Canadian Forest Service Publications

Feedstock specific environmental risk levels related to biomass extraction for energy from boreal and temperate forests. 2013. Lamers, P.; Thiffault, E.; Paré, D.; Junginger, M. Biomass and Bioenergy 55:212-226.

Year: 2013

Available from: Laurentian Forestry Centre

Catalog ID: 34882

Language: English

CFS Availability: PDF (request by e-mail)

Available from the Journal's Web site.
DOI: 10.1016/j.biombioe.2013.02.002

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Past research on identifying potentially negative impacts of forest management activities has primarily focused on traditional forest operations. The increased use of forest biomass for energy in recent years, spurred predominantly by policy incentives for the reduction of fossil fuel use and greenhouse gas emissions, and by efforts from the forestry sector to diversify products and increase value from the forests, has again brought much attention to this issue. The implications of such practices continue to be controversially debated; predominantly the adverse impacts on soil productivity and biodiversity, and the climate change mitigation potential of forest bioenergy. Current decision making processes require comprehensive, differentiated assessments of the known and unknown factors and risk levels of potentially adverse environmental effects. This paper provides such an analysis and differentiates between the feedstock of harvesting residues, roundwood, and salvage wood. It concludes that the risks related to biomass for energy outtake are feedstock specific and vary in terms of scientific certainty. Short-term soil productivity risks are higher for residue removal. There is however little field evidence of negative long-term impacts of biomass removal on productivity in the scale predicted by modeling. Risks regarding an alteration of biodiversity are relatively equally distributed across the feedstocks. The risk of limited or absent short-term carbon benefits is highest for roundwood, but negligible for residues and salvage wood. Salvage operation impacts on soil productivity and biodiversity are a key knowledge gap. Future research should also focus on deriving regionally specific, quantitative thresholds for sustainable biomass removal.

Plain Language Summary

In collaboration with researchers from Germany and the Netherlands, CFS researchers conducted an in-depth analysis of the knowledge and uncertainties linked with the environmental risks of harvesting biomass for energy purposes in boreal and temperate forests.

The analysis focussed on the risks linked with harvesting three types of biomass: harvesting residues, wood harvested after natural disturbances (fire, insect outbreak, windfall), and roundwood. They also studied the risks of soil degradation, loss of biodiversity and changes in the carbon balance.

The results revealed that for harvesting residues, the environmental risks are limited to certain sites, e.g. sites with soil low in organic materials and nutrients. As for the use of wood harvested after natural disturbances, knowledge is still incomplete regarding its impact, but research is underway. For its part, the harvesting of roundwood as a source of biomass presents the same issues as the harvesting of roundwood for traditional products. However, it does raise an additional issue in terms of the carbon debt it creates.

In conclusion, the use of forest biomass for energy purposes is generally not problematic, at least not in the short and medium terms. With the knowledge gained, CFS researchers now have a better understanding of the effects of using biomass for energy purposes and have determined research priorities.

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