Dangerous delusions: biomass is not a renewable energy source

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Using trees and crops is being touted by the biomass industry as a way to curb carbon emissions, but it turns out bioenergy and biofuels are as bad as fossil fuels for the climate, the environment and local communities.

On our rapidly changing Earth, everything is connected. The need to abandon unsustainable resource extraction grows more urgent with each day that passes. That’s why we need to talk about biomass. The use of biomass (plant material) to create bioenergy (for heat or power) and biofuels (for transportation) is responsible for rising levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) and environmental destruction – starting well before the burning takes place.

This May, for the first time in recorded history, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere hit 415 ppm (parts per million). Yet in 800,000 years of climate history, CO2 levels never exceeded 300 ppm. Now, a dramatic increase in the exploitation of natural resources is shaping a legacy of climate breakdown, with vulnerable communities and ecosystems struggling to survive.

Amidst growing recognition of this crisis and the push to divest from fossil fuels, the bioenergy and biofuel industries seem to promise a way forward. Generating bioenergy by burning wood pellets and creating biofuel from crops such as soy, palm and rapeseed sounds like a sustainable alternative. Yet in reality, biomass energy does more harm than good to our climate, ecosystems and communities.

Wood processing facility. Courtesy of WOLF Forest Protection Movement, Slovakia

The root word ‘bio’ stems from ‘bíos’, which means ‘life’ in Greek. Bioenergy and biofuels are derived from organic matter which, like all living things, contains carbon. When burned, that carbon is released into the atmosphere in the form of carbon dioxide. Though industry marketing relies on ‘bio’ to suggest ecological responsibility, the carbon-rich nature of wood means that burning wood for energy emits between 30-50% more carbon on a per-unit-of-energy basis than burning coal. And biofuel made from palm oil is three times more polluting than fossil diesel when land-use changes are taken into account.

Despite claims of sustainability, the bioenergy industry is clearcutting its way through biodiverse forests -- natural carbon sinks that would otherwise be working to pull carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The U.S. is one of the largest suppliers of the staggering 22 million tonnes of wood pellets consumed in the EU each year. Communities in Virginia, Mississippi and North Carolina are already battling to protect forests and to stop the construction of new production plants in socially deprived areas.

Projected wood pellet flows in 2027: Environmental Paper Network 2018

Companies also blanket cleared land with tree plantations. These monocultures cannot sequester as much carbon as older forests and they deplete soils of nutrients. They are also more susceptible to fires, and do not support the biodiversity found in natural forests. Industry reports may claim that forest cover is increasing, however they include these ‘fake forests’ within their calculations.

The bioenergy industry is predicted to expand by 250% over the next ten years, having already doubled in the last decade. This would spell disaster for ecosystems upon which both humans and animals depend, and it flies against the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement.

Palm plantations, often used to produce biodiesel, cause similarly devastating deforestation in South America, Africa, and Southeast Asia. Thankfully, in March 2019 the European Commission decided that diesel derived from palm oil is not a sustainable source of energy, and levels of palm oil in diesel will be reduced to zero by 2030. Nevertheless, some palm oil will still be classed as a green fuel, and other parts of the world are yet to make similar policy changes.

Photo by Pablo García Saldaña

Biofuels can also be produced from crops like corn (ethanol) and soy (diesel). Biofuel crops have been gobbling up land previously dedicated to grow food crops, causing new land to be cleared. This indirect land-use change causes further loss of carbon sinks and biodiversity, rising food prices, water and soil pollution caused by the wider use of agrochemicals, adding even more associated emissions.

This trend has also resulted in the violation of the rights of indigenous peoples and local communities who depend on the land for small-scale agriculture and forest resources. Cases of land-grabbing, human rights abuses, and resulting loss of traditional practices are rife, as outlined in a 2018 letter from indigenous representatives in Indonesia. Local people left with few other options may start working on plantations, facing poor working conditions and exploitation. Further still, governments may even help limit industry transparency, as is the case in Indonesia.

When it comes to the health impacts of burning wood pellets, research shows that although wood may emit less mercury and sulfur than coal, it emits more harmful particulates and more nitrogen oxides. Communities living near bioenergy plants suffer similarly to those living near a coal plant: with lung problems, asthma, and heart issues.

Closeup of wood pellets

It seems unbelievable that bioenergy and biofuels are being presented as part of the climate solution. The EU’s Renewable Energy Directive misleadingly suggests that bioenergy is carbon neutral (based on the simplistic reasoning that trees re-grow), and the EU long term climate strategy relies on increases in bioenergy of up to 80 percent, while the Fuel Directive promotes the use of biofuels until 2020.

It may be difficult for many people to accept that burning biomass is just as bad, if not worse, than burning fossil fuels, but this fact is finally sparking national and international movements against the biomass and biofuel industries.

According to the IPCC Special Report on global warming of 1.5 degrees, we have only 11 years in which to change how we consume and live. The bioenergy and unsustainable biofuel industries operate using the same extractive ideology that got us here in the first place -- an ideology which puts resource exploitation and short-term gains ahead of indigenous rights, local communities and ecosystems. This is no change.

We all rely on the Earth to sustain and feed us. Policymakers and civil society must take heed. Producing unsustainable food-based biofuels and burning biomass serves a handful of wealthy corporations, not the general public. This system distracts from truly green solutions like solar and wind power. We must respect the living ‘bíos’ in biomass and stop burning bridges to a just and sustainable future.

Last updated May 30, 2019

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