This week we talk with Robert Bonnie, Rubenstein fellow at Duke University. Robert is an expert on many things, but we'll talk to him today about the role that forests play in energy, climate change and more. We ask him about the past, present, and the future of wood energy in the United States and globally and what role forests might play in helping to achieve deep decarbonization goals. We'll also talk about the challenges that this issue raises, including developing markets to incentivize reforestation, land use competition, and much more.
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The Full Transcript
Daniel Raimi: Hello and welcome to Resources Radio, a weekly podcast from Resources for the Future. I'm your host, Daniel Raimi. This week we talk with Robert Bonnie, Rubinstein fellow at Duke University. Robert is an expert on many things, but we'll talk to him today about the role that forests play in energy, climate change and more. I'll ask him about the past, present, and the future of wood energy in the United States and globally and what role forests might play in helping to achieve deep decarbonization goals. We'll also talk about the challenges that this issue raises, including developing markets to incentivize reforestation, land use competition and much more. Stay with us.
Daniel Raimi: Okay. Robert Bonnie from Duke University. Thank you so much for joining us today on Resources Radio.
Robert Bonnie: Great to be here.
Daniel Raimi: Robert, we're going to talk today about forests and a couple different aspects of forests, both in terms of the energy system and also climate change. But before we get into that, we always ask our guests how you got interested in this field in the first place? How you started working on the environment or in on forests in particular
Robert Bonnie: Yeah. I grew up on a farm in Kentucky and spent a lot of time outdoors, was always interested in the outdoors and would go fishing a lot in the afternoon and hunting occasionally too. My family also owns and has for about a 100 years, a large forest tract in a rural South Carolina. And so I got very involved at an early age in thinking about how you manage forests for a wide range of benefits, not only timber but wildlife, endangered species, recreation, those sorts of things. And as a result, got very interested in not only in sort of the management issues, but the policy issues around that. And so I think my relationship to that tract of land was probably really important and getting me to a career that is focused to a significant degree on forest policy.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah, fascinating. And you've been working on forest policy for for a long time. At least a couple of decades, yeah?
Robert Bonnie: Yeah. When I graduated from graduate school at Duke in ‘94 and worked on longleaf pine ecosystem in particular while I was here as a graduate student and that's continued and I've been pretty solidly working on forests since.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah. Great. We've got another Dukie on the show, which is fantastic. Go Blue Devils. I know many of our listeners will be angry at me for saying such heresy.
Robert Bonnie: Well being a Kentucky boy, i have to say my loyalties lie with the Kentucky Wildcats.
Daniel Raimi: Oh, okay, good. Well, so we've got some balance on the show then.
Robert Bonnie: Yeah, exactly.
Daniel Raimi: That's good. Let's get into it then. We are going to talk, as I mentioned, both about forests and energy and also forest and climate. Let's start with energy. One of the first things that I think about when I think about wood energy is a common story that you hear if you read energy history books, which is about the United Kingdom before the industrial revolution, and you hear these stories about the countryside being rapidly deforested all around London and in other population centers to provide heat and other energy for the population. Once coal came along, that sort of gave tree some relief at least in the UK but I haven't read much about the history of forest use for energy in the United States. I'm curious if you can give us some background on that.
Robert Bonnie: Yeah, so there's no question, the same is true to a significant degree in the US. A lot of forests, particularly around urban areas, there was a huge demand for for fuel wood and forests. And there's no question if you look at old pictures from the 1800s, you'll see a lot of denuded hillsides and there's no question that fuel use was part of that. Of course there were other uses as well. It wasn't long after the English should colonize the US around Virginia and the Carolinas that they saw how good the longleaf pine forests there were for ship masts and other things or even the Naval stores industry, the turpentining that took place in the South and the use of our forests later for wood products. And one of the interesting things about the forest is the role that loss and that perceived loss of forest contributed to conservation and conservation movement. People like Gifford Pinchot and Teddy Roosevelt. And so yeah, energy played an important role in deforestation in the US but it was broader than that. It was other forest product markets as well.
Daniel Raimi: Right. That makes sense, forests weren't just used for energy but for other purposes. But if we focus in on energy, one sort of piece of data that I find particularly interesting is that in the US today we often think that we don't use forests for energy all that much but that's because in the early 20th century, the energy system, there was a large share of wood in the system. Today, it's only about 2% of total energy in the US but in absolute terms we actually use more wood and more biomass today than we did through the early 20th century. Can you give us a general sense of where geographically, biomass is produced in large quantities and sort of where in the energy system it's consumed?
Robert Bonnie: Yeah, and so, if there's a location right now for most of the biomass production, it's in the US South and you've seen the rise of pellet plants in the South that largely take both pines and hardwoods and turn them into pellets and a good bit of that is actually being exported to Europe and being consumed there. Some of it is consumed in the US and you also see interest in places like the West to create markets for some low value timber to deal with the fire and other forest health issues.
One of the biggest challenges is that natural gas is cheap and that wood energy in a lot of places can't compete. And so, when I was at the Department of Agriculture and working with the Forest Service, we were looking for ways to do large scale restoration on our public lands in the West to reduce some of the fuel loads to deal with catastrophic fire. We'd love to have functioning biomass markets there. We could take some of that low value timber and turn it into something useful and actually maybe not have to pay people to come and get it off the land, but maybe actually have a market. And it's the lack of those markets in places that actually creates some challenges for scaling up energy production in the US around biomass.
Daniel Raimi: Interesting. Can you expand a little bit about that, with fire suppression, might not be the right term, but I'd never thought that sort of timber could be used to reduce the risk of forest fires.
Robert Bonnie: For a 100 years or more we've thought fire was a bad thing in the US and so we put out a lot of the small fires. It was part of the argument that Pinchot and Roosevelt and others made for the US Forest Services, that we were going to wage war on fire. While those are two great conservationists that left a wonderful legacy, part of it, part of the problem was that we'd get an ethic in the US that suppressed all those fires and so it changed the nature of our forests. It caused them to become denser, it caused them to have, in many cases, we might have wide open forests that were periodically burned either through lightning strikes or native Americans who used fire heavily. Those fires have changed. They burn differently.
And so if we want to restore more natural conditions, reduce the threat of forest fires, we actually need to go in and do manipulations. We need to take some of that smaller timber out and reintroduce more natural fire regimes. And that takes markets. And one of the markets that can be really useful is actually biomass and being able to use that small diameter, smaller timber. And so there's a lot of interest in biomass markets in places like California, in the West where the fire problem is big. The challenge is, is that it's hard to compete with cheap natural gas.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah, that's fascinating. I'd never really thought about that, but it makes sense. When you describe it. Turning back to the biomass energy question, one issue that comes up frequently in particular, there'd been a number of news stories about biomass consumption, particularly as you mentioned, US wood pellets being shipped to Europe. Biomass is often considered to be a carbon neutral energy source because the carbon dioxide that's released when the fuel is combusted is presumed to be sequestered by replanting forests in an equal measure. And so I'm curious from your perspective, is that a reasonable assumption here in the United States? And when we think about forest energy in the US today, whether consumed domestically or internationally, how carbon neutral is that energy source?
Robert Bonnie: This has become a hugely controversial topic and sort of a followup to the forest policy world. And a lot of folks on the environmental side argue that the emissions from burning biomass are as bad or worse than coal. Others argue that it's carbon neutral. And the truth is, they're different scenarios. You can think about biomass being, depending on where you harvest it, it could be a good thing from a carbon standpoint, it could be a less than good thing. I think generally speaking it is, it's mostly very positive and I think from that standpoint, yeah, for the most point I think biomass is probably carbon neutral. Opponents of biomass argue that its emissions are much worse. That it takes years to resequester that carbon. What I would argue is I don't think they really understand the broader landscape of forests, certainly in the United States.
When there are markets for wood, people invest in timber, they invest in reforestation, they keep forests as forests. And that plays a really important role and because most of our forests are privately owned in retaining forests and keeping forests from being converted to agriculture and development. And so as you look at a landscape scale, having markets for wood is generally a very positive thing. Are there places where you could overtax the resource? Absolutely.
But the other thing is that biomass is a very low value product and so most land owners won't manage purely for biomass. They manage for for solid wood products. Other products that actually earn more revenue. The notion that there's going to be large scale, clear cutting or things like that from biomass, I don't think is the case. As I mentioned before, there are arguments for actually for sustainability in some of these low value timber markets that actually could improve the ecological resilience of forests.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah, that makes sense. And I think we might sort of return to some of these issues in a couple minutes when I ask you about deep decarbonization scenarios that involve biomass, but let's turn for the moment to issues around deforestation, reforestation, forestation and carbon dioxide emissions as well as sinks. As our listeners know, forests are a very important carbon sink globally, but deforestation has been a challenge for many years. How would you sort of characterize the current state of deforestation at a global scale? And then how would you compare that to what we have seen in the US over the last several decades in terms of deforestation?
Robert Bonnie: The trends have actually been better in places like Brazil over the last few years and with the new government down there, there's a lot of concern about opening up parts of the Amazon. You start to realize how important government policies, land tenure infrastructure projects are in large places like the Amazon. And so there's obviously a lot of concern in Brazil right now. And there has been a lot of concern in Southeast Asia with with palm plantations and some conversion that happens there. As your question points out, a lot of people when they think of deforestation, sort of think of other parts of the world, but in some senses we actually have a deforestation problem in the US. It's masked by the fact that we also have areas which are returning to forests, marginal agricultural lands that are converted back to forest just naturally, or people plant trees.
But we lose a lot of forests in the US annually to development, housing development, commercial development and also just fragmentation and lands get divided, sold and divided because so much of our forest is in private ownership. And so as we think about the US carbon sink, which is enormous, somewhere in the neighborhood of 12 to 14% of our annual greenhouse gas emissions come back down in the forest sector, sequestered in those forests. As if we want to retain that sink and over the long term enhance that sink, we have to do something about our own deforestation problem, which means we have to value, people have to have value for holding onto those forests. That means wood markets are really important for that. Also means we need to think about incentives that incentivize people to to protect those forests.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah, that makes sense. And I think that might play into our, the sort of next question I wanted to ask, which was about a report produced towards the end of the Obama administration called the Mid-century Strategy for Deep Decarbonization, which you pointed out to me in a previous email when we were planning for this conversation, that the report called for large scale greenhouse gas reductions from the land sector including forest and agriculture. Can you talk a little bit about some of the recommendations that are included in that report and how land use, particular forestry and agriculture can play into deep decarbonization in the United States?
Robert Bonnie: Yeah, so one of the things I just talked about was the existing forest sink. And if you think about the scale of that in relation to the rest of the greenhouse gas problem in the US, it's pretty significant. Particularly as you start to squeeze the greenhouse gas emissions reductions out of energy. That forest sink looks really big. And so one of the things that the Mid-century Strategy points out is the need to hold onto our existing forests. And that involves, as I talked about, variety of incentives and markets and other things. But the Mid-century Strategy also talks about increasing forest acreage by somewhere in the neighborhood of 40 to 50 million acres. That's a huge chunk of real estate. And if we're going to do that, we need to think about what are the investments we need to make to see that that happens.
And it's going to, we've sort of lived in this world and in carbon policy where we thought we were going to be in cap and trade, that there were going to be offsets that companies were going to buy carbon offsets from forest landowners and farmers and others. And that that may still be the case, but I think it's increasingly clear that we're actually going to have to think about public investments in reforestation. On the agricultural side there, agriculture is, has net emissions of somewhere in the neighborhood of eight to nine percent of US emissions. And there are enormous things we can do there related to livestock methane, nitrous oxide emissions from fertilizer. And if we do it right, we're going to help farmers by improving their bottom line, making them more efficient and maybe creating a source of revenue from things like methane and turning methane into energy.
And so, when you think about this from a standpoint of the politics of climate change, figuring out ways to win over those rural stakeholders, to provide value for improving the environment and helping address climate change, that there's some opportunities I think to partner with rural parts of the country that can be really useful as we think about where do the votes come from to win a battle in Congress on climate change legislation.
Daniel Raimi: Right. Thinking about it and integrating, not just the sort of physical problem and economic problems, but also the political issues that are at play here. Yeah. Just a quick statistical question. You mentioned 40 or 50 million acres for reforestation. I don't have a sense in my head about how much, what is that? Is that the size of a particular state in the US? Or how would you sort of put that number in context?
Robert Bonnie: Yeah, so forests once covered about a billion acres in the US. Today they cover somewhere in the neighborhood of 750 million acres. And you think about, I think the state of North Carolina, somewhere in the neighborhood of 35, 36 million acres. 40 to 50 million acres of forest is a lot of land. And, there is certainly marginal agricultural land in the US and there are places even in suburban and urban areas where we might think about reforestation, but the size of the investment is pretty significant in the wake of the Great Depression, the civilian conservation corps I think planted somewhere in the neighborhood of six million acres of trees. And that was a pretty big undertaking. And so we're substantially higher than that. And so the level of commitment here has to be pretty substantial.
Daniel Raimi: Which sort of makes sense that you would need not just sort of government efforts but also markets as you mentioned to sort of carry out those activities.
Robert Bonnie: That's right.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah. Let's look forward a little bit and keep on this strain of reducing emissions through reforestation and afforestation. You mentioned the scale of the activities that would be necessary in a place like the US to achieve some of these goals. How realistic do you do you see those efforts both in the United States and then internationally to sort of reach that really large scale of reforestation or afforestation? And as we think about the scale of that challenge, what are some of the difficult trade offs that you would anticipate arising?
Robert Bonnie: As I noted, I think we have to come to grips with the fact that we're going to have to make significant investments in the land sector, in forest conservation and reforestation. And for a long, long time, those of us who worked in the space and assumed that that was going to happen through a market based system like carbon offsets. And that may still be the case. But I also think we have to recognize that there's probably a role for public investment perhaps substantially. And if you think about it from a land owner's perspective, if a landowner's going to make an investment in reforestation that's a 20, 25, 30 year investment before they might be able to reap some value from the forests themselves through through harvesting. And there's a lot of uncertainty with that and landowner's going to be a little bit uncertain about hey, is that carbon market going to be around in 25 years? Are the prices going to be realistic to support my investment?
And that's why I think we need to think about strategies that actually deal with that risk and whether it's actually putting the government in the position of buying carbon or somehow insuring it or other things. I think we're going to have to think about beyond purely an offset strategy. We also have to think, as I mentioned, about ensuring that there are robust markets for timber, both biomass that we've talked about, but also there's increasing interest in wood as a green building material and building incredibly, even these incredibly efficient 13, 14, 15 story buildings out of wood that look great but also sequester carbon themselves and are energy efficient.
And so we have to think about a new uses of wood. That'll be an important piece here. As I say, it will take significant investment. It's not enough i think to think that that's going to be entirely a public investment. I think we're going to have to look at ways that markets can play a really important role. Either, and if you think about this or as well, you think about this on a global scale and the acreages that have to be involved, they're significant. And I do think that means it's going to be both a public and private investment.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah. And so you just mentioned the scale of the effort that would be necessary. What are some of the sort of coinciding challenges or trade offs that you would have to think about either in terms of land use competition or maybe political opposition to redeveloping forests in certain places? What are some of the issues that you think would come up in that context?
Robert Bonnie: It's a great question. On first blush forests have enormous co-benefits, provide a lot of clean water. And if you live in the western, you live in California and your water comes from the, largely from the national forests. And so those forests act as a really important watershed, a sponge that absorbs water and they, their wildlife benefits and clean air benefits. There are enormous co-benefits here. But as you point out, there's also competition for land. One of the things that made folks in the agricultural business a little bit nervous during the Waxman Markey debate in Congress around climate legislation in 2009, 2010 was that if we create markets for offsets, we might be converting prime agricultural land into trees. I don't think that's going to happen because I think that prime agricultural land is still far more valuable, far more valuable for agriculture, but there are concerns that that could in fact be the case.
And so, we have to think about where we make these investments, but we're also going to have to recognize that there's competition between agriculture and forest land uses and if we're going to put more trees on more land, that suggests that we're going to have to intensify agriculture. We're going to have to get, we got to feed 9 billion, nine and a half billion people by 2050 and that means we're going to, it's going to be important that we produce more food from the same land base, at the same time that we deal with things like food waste and others so that our food system is more efficient. But dealing with the land competition and ensuring we allow new technologies to allow us to produce more food from the same amount of acres is going to be really important. As you think about trade offs, I think that's one of the most important ones to think about.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah, that makes sense. That's going to be so fascinating to watch that play out. Last question now before we move to our top of the stack segment, which is a similar question to what I just asked in a US context, but thinking more globally and then thinking maybe a little bit longer term. One of the issues with forest energy and biomass that comes up a lot in the energy community or the integrated energy environment community is when we look at the results of modeling exercises that are carried out under the IPCC process and other modeling exercises, many, or perhaps most of them show that achieving long term climate goals like two degrees Celsius by 2100 or even lower, requires enormous amounts of biomass energy coming from forests coupled with carbon capture and sequestration. So-called negative emissions technology. And the scale of the energy implied by many of those modeling results is just really enormous and includes, planting and maintaining a forest that would be, multiples of the North Carolinas that you described in a US context. How do you think about the challenge of that scale in a global context when it comes to deep decarbonization?
Robert Bonnie: Yeah, I think there's no question that it's a significant challenge. On the other hand, if you look at the history of forests over the last 50, 60, 70 years there have been significant investments in plantations in the US and in plantations across the globe. We do not have a shortage of timber right now. In fact, if anything, we've got more timber than we can utilize. I mentioned my family property in South Carolina. We sold pulpwood 25 years ago. Pulpwood being used for paper production. We sold it at a higher price then than we do now in both nominal and real terms. And so we've actually done very well in investing in forest production. And so if we create incentives for landowners and countries to do that, our history tells us that they'll respond to those incentives.
But it means that we have to create value for standing forests. People have to want to invest in those forests and that value can be created through its market incentives as well as governmental incentives. But that's ultimately is what's going to dictate the level of investment. And as I mentioned before, we also have a lot of people we need to feed and that means the food system needs to get more efficient in growing food on, if anything, a shrinking land base.
At the same time, we have huge issues related to food waste and other things. That's another area where it can get far more efficient. And so in some senses, climate change is going to mean our land use gets more intensive. We're going to more intensively grow forests in some places, we're going to more intensively grow food in other places, but it also means we need to make room for wilderness and wildlife and other things. And so that's another piece of the puzzle that we're going to have to figure out as well. I am optimistic that we can do it, but I think we also just need to be clear eyed about the fact that this is going to require as I've said throughout, sort of public and private investment.
Daniel Raimi: That makes sense. And so sometimes when I talk to people who are looking at these long term scenarios and the role of biomass with CCS, they sort of immediately write off the role of forest energy as just unrealistically ambitious in terms of some of those scenarios, but you don't necessarily see it that way.
Robert Bonnie: No. And of course it's not going to be uniform everywhere. There are going to be pockets where it's incredibly efficient. But we don't use quite as much paper as we used to and so there's a gap in the market in places and that's why you've seen companies like Enviva and others in the South actually be able to come in and produce biomass. They're producing pellets for export. And they're able to do that because there's excess timber supply in places like that. And so again, we've shown that landowners will respond to incentives. Everything we think about in terms of climate policy is pretty ambitious. And the land sector is equally ambitious. And so can I guarantee you that the sector will be able to provide what it needs to provide? No, but I'm also quite optimistic that there will be, if we get the incentives right that the landowners and countries will respond.
Daniel Raimi: That makes sense. And so fascinating learning about this stuff. As I said at the outset, this is not an area where I know a whole lot or I've done much research so thank you so much for sharing all of this, really fascinating discussion.
And so let's move now to our last segment of the show where we ask all of our guests what is on the top of your literal or metaphorical reading stack? As you mentioned, it might not be a paper reading stack and it might be on your desktop computer. For me, I've just finished a really fun book that doesn't really have anything to do with forests, but it does have a lot to do with energy. It's a book called Boom Town by Sam Anderson, who's a New York Times Magazine reporter, and it's based on a number of years he spent in Oklahoma City over the last several years.
And it's sort of a history of Oklahoma city, including the sort of land rush in the outset of the city, which is really fascinating. And then it sort of zooms up to the present day and it talks about the quirkiness of Oklahoma City in a variety of ways, and it talks a lot about its basketball team and talks a lot about a guy named Wayne Coyne who is the lead singer for the Flaming Lips, who is sort of an Oklahoma City institution. It talks about city planning and revitalization and obviously energy is sort of imbued throughout this book because it's Oklahoma City and there's a lot of oil and gas sort of headquartered there. If you want to learn about Oklahoma City and have some fun while you do it, definitely check out Boom Town.
Robert Bonnie: Will do.
Daniel Raimi: But how about you Robert? What's on the top of your stack?
Robert Bonnie: I'll give you two books. One is a book called Between Two Fires by a professor named Stephen Pyne, who's been a real thought leader in sort of the fire history, both ecological and the political and policy history around fire in the US. And it's a story of how fire has been treated over the last couple hundred years in the US and particularly focus since the founding of the Forest Service and how the understanding and role of fire has changed both scientifically but within the agency and how organizations like the Tall Timber Research Station in Tallahassee, Florida I should say. And the Nature Conservancy and others have worked to change the way fires dealt with in the US and anybody who watches the news in the summer and sees these large, large fires, Pyne's book will give you a sense of how we got to where we are today.
The other book I'd mention is, and I'm not, I have only just started it, but is Sapiens and a great book about the homo sapiens. And one of the interesting things to me there is, is the role of agriculture and the rise of agriculture and human society, the impact that that had. But the other thing that's really interesting to me is the role that early humans played in shaping ecosystems. We think about, in the US, we always sort of have this mythology of this great wilderness that settlers showed up to confront in the early years of America. In truth, there were millions of native Americans out there shaping the landscape and managing it with fire. And so that story is, it was very interesting to me. And as I said, I'm not through Sapiens, but I would highly recommend both books.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah, fantastic. Between Two Fires and Sapiens. Sapiens actually was recommended a few months ago. We had Matt Lapore who used to be the commissioner of the Colorado Oklahoma Oil and Gas Conservation Commission and now he's in the private sector, but he recommended that book as well, so I'll have to add it to my own stack.
Robert Bonnie: Good book.
Daniel Raimi: Great. Well, Robert Bonnie from Duke University, thank you so much for talking to us about forests and the role they play in energy ecosystems, wildfire and climate change and so much more.
Robert Bonnie: Excellent. Good to be with you.
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