NC's carbon footprint is improving, but it's complicated


Hat-tip to Lisa Sorg for digging into the details:

The NC Department of Environmental Quality’s draft Greenhouse Gas Inventory shows the state’s contributions to a warming and unpredictable global climate, but also portends possible good news: North Carolina is expected to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent to 28 percent by 2025, which would achieve or exceed the national goals. Already, the state has reduced its gross GHG emissions by 20 percent over the past 12 years, even while the population and economic productivity grew by 18 percent.

There are a lot of factors behind this reduction, and one of them is the conversion of coal-burning power plants to those that use nat gas. We would also be foolish to discount the fact that North Carolina is now generating close to 4 Gigawatts of Solar PV. That's 4,000 Megawatts, the equivalent of several coal plants. But doing a state-specific inventory of greenhouse gas emissions may be faulty right from the start. Our increased demand for natural gas, which is extracted in other states, is a prime example. Fugitive emissions of methane occur at both the drilling (fracking) sites and during transportation, so we own some of that, even if it happens in Pennsylvania. And then there's the scourge of the wood pellet industry:

However, these projections depend on many variables, both in policy and practice, and the draft report acknowledges these uncertainties. For example, the calculations don’t account for the folly of timbering North Carolina trees for fuel. Enviva, which operates three wood pellet plants in North Carolina, with a fourth pending, chops up hardwoods and some pines, timbered in eastern North Carolina. The company then ships the pellets by rail to the coast, and from there by ship to the United Kingdom. There, the pellets are burned in place of coal under the guise of renewable energy. But, as the state’s report points out, many credible scientists have noted that the burning of wood for fuel generates more carbon dioxide than coal. The mass timbering also upends the balance of carbon sinks — trees — that absorb the greenhouse gas.

Nonetheless, carbon dioxide emissions from the combustion of biomass are considered “carbon neutral” (for political, not scientific reasons) by the Environmental Protection Agency and International Panel on Climate Change. North Carolina has convened a “panel of experts,” the report states, to help improve calculations of emissions and sinks from land clearing. These calculations will be included in future inventories.

Yes, we need to include the harvesting and the loss of carbon sinks. But what about the NC wood products being burned in Europe? Enviva doesn't give those pellets away, they sell them for millions of dollars, some of which ends up in state revenues. Aside from the deforestation issues, we are directly contributing to the global greenhouse gas problem, even if that wood is burned on the other side of the ocean.

Of course the only safe route is to pursue a completely non-fossil fuel energy grid, and we have our own proof that is possible, if not easily achievable. It's time to stop talking about "bridges" to clean energy like natural gas and wood pellets. We're already on the other side, no bridges are necessary.