Most people don’t realise that 64% of the EU’s renewable energy is in fact biomass. The scam starts with UN and EU rules that say if you cut down a tree you don’t count the carbon it emits when you burn it. The assumption is that the tree will grow back again. The New Scientist (probably paywalled) has the story.
If you cut down a 50 year old oak tree it will take 50 years to grow back, so the immediate effect is to raise emissions. Moreover the roots will also rot, producing more emissions. But if left there the tree would have continued to grow, absorbing carbon. This function is lost. In practice too, the trees do not always regrow.
Furthermore, wood is a poor source of heat, far worse than coal. American firms are growing forests to produce wood pellets which are then shipped to Europe. So far the US authorities may change their rules to adopt the same carbon accounting methods as the EU. The big worry is that countries like Indonesia, Brazil and the Democratic Republic of the Congo will start cutting down their trees for energy too.
Leaving aside the effects on wildlife and other environmental concerns, using trees for biomass is also putting pressure on trees for paper and land use for food.
- Ignoring these effects can make some forms of bioenergy look good in theory when in reality they increase emissions and drive deforestation.
For instance, a December 2015 report for the European Commission concluded that using more bioenergy could help reduce emissions – but it assumes indirect effects can be avoided.
Even then, it found that if the use of forest biomass keeps expanding, there would be a net increase in emissions from 2030 due to this form of bioenergy, rather than a reduction.
So what proportion of bioenergy increases emissions rather than reducing them? No one knows, says Joffe. “That’s part of the problem.”
And little is being done about it. A few years ago when the UK government’s own scientists said that many forms of forest biomass increase emissions, the findings were ignored, Searchinger says. “They’ve ignored it because they’ve already committed,” he says. “And because they don’t know what else to do.”
Here’s the graph showing how renewable energy divides up in Europe:
Together these sources contribute over 12% of the EU’s energy consumption. That is not a great deal, so there is plenty of scope for this scam to get worse.
With some feedstocks other than wood they don’t actually know how much carbon is involved.