Is Biomass Renewable Energy?

by Stephen Leahy

North Carolina’s Scot Quaranda is terrified that the southern United States plans on becoming the Saudi Arabia of biomass. But isn’t biomass a renewable source of clean and green energy?

“Not when you’re burning trees,” says Quaranda, the Communications Director of the Dogwood Alliance, a coalition of 70 citizens’ organizations trying toprevent the South’s remaining forests from being turned into tree plantations.

Some 102 biomass/biofuel facilities are currently being built or planned in the region. A single facility could require millions of tons of biomass, mostly wood chips grown on the fast-growing loblolly pine plantations that already blanket the southern states from the Carolinas to Arkansas.

No one seriously argues that tree plantations have anything like the biodiversity, ecological function or spiritual essence of natural forests, be they first or even second growth, but have they reduced pressures on old growth forests?

Net rates of deforestation did go down globally from 16 million hectares annually in the 1990s to 13 million ha/year in the past decade, according to the United Nations, Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO). FAO credits plantations with much of this, especially in China, Europe and North America. Although the best available global data, FAO statistics consider forested areas anything that has trees covering ten percent or more. And it doesn’t do a good job sorting out primary forest from plantations or second growth, mainly because countries like Canada won’t provide the proper data.

The southern US is the world’s largest producer of pulp and paper, producing 20 percent of the world’s paper. It wasn’t always so. 

Logged out by the 1920s and 1930s, secondary growth forests grew back, largely untouched, reaching an impressive 80 million hectares, mostly on private lands. Then in the late 1980s, the chip mills and plantations moved in and nearly one quarter of natural forests were cut and replaced with vast monocultures of loblolly pines that can be used for newsprint 8 to 12 years after planting.

“It’s been ecodevastation here for the last 25 years. We have more threatened and endangered species than anywhere else in the US,” Quaranda says. “Do plantations reduce pressure on natural forests? No, they are still being converted here. With massive government funding for biomass in various green energy provisions, even a down-sized pulp and paper industry is worried it won’t be able to get enough wood fibre.”


The Green Energy Threat

The Dogwood Alliance has worked hard to persuade big companies like Abitibibowater to halt all conversions. Now the new threats in the forest are energy companies and governments eager to be green. 

Coal power plants are now burning wood chips, trying to greenwash their pollution, and   genetically engineered (GE) eucalyptus trees have been developed to feed the cellulosic ethanol plants expected in the next few years. A quarter million cold-tolerant GE eucalyptus trees could be planted next spring in seven southern States if the US Department of Agriculture gives its final approval. “Eucalyptus are an alien species here, notorious for their high water use and prone to intense fires. I don’t believe these trees will be sterile as claimed and the risks from genetic contamination are like a science fiction nightmare,” Quaranda says.

European companies are outfitting ports on the US east coast to ship large volumes of wood chips to feed huge biomass furnaces, as Europe attempts to reduce carbon emissions because of climate change. For example, MGT Power Ltd., a British company, is building two 295-megawatt biomass plants in Newcastle and Teesport, England, providing enough electricity for 1.2 million homes. How much wood will be needed? Five million tons of wood chips a year, none of it from England. 

Because trees are considered renewable energy the company claims carbon emission reduction of 2.4 million tons per year compared to burning coal.

“It’s faulty carbon accounting to claim burning trees as carbon neutral or even close to that,” Quaranda says. First of all,  chopping up a tree, shipping it hundreds or thousands of kilometres to burn it and then planting a tiny sapling to replace it is not carbon neutral. 

More importantly, plantations are notoriously vulnerable to fire and insect outbreaks. They require the use of chemicals made from fossil fuels, and nitrogen fertilizer releases nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas 300 times worse than carbon dioxide.


Forest Stewardship Council

But MGT Power says it will only source wood chips from sustainable pine or eucalyptus plantations. It turns out that the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) the “gold standard” certifier of sustainable forest management has indeed certified 8 million ha of plantations, mainly in South America and South Africa, as sustainable.

That’s been controversial, to say the least.

“It’s not possible to make plantations sustainable,” says Ana Filippini, of the World Rainforest Movement (WRM), a global network of citizens’ groups from the North and South defending the world’s rainforests. “The FSC is undermining local peoples’ struggles against monoculture tree plantations,” Filippini said from Montevideo, Uruguay. 

The WRM has been fighting FSC certification of plantations for over a decade.

In addition to all the environmental impacts of plantations, the WRM has documented the impacts on women in traditional communities when they lose their forests. “Women are responsible for getting wood and water from the forest, finding food and medicinal plants so they can take care of their families. They can’t find anything inside a plantation. They lose their role and their lives become very difficult,” she says.

Most plantations replaced natural forests in a cycle that continues even though FSC rules forbid this. Lack of data, enforcement, and certification companies that commit fraud in Brazil and elsewhere, make a mockery of FSC rules, says Filippini. For its part, FSC says certified plantations do a better job of safeguarding waterways and  allow for some regeneration of natural forest. However there is much disagreement within the FSC. This year, Robin Wood, a German environmental organization that had long been a member, quit over the issue. The FSC is now reviewing its certification criteria on plantations but still insists certified plantations alleviate the pressure on natural forests.

Filiippini calls the argument that plantations protect old growth forests false for three reasons. First, plantations in the tropics are almost entirely for export markets in the north and they consist of pulp and low-quality fibre. Only old growth has high-quality hardwoods. Second, governments like Canada do not consider clear cuts of natural forests deforestation if the area is replanted. And such conversion forces local people to move elsewhere. Finally, most deforestation in the tropics is driven by conversion into cattle rangeland and large-scale soy farms or other cash crops, not plantations to provide tree fibre.


In Canada

Climate and economics largely militate against fast-growing pine and poplar plantations in Canada, with a few exceptions in southern BC and Ontario. Simply put, it’s too cold and far cheaper to cut existing old growth here, says Catharine Grant of Forest Ethics, an environmental organization focused on forest conservation. Governments require forest companies to “re-generate” forests but such lands remain impoverished in terms of biodiversity, ecological function and ability to provide timber. In the boreal forest region where all logging is old growth, companies “do nothing, in terms of regeneration, they just let it grow back” which might take 80 years, Grant says.

Canada’s long legacy of “silviculture failure” forces companies to keep looking for old growth to cut. And yet the official FAO forestry statistics show Canada’s forest cover is unchanged, despite cutting enough trees to produce 50-60 million tonnes of pulp, paper, softwood lumber and hardwood every year.

Forestry is an essential part of the Canadian economy but needs to be done far better, Grant says. Essentially, large tracts of untouched forest should be off limits because there are already huge areas of disturbed forests that could be far better used and managed. Although intensively-managed plantations have no biodiversity, they can provide needed wood fibre.


Stephen Leahy is an environmental journalist from Uxbridge, Ontario

[From Sept/Oct, 2009 Watershed Sentinel]

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