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Car plant holders have long held that their use is crucial to protect the environment, and that an industry built on fossil fuels is just not sustainable. But a new study suggests that could just be marketing hype, and it's putting the fossil fuel industry in an awkward position.

The research was commissioned by the UK's government and was published on June 24 in The Ecological Society of America's journal Global Change Biology. The new work has its own conclusions: It points out that trees could just as easily be grown on waste wood chips as on natural plant fibers.

When a wood-producing country burns its logs for energy, that's what generates the CO2 emissions that contribute to climate change. But when that country burns that wood instead to produce heat or electricity, it saves money and energy. And that also means fewer emissions. In fact, the UK government commissioned the research after it began cutting its usage of wood-burning plants to generate power and heat.

The study found that plant holders like palm trees could actually be more sustainable if their wood was used to produce electricity than if they were planted as trees. But the UK's current wood-burning power plants, which were expected to make electricity from renewable sources like wind and solar power, are far cheaper than newer, cleaner plants that use natural gas, making them the cheaper option. So even when plant holders are used to generate electricity, they can be a better deal for the environment than burning wood.

The good news

The study's authors say that planting trees with fiber is better for the environment than growing them with wood. "For the first time we can actually show how carbon credits are created and sold," said Simon Young, a researcher at the University of Leicester who co-led the research with colleagues at the University of Manchester. "Most governments and companies sell carbon credits to each other. But how are they created? We found a method. By planting trees with wood pulp you're not actually doing anything new. That's a massive environmental benefit."

As Young explains, planting plants with wood pulp could lead to the development of a whole industry, with people all over the world growing trees and then using them to create a renewable, carbon-neutral source of energy. Not only does the process cut down on the amount of greenhouse gas released into the air, but fiber from the trees can also be used to make other products, including paper, cardboard, and building materials.

While the researchers admit their study is not perfect, it's a step in the right direction. "We've made it clear that these trees are not perfect," Young said. "But it's a good start."

The authors also highlight how it's possible to plant trees as an environmentally friendly alternative to traditional coal-fired power plants, which are responsible for releasing more greenhouse gas than any other power source.

"Coal is the worst," Young said. "It's not that trees are a perfect solution, but a plant that does the same thing without burning any carbon is a step in the right direction. If you stop burning coal you can't just stop climate change. We have to change how we power our cities and our transport systems. People can't move around unless there's a way to create electricity.

"It's all about the carbon offsets. Most people haven't done anything about this."

According to the authors of the study, it's only a matter of time before governments begin requiring carbon credits to be purchased. "The more carbon dioxide you cut down, the more you'll be able to sell," Young said. "The money that's saved will be used to help other people. So it's a win-win."

The researchers are calling for more research into the use of wood pulp in plants and the development of carbon capture and storage systems to help reduce the overall carbon emissions from plants.

"We're not sure if that technology will ever work because we don't understand the carbon cycle yet. But it's the only practical solution."

Explore further Plant pulp paper uses just as much energy as traditional wood pulp

This story is republished courtesy of Planet Earth online, a free, companion website to the award-winning magazine Planet Earth published and funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC).


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