Bioenergy policy being driven by ‘alternative facts’

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

65% of renewable energy produced in the EU comes from burning biomass. Three-quarters of that is wood. [Andrew Malone/ Flickr]

Today is the International Day of Forests: 1.6 billion people rely on them for their livelihoods; they are home to more than 80% of the terrestrial life; and they’re a crucial bulwark against climate change, writes Linde Zuidema.

 Linde Zuidema is a bioenergy campaigner at the forests and rights NGO Fern.

Setting a day aside to celebrate forests is laudable. Yet this year, the key message that the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), the body promoting the day, has attached to it, is setting alarm bells ringing.

Today’s theme is Forests and Energy, with the FAO declaring that “wood is the fuel of the future”, and highlighting how wood and wood waste – biomass – can be used to provide energy and power our transport.

For many people around the world, wood is a traditional and crucial source of energy – without it they wouldn’t survive.

Yet more countries are using woody biomass as a source of renewable energy on an industrial scale, ostensibly as a ‘green energy’ alternative to fossil fuels.

In the EU about 65% of renewable energy is produced by burning biomass – around three-quarters of this is wood.

The FAO’s message comes at the exact moment that opposition is mounting against the unfettered use of wood on an industrial scale for power and heating.

Today around 40 NGOs are releasing a joint letter criticising the FAO for promoting bioenergy and ignoring the serious negative impacts that excessive wood burning has on the climate, people’s health, forests and the environment.

A recent paper by the UK think-tank Chatham House showed that relying on wood to generate electricity may actually be hindering the battle against global warming.

Its blunt conclusion was: “Current biomass policy frameworks are not fit for purpose and require substantial changes to ensure they contribute to mitigating climate change rather than exacerbating it.”

This conclusion is echoed by Professor William Moomaw, a lead author for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), who said last week that the bioenergy industry is pushing “alternative facts”, and criticised the ‘carbon neutrality’ argument unequivocally.

He told the BBC: “Until about six years ago I bought into the notion that because another tree grows it’s carbon neutral, it’s so comforting!”

“But it’s like saying I had £100,000 in my bank account, and I spent it all on a Ferrari – but it’ll be ok because in my lifetime I’ll have £100,000 in my bank sometime in the future. This accounting is troubling.”

“We are telling women in Africa that cutting down a tree to cook dinner is deforestation and we have policies to stop you from doing that, but if the UK government gives £500 million to burn biofuels that are cut from trees in North America and shipped across the ocean, that’s zero carbon – it doesn’t compute!” he said.

If burning more wood is what the FAO means by its slogan that forests are ‘the world’s power house’, then it is one the world should ignore.

This is particularly important as the EU is currently considering a sustainable bioenergy policy for the period after 2020. No matter what ‘alternative facts’ about carbon neutrality are used, the atmosphere won’t be fooled.

If the policy encourages further harvesting and burning of wood then vast amounts of carbon dioxide will be added into the atmosphere.

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