Burning Biomass Is Bad for Health and Worsens the Climate Crisis

As a physician-led advocacy group, we consider it our professional responsibility to alert the public and our policy makers to the false solutions to addressing the climate crisis. Burning biomass is one of these false solutions. It actively worsens the climate crisis.

“More than 500 scientists and economists … warn that converting wood into power is a… disaster…and an absurdly inefficient way to generate energy. Any governments that encourage biomass electricity will be ravaging biodiverse forests and damaging humanity’s chances to avert the worst climate catastrophes.”

–Michael Grunewald, “The green energy that might be ruining the planet”

Biomass Should Not Be Eligible for Clean Energy Subsidies

Burning biomass is a major source of air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions and should not be incentivized as a “clean” or “renewable” fuel. In 2022, GBPSR and a broad coalition of groups successfully pushed to bar wood-burning power plants from being able to sell renewable energy credits in Massachusetts. But other programs, like Massachusetts’ Alternative Portfolio Standard (APS) and the new Greenhouse Gas Emission Standard for municipal lighting plants, still provide generous incentives for burning wood –incentives that are paid for by ratepayers.

GBPSR is actively advocating to end subsidies for burning biomass and phase out the use of highly polluting biomass plants in New England.

What is biomass?

Biomass is defined as any organic matter and can include crops, trees, agricultural waste, aquatic plants, wood and wood waste, animal and human waste, and the organic portion of municipal solid waste (like food scraps and paper).

Biomass combustion is hazardous to human health. Burning biofuels increases air pollution and pollution-related disease and creates climate-damaging greenhouse gasses at a time when scientists are telling us urgently to slash these emissions.

Biomass: A Driver of Air Pollution

Burning woody biomass emits more carbon pollution than the most polluting fossil fuel, coal. Per unit of energy produced, biomass carbon emissions are 45% higher than those from coal and 2-3 times higher than natural gas.

Although burning wood has been touted as a carbon-neutral energy solution because trees are, in theory, replaceable, the reality is that it takes mere minutes to burn a tree, whereas it takes decades to centuries for a tree to regrow and sequester the carbon that is released when a tree is burned.

Additionally, burning biomass, whether for electricity, heat, or other purposes, creates high levels of particulate matter air pollution. PM 2.5 pollution is linked to a wide range of serious health conditions, including increased rates of lung disease, heart disease, cancer, pregnancy complications, and premature death. In one European study, PM 2.5 pollution from residential wood burning was estimated to account for 232 premature deaths per year in the city of Oslo.

“Burning biomass kills 2.3 million people a year worldwide.”

–Dr. Philip Landrigan, Director, Global Observatory on Pollution and Health, Boston College.

Air pollution kills between 100,000-200,000 people in the United States and 2,800 persons in Massachusetts each year—a disproportionate number of them in low-income and minority communities. Many of these deaths could be prevented by reducing air pollution levels in the Commonwealth.

A 2019 study in the New England Journal of Medicine analyzed inhaled and fine particulate matter in 652 cities around the world and found “independent associations between short-term exposure to [particulate matter] and daily all-cause, cardiovascular, and respiratory mortality.”

Biomass Devastates Forests and Magnifies Climate Change

The aggressive harvest of trees to burn as biofuel is destroying a resource critical to mitigating the climate crisis. In addition to producing excess air pollution, burning wood for energy also exhausts a key carbon sink: forests. Forests absorb carbon dioxide and other air pollutants, and serve to cool the earth, replenish aquifers, and decrease land erosion and soil loss due to drought.

“Biomass energy—and policies that subsidize it—exacerbate climate and environmental justice harms, both by immediately releasing greenhouse gas and other pollutant emissions from burning wood and by damaging or eliminating our forest and natural lands, which serve as critical carbon sinks as we seek to achieve the Commonwealth’s aggressive and necessary climate goals.”

–Massachusetts Attorney General  Maura Healey

According to the Rachel Carson Council, “The southeastern United States is facing a deforestation crisis” due to aggressive logging for the purposes of creating wood pellets. The Northeast is now being targeted by the wood pellet industry, placing forests here at risk from the same type of devastation.

Photo: Dogwood Alliance
Photo: Dogwood Alliance

The devastation of deforestation in the U.S. is brought to life in J.R.R Tolkien’s The Lord of Rings: The Two Towers movie.

Successful Advocacy: Springfield Palmer Biomass Plant

Successful community advocacy around the health hazards of a proposed biomass plant in Springfield is a good example of how local groups, working with allied organizations. including GBPSR, came together with local and state elected officials to advocate effectively to defeat this health damaging project.

Springfield residents had been fighting Palmer Renewable Energy’s 42-MW wood-burning incinerator since it was first proposed in 2008. This plant was to be built in an environmental justice community already suffering high rates of asthma and other health ailments, poor air quality, and inadequate access to health care. Springfield was named “Asthma Capital” of the US in 2018 and 2019 by the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America.

In 2019, Governor Charlie Baker proposed weakening the state’s Renewable Portfolio Standard to allow facilities like the Palmer biomass power plant to qualify to sell renewable energy credits. Local and state groups organized to oppose these changes, highlighting the health and environmental justice impacts of this proposal.

The grassroots campaign gained more traction in 2020 with the heightened awareness of environmental racism and new studies showing a correlation between elevated PM2.5 levels in communities of color and increased mortality rates associated with COVID-19.

In the spring of 2021, the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection revoked the plant permit, citing health concerns, a key success for the community and for public health in Massachusetts. The permit revocation was upheld in November, 2022 by the Massachusetts Office of Appeals and Dispute Resolution.  Meanwhile, a coalition of more than 100 groups successfully persuaded the Massachusetts State Legislature to remove woody biomass from the qualifying for the RPS, ensuring that no more biomass power plants would qualify for renewable energy subsidies in Massachusetts.

Residents protesting the Springfield biomass plant.
Residents protesting the Springfield biomass plant.