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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.