Using trees and crops is being touted by the biomass industry as a way to curb carbon emissions, but it turns out bioenergy and biofuels are as bad as fossil fuels for the climate, environment and local communities.
On our rapidly changing Earth, everything is connected. The need to abandon unsustainable resource extraction grows more urgent with each day. The use of biomass to create bioenergy and biofuels is responsible for the rising levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) and environmental destruction, starting well before the burning takes place.
Amidst growing recognition of this crisis and the push to divest from fossil fuels, the bioenergy and biofuel industries seem to promise a way forward. Generating bioenergy by burning wood pellets and creating biofuel from crops such as soy, palm, and rapeseed sound like a sustainable alternative. Yet in reality, biomass energy does more harm than good to our ecosystem.
The root word ‘bio’ stems from ‘bíos’, which means ‘life’ in Greek. Bioenergy and biofuels are derived from organic matter which, like all living things, contains carbon. When burned, carbon is released into the atmosphere in the form of carbon dioxide. Though industry marketing relies on ‘bio’ to suggest ecological responsibility, the carbon-rich nature of wood means that burning wood for energy emits between 30-50% more carbon on a per-unit-of-energy basis than burning coal. And biofuel made from palm oil is three times more polluting than fossil diesel.
Despite claims of sustainability, the bioenergy industry is cutting its way through biodiverse forests, natural carbon sinks that would otherwise be working to pull carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Companies blanket cleared land with tree plantations. These monocultures cannot sequester as much carbon as older forests and they deplete soils of nutrients. They are so more susceptible to fires and do not support the biodiversity found in natural forests. Industry reports may claim that forest cover is increasing, however, they include these ‘fake forests’ within their calculations.
Palm plantations often used to produce biodiesel, cause similarly devastating deforestation. Thankfully, in March 2019 the European Commission decided that diesel derived from palm oil is not a sustainable source of energy, and levels of palm oil in diesel will be reduced to zero by 2030. Nevertheless, some palm oil will still be classed as a green fuel, and other parts of the world are yet to make similar policy changes. Biofuels can also be produced from crops like corn (ethanol) and soy (diesel). Biofuel crops have been gobbling up land previously dedicated to growing food crops, causing the new land to be cleared. This indirect land-use change causes further loss of carbon sinks and biodiversity, rising food prices, water, and soil pollution caused by the wider use of agrochemicals, adding even more associated emissions.
According to the IPCC Special Report on global warming of 1.5 degrees, we have only 11 years in which to change how we consume and live. The bioenergy and unsustainable biofuel industries operate using the same extractive ideology that got us here in the first place – an ideology that puts resource exploitation and short-term gains ahead of indigenous rights.
We all rely on Earth to sustain and feed us. Policymakers and civil society must take heed. Producing unsustainable food-based biofuels and burning biomass serves a handful of wealthy corporations, not the general public. This system distracts from truly green solutions like solar and wind power. We must respect the living ‘bíos’ in biomass and stop burning bridges to a just and sustainable future.