On the face of it, Europe is a leader in tackling climate change, on course to get 20 per cent of its energy from renewable sources by 2020. But the biggest source of renewable energy in the European Union isn’t one of the ones everyone talks about – wind, solar or even hydro. Actually, the EU now gets more than 60 per cent of its renewable energy from waste wood, felled trees and from crops grown to make liquid biofuels. About a tenth of the energy that Europeans use for heating, transport and electricity will soon come from forests and farms. Many fear that this push for biomass will be disastrous for wildlife and drive up food prices. But what’s most shocking is that this push is based on flawed assumptions. The carbon balance sheets of developed countries hide a scam, one whose long-term effects could be very damaging indeed.
Overall, bioenergy may be reducing emissions compared with fossil fuels, but not by nearly as much as is claimed. That’s because UN and EU rules mean countries don’t have to count the significant carbon dioxide produced by burning biomass. The Europeans are to some extent claiming reductions that are not real. This accounting trick means biomass is sometimes being favoured over other renewables that could cut emissions more. Bioenergy is after all a very inefficient form of solar energy. It captures at best 0.3 per cent of the sun’s available energy, whereas solar panels capture more than 10 per cent. Worse still, in some cases, switching to biomass actually produces higher emissions than fossil fuels. In other words, EU taxpayers are funding projects that are speeding up global warming.
In the US, too, bioenergy is the single largest source of renewable energy. Forestry groups growing rich from selling wood to Europe want US lawmakers to introduce the same flawed accounting system. The big worry is that countries like Indonesia, Brazil and the Democratic Republic of the Congo will follow suit and start cutting down their trees to generate energy too. If you burn certain feedstocks – not all feedstocks – you are going to release more carbon than if you were burning coal,” says Nicklas Forsell at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Vienna, Austria.
So why is it happening? When researchers first began totting up global carbon emissions, they decided to count those from cutting trees when they were felled. To avoid double counting, they ignored CO2 from burning. Biomass emissions are regarded as carbon neutral, so don’t count towards a country’s total. If a forest is felled for biofuel, it should be reported in the EU’s greenhouse gas inventory as emissions due to a change in land use. But developing countries don’t have to report land-use changes under the UN system, and there are so many loopholes that even developed countries seldom count emissions properly.
The assumption that burning biomass is carbon neutral underpins the EU’s 2020 renewables goal, which is driving a huge expansion of bioenergy backed by hundreds of millions of euros of taxpayers’ money. oreover, if low-grade wood currently used to make paper is burned for energy instead, pulp producers have to source wood from elsewhere. That increases the pressure on forests. The bottom line is that wind and solar provide less than 20 per cent of the EU’s renewable energy, thus:
Biomass and renewable waste 64%
(a heavily edited version of an article by Michael Le Page in the New Scientist)
What is the point of deliberstely cheating? We are talking about the future of the planet and of the human race. Moderation and just plain common sense tells us that we have to tackle the climate threat seriously or have a very serious problem down the line.