Bioenergy policy – case for clarification

Two important statements: Coal is not a sustainable option for energy production. Energy production ‘product substitution’ could result in the use of higher carbon alternatives. Do we need to educate policy makers on what this means?

During 2011, a company called Carbon Innovation had high hopes that bioenergy projects would form part of its sustainability platform. The platform built on biomass for energy production and biochar products. It was a noble cause and the indicators were it could be a success. Like so many innovators, the fight became not about the quality of product, but of policy, and waiting for the strategy to be formed and implemented. All this takes time. Time is money and for a business case to be proven it needs to be bankable.  To be bankable requires metrics and measure of product approval.

In the debate of climate change verses global warming it should be clear-cut: The former is trends and the later is shorter-term rises. But somehow, deniers fixated on the later, media adopted the term as a de facto for sensationalism and controversy. The result what was a genuine cause becomes ‘issue’.

Let me put Carbon Innovation’s cause to you first: Forrest floor waste has many negative consequences and the bioenergy potential was a focus towards truly sustainable inputs.  Sufficiency reports advises any further investigation into waste products for energy use, such as wood waste from forestry was a sensible alternative to coal burning, and a very good global warming mitigation.

Representation to ABARE questioned if there was an accurate accounting system. Whether the systems were capable of raising awareness of carbon debt and material substitution, or whether it merely found a ‘lumping in ‘ approach easier. The argument being it is a lazy way and the approach fails to be robust and in all likelihood would lead to a challenge of the effectiveness of genuine environmental benefits. It should be clarified what was asked was for waste to be used as the fuel, not the deliberate destruction of a carbon sink.

Carbon Innovation Pty Ltd is now in the process of a ‘Strike-Off Action In Progress’ with ASIC – as a volunteer action by the management.

The CO2Land org notices a number of stories now circulating on Biomass for energy production and finds some interesting foes for the concept. Albeit it might be again the problem of ‘lumping in’ and things being taken as a ‘broad brush’ statement and failing to see the wood for the trees – not original but illustrated the problems very well.

While Carbon Innovation was trying for a favourable policy position in Australia, to offer a carbon neutral renewable resource, the UK government supports this shift through subsidies on biomass to combat climate change. However, some environmentalists label these subsidies ‘climate fraud’. Background stories:

Bioenergy policy

“The UK Bioenergy Strategy published earlier this year, aims to support sustainable bioenergy in order to reduce emissions. With this goal in mind, the UK plans to continue subsidising the use of wood for large-scale power generation. The strategy makes it clear that the use of wood, in comparison to coal, will result in emission reductions. As a result, several British power companies are actively following this directive”.

Dirtier than coal?

“A new report challenges the assumption that biomass is carbon neutral. ‘Dirtier than coal?‘, a combined effort between RSPB, Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, goes so far as to say that replacing coal by burning whole trees would increase emissions by 49% over the next 40 years. The report identifies two key critiques of the assumption that wood is a carbon-neutral energy source.

1. Wood is inefficient

Stuart Housden, Director at RSPB Scotland, explains that the aim of government biomass subsidies is to shift towards lower carbon intensive inputs. Housden argues that replacing coal with wood will not have this outcome.

“When trees are burnt in power stations, CO2 comes out of the chimney, just like it does when you burn coal. The difference is that wood is less energy-dense and is wetter than coal, so it takes a lot more energy to harvest, transport, process and finally burn it…

Transport emissions are likely to rise as the UK will be forced to import wood in order to meet rising demand. On a local scale, as demand and price rises, industries using wood may be pushed into using cheaper options. This ‘product substitution’ could result in the use of higher carbon alternatives.

2. Carbon debt

Advocates of biomass argue that losses in carbon storage from harvesting of wood is compensated by regrowth. This leads to the second ‘accounting error’ of the bioenergy strategy. It fails to recognise the time lag between initialising regrowth and mature, carbon sequestering ecosystems. This issue of ‘carbon debt’ is one of the most serious criticisms of biomass for energy production. Housden goes on to point out that,

(It can take decades, if not centuries for the trees to recapture that carbon, leaving us with more emissions in the atmosphere now – when we least need it).”

 To put into a summary:

They are correct in these main areas:

  • There is the need for an accurate accounting system that avoids ‘lumping in’ one size fits all
  • Accounting systems should factor an awareness of carbon debt and material substitution
  • Bioenergy should refocus towards truly sustainable inputs
  • Further investigation into waste products for energy use, such as wood waste from forestry would be a very sensible strategy
  • There must be continued discussion over biomass as a renewable resource, and the classification of carbon neutral
  • Carbon neutral must be clarified in a policy context, as should other loose terms such as sustainable, real, even carbon (see footnote).

Many groups and governments agree coal is not a sustainable option for energy production. What is not clear is the question of the assumptions that surround policy regarding biomass as a product substitution. However, CO2Land org cannot support claims of ‘climate fraud’ by some environmentalists saying Governments practice it. We claim it is more akin to ignorance and under resourcing of responsible units, and that need to be addressed to get effective actions from government.

Footnote: Carbon – the word confused in CFIPosted on August 2, 2012 by co2land .

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