We can’t burn our way out of the climate crisis

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

“When a power station switches from coal to wood pellets, a significant amount of extra CO2 is released," the European Academy of Sciences Advisory Council (EASAC) said in an open letter. [tchara / Shutterstock]

In its new Net Zero scenario, the International Energy Agency (IEA) maps a 60% increase in bioenergy by 2050. But Swapping burning wood for burning coal won’t save the climate, warns Peg Putt.

Peg Putt is coordinator of the EPN working group on forests, climate and biomass, and former Australia Greens Party MP (1993-2008) and leader.

After years of pressure, the International Energy Agency (IEA) has finally released a roadmap modelling how the world can achieve carbon neutrality by 2050 and limit global warming to 1.5ºC.

It rightly flags no new investment in fossil fuel supply, but wrongly builds in a 60% expansion in bioenergy: from around 60 exajoule (EJ) in 2020 to around 100 EJ in 2050.

Swapping burning wood for burning coal won’t save the climate, but the IEA buys into the false assumption that energy from forest biomass is carbon neutral when it is actually a major emissions source.

As the European Academy of Sciences Advisory Council (EASAC) said in an open letter, “when a power station switches from coal to wood pellets, a significant amount of extra CO2 is released, so there follows a period (carbon payback period) during which switching from coal to forest biomass increases atmospheric levels of CO2. This is often a long period – much beyond the time we have available to meet Paris Agreement targets of limiting warming to 1.5-2°C.

Interestingly that letter was responding to IEA Bioenergy, an associated body to the IEA that has for some time been acting as an advocate for bioenergy and aggressively challenging expert science that disagrees with their claims.

The IEA roadmap puts natural forests under massively increased threat whilst plantations also expand dramatically, fuelling land grabs and driving people from their homes at the expense of their rights to food and livelihoods.

There is a huge increase in burning “forest wood and residues” for energy, between four and five times current quantities. This heralds expanded and accelerated plunder of natural forests with serious impacts on biodiversity whilst also degrading and destroying the valuable carbon stocks these forests keep out of the atmosphere.

Not only that, the important alternative of deploying forests to draw down carbon goes unrecognised and is actively undermined by a failure to emphasise the importance of protection and restoration of natural forests to reducing emissions and removing atmospheric carbon dioxide while supporting biodiversity, resilience and well-being.

Altogether a total area of 410 million hectares of land, an area the size of India and Pakistan combined is slated for biomass production by 2050. Around 270 million hectares is forests, representing a quarter of the global area of managed forests.

In an Alice in Wonderland moment, the IEA thinks all this can be done “sustainably”, without the inevitable impacts on agriculture and our ability to feed the world, on structurally oppressed people, and on natural ecosystems in a time of biodiversity crisis.

We have often explained that sustainability is not a measure of greenhouse gas reductions, and represents a diversionary tactic.

In most parts of the world “sustainability” is not an ecological concept as applied to forestry – instead being conceived as the ability to keep on taking wood in a series of logging rotations over time. In the EU, where “sustainability” window dressing is more developed, a new report from FERN exposes that the sustainability criteria of the Renewable Energy Directive (RED) are ineffective at halting forest destruction.

The IEA seems to also have conjured up a fantasy that there’s enough marginal land going begging that can be utilised for biomass production. There is no magic marginal land solution.

Marginal land is where people have been driven to as agricultural expansion has dispossessed them, and where such land is empty it is vital to use for forest restoration to draw down and store carbon and tackle the biodiversity crisis. The last thing we should be doing is clearing and burning it to establish masses of monoculture plantations for even more large scale burning for energy.

Unpicking the detail further, “modern bioenergy” meets almost 20% of global energy needs by 2050, of which the vast majority is solid biomass. Rapid replacement of “traditional” biomass with “modern” biomass by 2030 means a transition to a commodified supply, with big implications for the poorest and most marginalised people in the world.

There are serious doubts that this is feasible, so remaining traditional biomass use should be added to the vast amounts envisaged in the IEA scenario, since its use will not disappear rapidly at all.

There’s a large amount of Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) in the roadmap, including Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS). BECCS is unproven at scale, and assumptions of negative emissions rely on that wrong assumption that bioenergy is carbon neutral.

In the IPCC Special Report on Climate Change and Land of August 2019 is a strong warning that large scale bioenergy and BECCS is not a ‘get out of jail free’ card.

A stark picture is painted of enormously damaging impacts on food security, ecosystem and land degradation and desertification, and adaptation – a tidal wave of impacts on people and nature that effectively rule out the mass tree plantings required by controversial mitigation schemes that could cover huge expanses of current cropland.

The IEA seems to have failed to do their homework on bioenergy and BECCS.

The new roadmap didn’t have to be this way.

The world has to move beyond burning both fossil fuels and forests for energy – to genuine low emissions renewables.

The use of bioenergy in the IEA roadmap is contrary to findings in the IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C. Therein the IPCC depicts one pathway that avoids temperature overshoot and doesn’t rely on bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS).

This scenario envisions a decrease in bioenergy relevant to 2010. The crucial difference is that the IPCC prioritises maximising carbon storage by forests, not burning them for energy.

It is possible to limit global warming to 1.5 and vital to do so to avoid irreversible impacts on land and forest systems that would then exacerbate the climate crisis. Limiting global warming to 1.5°C requires fast and spirited climate action and deep emissions cuts that can be only be achieved tough actions in all sectors.

Forests can play a role but they, and all dependent on them, are also at risk. Action here is imperative but no substitute for strong action on fossil fuel use and the comprehensive upscaling of low emissions renewable energy.

Changes in production and consumption patterns are vital as well as the protection and wide-ranging careful restoration of our natural forests and other vital ecosystems.

IEA criticised over growing share of bioenergy in net-zero scenario

The International Energy Agency (IEA) published a new energy scenario on Tuesday (18 May), modelling for the first time how the world can achieve carbon neutrality by 2050 and limit global warming to 1.5ºC.

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