The bioenergy delusion

| 21st May 2019
Biomass harvest
Geograph
Replacing fossil fuels with bioenergy only takes us backwards, continuing our addiction to burning and extraction, and causing extensive ecological damage.

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The bioenergy industry gives the impression of being at the forefront of tackling climate change. Every wood pellet that's burned communicates the illusion of innovative progress away from fossil fuels and towards 'renewable' energy.

In the context of our urgent need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, it is easy to be persuaded by a strategy which can supposedly help steer us away from impending doom.

Before I took my job working to protect forests I was under the impression that bioenergy was something positive. 

Capitalism growth 

Since humans first discovered how to create fire about 1.5 million years ago, our ability to harness the flames has sustained us, warmed us, and fed us.

Most of the world is fiercely globalised and intensely capitalist, focusing on - or subjected to - short-term economic gain.

Societies in the global north have become demanding and consumerist, reaching ever further afield for products to satisfy our desires. We have plunged deep into oil wells, and exploited pristine, ecologically priceless ecosystems in the Arctic and Amazon.

Burning materials to produce energy continues to drive our modern society. 

Many people will have heard and agree with the slogan ‘keep it in the ground’ in reference to coal, oil and gas. The need to do so could not be more pressing, as we teeter on the brink of global climate catastrophe.

Climate denial 

A crisis is already playing out around us - more noticeably in some parts of the world than in others, and exerting greater pressure and injustice on certain communities than on others. 

In 2015 it emerged that ExxonMobil knew about climate change and the impacts of burning fossil fuels as early as the 1960s, yet went on to fund disinformation campaigns to promote climate denial - the basis of a hearing in the European Parliament which Exxon failed to attend.  

Not only have companies been knowingly carrying out activities that have a long-lasting detrimental impact on the climate, but they have also been infringing on human and constitutional rights, for example through oil-spills, incursion onto and violence within indigenous lands, and widespread damage to lives and livelihoods

It is clear that we need both an end to the burning of fossil fuels and, more widely, an end to and prevention of any activity which releases significant quantities of greenhouse gases and destroys the environment.

This demands a whole-scale shift in our system - from one of extraction and burning, to one where we can produce energy without causing social and environmental harm.  

Ecological responsibility 

Replacing fossil fuels with biomass is like building a house of cards, and choosing to keep removing one kind of card rather than another. In both scenarios, the house collapses.

Burning biomass is just another path to environmental destruction.

There is extensive research to show why burning biomass is terrible for the environment.  Burning wood for energy emits more carbon on a per-unit-of-energy basis than burning coal, as well as harmful particulates that cause health issues to local communities, just like living near a coal plant.

Despite attempts to market an image of ecological responsibility, wood pellets are either sourced from the clearcutting of biodiverse forests that would otherwise act as carbon sinks, or from monoculture plantations that replace those forests, offering little benefit to wildlife and communities.  

An incredible 22 million tonnes of pellets, many imported from the US, are already consumed in the EU each year. This is set to rise as demand increases, thanks to policy such as the EU’s Renewable Energy Directive, which misleadingly suggests that bioenergy has zero emissions, and the EU long term climate strategy, which relies on large increases in bioenergy of up to 80 percent.   

Fatal ideology 

Where bioenergy companies claim that they will only burn waste and residues, they cannot live up to their promises. This is due to the sheer quantity of wood pellets required, resulting in the need to source directly from forests, not to mention the lack of suitable infrastructure to safely burn these types of pellets: so far, only pellets made from virgin wood have been used.

In 2018, Drax power station gobbled up 7.2 million tonnes of wood pellets, to the detriment of natural forests in the Southern US and Eastern Europe.

What has not permeated the public consciousness is that bioenergy is a flagrant hitch-hiker on the structures already built up by the global fossil-fuel industry.

Bioenergy relies on the same fatal ideology that keeps oil barons happy as millions of barrels of oil are extracted, despite all the science to show that we must stop drilling.

It’s the same ideology that favours centralized corporate control over community empowerment. And it’s the same ideology that climate criminals like Trump and Bolsonaro use to justify deforestation and attacks on indigenous peoples in the Amazon, and the use of harmful agricultural chemicals, to name only two examples.  

Extractive system

The bioenergy industry is all about producing ever-increasing quantities of wood pellets, exploiting the land, disregarding the need to protect forests, and distracting from the work required to reduce emissions.

Thanks to the efforts of NGOs, scientists, and a growing number of concerned citizens, the inherent risks of burning wood for bioenergy have recently gained more attention. 

Over 800 scientists wrote to the EU in January 2018, calling for an end to subsidies for energy produced from biomass, and for recognition of the socio-environmental risks of burning wood pellets.

On 4 March this year, their concerns were echoed in a landmark case which was filed against the EU by six plaintiffs claiming that classifying bioenergy as carbon-neutral within the EU Renewable Energy Directive has caused them and the wider environment harm.  

Civil society groups are also rising up to protest clearcutting for biomass, and to fight the conversion of coal power plants to biomass rather than shutting them down permanently. The very need for this struggle is a sure sign that the old extractive system is simply being adapted to accommodate biomass. 

Public opinion

Yet, as public opinion swings strongly against the extraction and burning of fossil fuels, there is still not enough being said about - nor against - bioenergy.

In the context of the Paris Agreement, the IPCC’s report on 1.5 degrees, and the global climate strikes, the bioenergy industry is being allowed to slip in, relatively quietly yet nevertheless in plain sight, as a ‘saviour’. 

Now, after reading and learning from industry, scientific and NGO documents alike, I know that burning wood for energy is a continuation of the same old story, with the most dangerous characters (resource extraction, greenhouse gas emissions, short-term gain, trampling of community rights and destruction of nature) combined in a nefarious mix. 

As this industry continues to carry out its destruction of forests and landscapes, not to mention the climate, in several years’ time we could see huge civil society protests to not only ‘keep it in the ground’, but also to ‘stand for forests’.

Wave of outrage

There will be a rising wave of outrage and distress born from the realization that once again companies marketed their activities as green and sustainable, even when they knew better.

The realization that once again governments and leaders chose the extraction of finite resources and irreparable damage to ecosystems, even when they knew better. The realization that once again society and our planet has been pushed further into climate chaos, even when we knew better.

There is already every need to panic.  

Let’s halt bioenergy, reduce emissions and protect natural carbon sinks and landscapes rather than relying on false solutions. We must stop going backwards before it’s too late.

This Author 

Katja Garson is a campaigner and writer focussing on the intersections of climate, land-use, nature, and grassroots action. She currently leads communications for CLARA.

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