Canadian Geographic
Left navigation image
Future of forestry

Biomass explained

Biomass is the total mass of all living organisms within a specific environmental area, including micro-organisms, plants and animals. Biomass contains mostly carbon, hydrogen and oxygen and small amounts of other material, such as nitrogen and metals.

Plants create biomass from carbon dioxide in the air, water from the Earth and sunlight. Through photosynthesis, energy from the sun reacts with water and carbon dioxide to produce sugars that become the building blocks of new biomass. As plants grow, their biomass increases, just like that of animals and micro-organisms. When plants wilt and die, biomass decreases and eventually turns into fertile soil.

Plant-based biomass is an active component of the Earth’s atmosphere that constantly absorbs, uses and emits carbon dioxide. Fossil fuels, on the other hand, come from ancient biomass containing carbon that has been stored outside the carbon cycle for a long time. Burning fossil fuels releases large amounts of carbon dioxide, disturbing the balance of gases in the atmosphere and contributing to climate change.

In contrast, burning plant-based biomass efficiently results in little or no net emission of carbon dioxide, because as the plants grew, they absorbed an equal amount of carbon dioxide from the air.

However, there are greenhouse-gas emissions related to biomass production and processing — the use of fossil fuels to operate farming equipment, for example, and the application of inorganic fertilizers to bioenergy crops. Similarly, forest harvesting generates greenhouse-gas emissions through the construction of access roads and infrastructure in forestry-dependent communities to harvest, process and distribute forest products. But the use of biomass residues, which would otherwise be dumped in landfills, reduces greenhouse-gas emissions.


This piece features a scroll bar of images that address various facts about how wood residue and biomass energy are utilized in the forest-products industry.


On the next page:

Global outlook

Go now!  Go now!
Quiz :

Where is the majority of biomass found on earth?

In mountains
In forests
In deserts