Study: Industrial-Scale Biomass Energy Not Sustainable

– by Josh Schlossberg, April 19, 2012, The Biomass Monitor

Yet another in a long and growing list of scientific studies debunking the sustainability of industrial-scale biomass energy was published in Global Change Biology in April. The global study, “Large-scale bioenergy from additional harvest of forest biomass is neither sustainable nor greenhouse gas neutral,” was conducted by Schulze, Korner, Law, Haberl, and Luyssaert from Germany, Switzerland, Oregon, Austria, and France.

The study determines that a European Union mandate to provide 20% of Europe’s energy from biomass would commandeer the equivalent of “60–70% of the global increment in woody biomass.” The authors dismiss biomass industry claims of carbon neutrality by explaining that “this reasoning makes a ‘baseline error’ by neglecting the plant growth and consequent C [carbon]-sequestration that would occur in the absence of bioenergy production.” Instead, they argue that such an expansion of biomass energy wouldn’t reduce carbon dioxide emissions but instead would “result in a reduction of biomass pools that requires decades to centuries to be paid back by fossil fuel substitution, if paid back at all.”

Further, expansion of biomass energy would “export substantial amounts of nutrients, further depleting the soil nutrient stock,” especially when removing “nutrient-rich biomass residues (slash) and root stocks.” Required fertilization following soil depletion would further increase greenhouse gas emissions.

Findings predict an increase in burning whole trees for biomass energy, including from “previously unmanaged forests,” citing a rise in the price of wood chips in relation to saw logs—already reaching a staggering 60-70% of the price of saw logs in Germany. This trend of rising wood chip prices will “discourage forest owners from investments in long rotations, resulting in a shortage of quality timber.”

Study authors also state that policies encouraging “thinning” of western native forests for so-called “fire fuels reduction” are misguided, with the end result being the release of more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than wildfire itself, which is a natural and essential component of western forest ecosystems.

As alternatives to burning more forests for industrial-scale energy, study authors recommend “increased energy efficiency” and “behaviour modification,” or lifestyle change.

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