Research: Using wood instead of coal for electricity worsens climate change

Wood is increasingly being used to replace coal as a source of electricity generation in many regions. But a 2018 study from our team reveals that displacing coal with wood for power generation can make climate change worse for many decades or more. Authors of the study include: John Sterman (MIT Sloan), Lori Siegel (Climate Interactive), and Juliette Rooney-Varga (UMass Lowell).


The study — “Does replacing coal with wood lower CO2 emissions? Dynamic lifecycle analysis of wood bioenergy” in Environmental Research Letters —examines the climate impact of replacing coal power generation in the EU and UK with wood pellets sourced from forests in the Southern United States. The research was conducted with the use of a system dynamics model (available for download) based on the award-winning Climate Rapid Overview and Decision Support (C-ROADS) simulator. The research shows that using wood instead of coal in power generation increases the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere, worsening climate change until—and only if—the harvested forests regrow. The period for regrowth and making up that carbon debt can take many decades to more than a century.

Its findings support the May 2018 Op-Ed in the New York Times: Pruitt is Wrong on Burning Forests for Energy.