyway, one way or another.

Would you prefer that forest biomass and its carbon molecules heat your home or local business, or heat the atmosphere out in the woods? Ultimately, it's one or the other. No forest lives forever. It's continually dying, being reborn, growing, aging, and dying again. Those who think they are "defending" the forest seem to be instinctively against human management and utilization of natural resources, despite the fact that forests in most areas of the world that have been responsibly managed for the last fifty years are larger and healthier now than they've been in centuries. They imagine that we'll all be better off if we just leave the forest alone and use other resources they deem to be more environmentally-friendly. In fact, the use of misleading "carbon-deficit" accounting just seems to be the latest angle at stopping forest harvesting, period. Just like "clearcutting" in the 1980's and "endangered species" in the 90's, "carbon-deficits" is the cause célèbre  for those who would like to see a day when no forest tree is ever cut down.

But this too will pass, and in the end, we'll benefit from the knowledge gained by further, more balanced research into the workings of forest ecosystems and the carbon cycle. Our friends at the NRDC are welcome to take credit for helping spur our progress in those areas, even as we disagree with their position of preventing the sustainable harvest of natural forests for biomass.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Wood Science 101(3) - Lignin
You'd be hard pressed to find a material more universally researched right now than lignin. Let's talk about it a little today. It's the second most abundant organic polymer on earth, behind cellulose. It's what makes trees stand upright, what makes wood hold its shape, and what makes furniture support your weight when you sit on it. It's been called "God's glue", and "nature's plastic", because it fills the space between plant cells, called the middle lamella, where the lignin is highly concentrated, and binds to the cell walls (which themselves have a lower concentration of lignin mixed with the cellulose and hemicellulose fibrils that make up the primary and secondary cell walls).  It's really sticky, durable stuff, and that's what all the research is about.

It seems that today's scientists, in trying to reverse-engineer plant materials, would like to have an easy way to break down the lignin bonds that hold the other plant constituents together, so that they can then re-assemble those components into various other things. Over the last century or so, various processes have been developed, mostly by paper companies, to de-lignify wood pulp, and the lignin by-product that remains has been burned for energy in the paper-making process, or further refined into other products, such as:

  • forms of sugar
  • water reducers in concrete and gypsum wallboard admixtures
  • mineral pelleting and granulating production aid
  • oil drilling additive
  • animal feed additive
  • road dust control
  • additive for certain yeasts and pet foods
  • dispersant in brick manufacturing

Technical description, from Wikipedia:
"Lignin, or lignen,is a complex chemical compound; most commonly derived from wood, and an integral part of the secondary cell walls of plants and some algae. The term was introduced in 1819 by de Candolle and is derived from the Latin word 'lignum', meaning wood. It is one of the most abundant organic polymers on Earth, exceeded only by cellulose and constituting from a quarter to a third of the dry mass of wood. As a biopolymer, lignin is unusual because of its heterogeneity and lack of a defined primary structure. Its most commonly noted function is the support through strengthening of wood in trees.
Lignin plays a significant role in the carbon cycle, sequestering atmospheric carbon into the living tissues of woody perennial vegetation. Lignin is one of the most slowly decomposing components of dead vegetation, contributing a major fraction of the material that becomes humus as it decomposes. The resulting soil humus, in general, increases the photosynthetic productivity of plant communities growing on a site as the site transitions from disturbed mineral soil through the stages of ecological succession, by providing increased cation exchange capacity in the soil and expanding the capacity of moisture retention between flood and drought conditions."
Lignin is everywhere in the biological realm, plays a huge part in maintaining the earth's carbon cycle, and therefore, the environmental stability of the world, and is still one of the primary foci of the world's scientific community. More reasons to appreciate the role of wood in our world.

And those reasons continue to mount as the scientists make progress. You've heard of carbon-fiber technology, and how it improves the strength-to-weight ratio of everything from body armor to Formula One racing cars? Well, one problem with carbon-fiber materials are that they are expensive when produced from petroleum-based raw materials, or precursors. So, guess what? Scientists are striving to make them cheaper using lignin, from wood! Sound familiar? Check out the great video below from the scientists at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

So, just as scientists and entrepreneurs envision fast-growing plantations for the farming of cellulose for various energy and bio-refinery products, so too are they working on high value-added uses for the lignin as it is separated. And fortunately for lignin-production values, the lignin content of softwoods is typically higher (23 to 33%) than in hardwoods (16 to 25%), so faster-growing softwood plantations of warmer climates will increase the viability of any future lignin markets.

When you consider all the potential uses of cellulose and lignin already under development, it's really not difficult to envision a day in the not too distant future when practically everything we wear, ride, build with, or use for energy will come from a wood or woody plant derivative. Those old woodies of the 1940's may have George Jetson style successors made from wood, after all.