Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Hugging a Burning Tree

PRAGUE – We are all brought up to recycle paper to save trees. We get countless e-mail admonitions: “Please consider the environment before printing.” Indeed, environmentalism was born with a call to preserve the forests.

But now, in the name of saving the planet from climate change, environmentalists are proposing an immense global campaign to cut down and burn trees and scrubs in order to reduce fossil-fuel use. The initiative could be dismissed as a weird irony, if it weren’t for its phenomenal costs, which include likely destruction of biodiversity, increased water use, and reduced global food production. And it may end up increasing global CO2 emissions to boot.

When most people think of renewable energy sources, they imagine solar panels and wind turbines. Globally, however, solar and wind are only a small part of total renewables – less than 7% in 2010. Hydropower is a much bigger player, at 17%. But the most important by far is biomass – humanity’s oldest fuel makes up 76% of today’s renewable energy and 10% of all energy. About 60% of this is wood, twigs, and dung, used by almost three billion people who lack access to modern fuels – and resulting in terrible air pollution and millions of deaths.

But the West uses the other 40% of biomass to produce heat, and it will increasingly use it to generate electricity. This makes sense, because solar and wind power are inherently unreliable – we still need electricity on cloudy days or when the wind dies down. Biomass (along with hydropower) can be used to smooth the fluctuations inherent to wind and solar.

Biomass is experiencing a revival, because it is considered CO2-neutral. The conventional wisdom is that burning wood only releases the carbon sucked up while the tree was growing, and hence the net climate effect is zero. But a growing number of voices challenge this view. The European Environment Agency’s Scientific Committee has called it a “mistaken assumption” based on “a serious accounting error,” because if a forest is cut down to burn wood, it will take a long time for new growth to absorb the CO2 emissions. The climate effect could be a net increase in emissions if forests are cleared to create energy-crop plantations.

According to the Committee’s members, “the potential consequences of this bioenergy accounting error are immense.” Environmentalists’ plan to obtain 20-50% of all energy from biomass could mean a tripling of current biomass consumption, placing its production in direct competition with that of food for a growing global population, while depleting water supplies, cutting down forests, and reducing biodiversity.

An academic paper published last year makes the point clear in its title: “Large-scale bioenergy from additional harvest of forest biomass is neither sustainable nor greenhouse gas neutral.” Its authors point out that while the Industrial Revolution caused climate change, reliance on coal was actually good for forests, because our forebears stopped raiding forests for wood. This is one of the major reasons that forests in Europe and the United States have recovered – and it is why many forests in developing countries are threatened. The developed world’s re-enchantment with biomass could take it down a similar road.

But the biggest problem is that biomass production simply pushes other agricultural production elsewhere. Studies are just beginning to estimate the impact. In Denmark, a group of researchers estimated by how much various energy crops would reduce CO2 emissions. For example, burning a hectare of harvested willow on a field previously used for barley (the typical marginal crop in Denmark) prevents 30 tons of CO2 annually when replacing coal. This is the amount that proud green-energy producers will showcase when switching to biomass.

But burning the willow releases 22 tons of CO2. Of course, all of that CO2 was soaked up from the atmosphere the year before; but, had we just left the barley where it was, it, too, would have soaked up quite a bit, lowering the reduction relative to coal to 20 tons. And, in a market system, almost all of the barley production simply moves to a previously unfarmed area. Clearing the existing biomass there emits an extra 16 tons of CO2 per year on average (and this is likely an underestimate).

So, instead of saving 30 tons, we save four tons at most. And this is the best-case scenario. Of the 12 production modes analyzed, two would reduce annual CO2 emissions by only two tons, while the other ten actually increase total emissions – up to 14 tons per year.

At the same time, we are paying a king’s ransom for biomass. Germany alone spends more than $3 billion annually, or $167 per ton of avoided CO2 emissions, which is more than 37 times the cost of carbon reductions in the European Union Emissions Trading System. And the estimate of avoided emissions ignores indirect land-use changes, making the likely real cost at least eight times higher.

Ten years ago, the EU and the US embraced biofuels as a way to combat global warming. Today, the US turns 40% of its maize output into ethanol to be burned in cars. This has driven up food prices and caused tens of millions of people to starve, while costing more than $17 billion each year in subsidies and causing agricultural deforestation elsewhere in the world, with more total CO2 emissions than the entire savings from the ethanol. Biofuels have become an almost unstoppable and unmitigated disaster.

We need to confront the next – and potentially much bigger – biomass boondoggle. Yes, we should turn waste into energy and be smart about agricultural leftovers. But we are about to diminish biodiversity, over-extract water, make food more expensive, and waste hundreds of billions of dollars – all while cutting down trees to burn them and potentially increasing CO2 emissions. We have been brought up to know and do better.

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    1. Commentedjimmy rousseau

      Once more Mr. Lomborg sets out to obfuscate and confuse. Who are all these environmentalists "proposing an immense global campaign to cut down and burn trees"? Indeed if one looks hard you may find a preponderance of loggers and forestry engineers.
      Because of the complexity of the electrical grid sun shining and wind blowing is not the problem these deniers (Mr. Lomborg is indeed an agw denier) claim it to be. In fact solar is a welcome addition to the grid because it mainly produces power during peak demand periods.
      When forests are clear cut to produce energy, or indeed any use, the hit to our greenhouse gas budget ti huge, but not so in a responsible forest management situation. These forests are often not on good agricultural land.
      I am not in favor of biomass in any situation, but the criticism of biomass just deceives us into thinking the burning of biomass is equivalent to the burning of fossil fuels.Wrong

    2. CommentedEdward Ponderer

      If something always fails to address a problem (or makes it work), and you continue to do it, either you are insane, you enjoy failure, or you are out of ideas and desperate. Assuming it is the last, then what we desperately need here is a paradigm shift.

      The scenario is: we have this huge ecological problem (among others of hardly less import) in supporting our present level of production/consumption, and we see don't seem to have a workable solution to permit continuation of this present level.

      Let's break a bit of a taboo block on creativity here and start thinking, maybe we could massively lower production and consumption. We could start with needless duplication of product and negative competition, designed obsolescence rather than design for optimum whole life, media creation of artificial needs, and so forth. This alone would solve 90%+ of the problem. In fact, this may bring us within the natural healing capacity of the planet and it might not be necessary to do anything else.

      We really need to realize, as Prof. Lomborg seems to wisely point out, is that such keep- the-(needless)-party-going schemes are providing simplistic linear models into a vastly complex, nonlinear, interdependent reality. The names of this game is entropy under the rug, chaos, or Murphy's law. But anyway you slice it, certainly anything that you don't know about, can go wrong and WILL go wrong. And there is plenty we don't know about, on so many levels, till we find out again the empirical hard way.

      And if we keep doing this, the we best all go out and buy 7 billion shirts that say "I with Stupid."

    3. Commentedmarco bonvini

      The post is misleading. The biomass the developed countries means to use come from poultry and cattle litter or wood chips from wood-work scratch and from forest-cleaning, and not from free standing forests like. Please don't fool down the readers, who are these "environmentalists proposing an immense global campaign to cut down and burn trees"? Fact-sheets and links, please

    4. CommentedZsolt Hermann

      At the moment we are coming up with random ideas without any foundations.
      We are running in circles, trying, dismissing then again re-trying the same things in a futile, vicious cycle.
      We do not even have a chance of getting it right while we continue existing within our own illusorical, artificial bubble we created to fulfill our excessive. unnecessary and unnatural demands best showcased by the overproduction/over consumption constant quantitative growth economic model.
      We are speeding towards the edge of the cliff not only in terms of natural resources and sustainability, but even faster regarding human resources indicated by the growing unemployment (especially in youth) and growing social inequality, depression, alcohol and drug use, breakup of the social network including the classical family model worldwide.
      We need to wake up and realize we are still part of the natural system we evolved from, and by which natural system's laws we still function as living creatures.
      Humanity only has any kind of future if we learn to re-adapt to the natural system, becoming partners with it instead of behaving like viruses or cancer, destroying the whole system.

    5. CommentedAshwini H

      I think this article is misleading for any reader as it gives an impression that renewable energy from biomass is obtained from wood cut from forests.

      As a clarification, I would like to state that the 'biomass' that is encouraged for energy generation is not that obtained from cutting down forests. The biomass that constitutes towards renewable energy is 'renewable biomass'. 'Renewable Biomass' is defined by UNFCCC and is essentially the biomass residues or products that do not cause any decrease in the carbon pools. Examples of this may be husk, bagasse or even non-fossil fraction of industrial or municipal waste. Further, this biomass should not result in a net competing use of biomass in the region. Thus, it defines renewable biomass that does not involve cutting down of any wood which has the potential of capturing more carbon or would 'take a long time to absorb CO2 emissions'. In fact, it refers to dead organic matter/waste/rejects that have no further potential of carbon capture and are, thus, only releasing 'the carbon sucked up during their growth'.

      Also, most countries have restrictions on cutting on forest wood and in fact have strict regulations to this effect and so, the same regulators would never certify energy from forest wood as renewable.

    6. CommentedAndrew Mis

      You state "solar and wind power are inherently unreliable – we still need electricity on cloudy days or when the wind dies down," which seems intuitively true and holds itself to be true; however, is there no possible to solution to this problem, that is to ensure the supply of these particular renewable energies are steadily available and consistently meet and grow with the demand? For example, perhaps more efficient battery technologies that can be used to store the surplus energy produced on sunny or windy days? I don't know the what the limits of battery technologies are, but I do hope that one day efficient batteries will be created that can even store long-term reserves of these energy source. However, I imagine on this point about battery technologies the fact that extraction and production of the materials needed are incredibly toxic activities that have damaging effects on the environment and human health. Perhaps you are much more informed on this topic and can direct me to sources?