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Give Biomass Burning A Break

Forest Burning Is A Net Contributor To Global Warming, Scientist Says

Of forest burning, about 80 percent results in permanent deforestation - meaning the land is now used for some other use, such as grazing, agriculture or buildings. The remaining 20 percent of trees are regrown. When forests are permanently replaced by other plant types - shrubs, grasses, crops, all of which contain less carbon than do trees - the carbon difference accumulates in the atmosphere. "The total carbon dioxide emission from permanent deforestation is on the order of 7 to 10 percent of global fossil-fuel-carbon-dioxide emission," Jacobson says.

... Eliminating all biomass burning would reduce the global average temperature by 0 to 0.2 degrees F over 100 years, which is comparable to the increase in global temperature of 0.6 to 0.7 degrees F since pre-industrial times, Jacobson says. Reducing permanent deforestation, especially in tropical regions of Africa and South America, would be the most effective means of reducing the effects of biomass burning.

... "With this information, policymakers are on firmer ground when they consider control of biomass burning," he says. "Such control is also beneficial from a public health point of view, since the particles from biomass burning are health hazards."

I think this article draws the wrong conclusion from the finding about the impact of biomass burning, lending support to the longstanding demonization of all fire. Widespread permanent deforestation is problematic (for climatic and other reasons), but ceasing to burn is not the only solution -- in many cases, enabling regrowth is a better policy (a la a swidden system). Certain forms of burning are extremely beneficial to most ecological and agricultural systems, and so restricting them in order to shave .2 degrees off the climate is likely to be a net loss from both environmental and human wellbeing standpoints.

What we need is better discrimination between good and bad fires. Wildfires in tropical rainforests provoked by irresponsible logging practices are bad, contributing to global warming without any offsetting benefits (except perhaps to the logging companies' bottom lines). Pasture-improvement fires in the Sahel -- such as those highlighted in the illustration accompanying the above article -- are sustainable and useful.

Even the article recognizes that biomass burning contributes only 7-10 percent as much greenhouse gas as fossil fuel burning. It's fossil fuels -- which introduce huge formerly-sequestered masses of carbon into the atmosphere -- that we really need to focus our attention on.


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