• Open Access

Is woody bioenergy carbon neutral? A comparative assessment of emissions from consumption of woody bioenergy and fossil fuel



Under the current accounting systems, emissions produced when biomass is burnt for energy are accounted as zero, resulting in what is referred to as the ‘carbon neutrality’ assumption. However, if current harvest levels are increased to produce more bioenergy, carbon that would have been stored in the biosphere might be instead released in the atmosphere. This study utilizes a comparative approach that considers emissions under alternative energy supply options. This approach shows that the emission benefits of bioenergy compared to use of fossil fuel are time-dependent. It emerges that the assumption that bioenergy always results in zero greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions compared to use of fossil fuels can be misleading, particularly in the context of short-to-medium term goals. While it is clear that all sources of woody bioenergy from sustainably managed forests will produce emission reductions in the long term, different woody biomass sources have various impacts in the short-medium term. The study shows that the use of forest residues that are easily decomposable can produce GHG benefits compared to use of fossil fuels from the beginning of their use and that biomass from dedicated plantations established on marginal land can be carbon neutral from the beginning of its use. However, the risk of short-to-medium term negative impacts is high when additional fellings are extracted to produce bioenergy and the proportion of felled biomass used for bioenergy is low, or when land with high C stocks is converted to low productivity bioenergy plantations. The method used in the study provides an instrument to identify the time-dependent pattern of emission reductions for alternative bioenergy sources. In this way, decision makers can evaluate which bioenergy options are most beneficial for meeting short-term GHG emission reduction goals and which ones are more appropriate for medium to longer term objectives.