Doing more harm than good

Biomass use increases CO2 levels for 50 years

Burning biomass can increase CO2 emissions

At a briefing session in Brussels on March 29th, credible evidence was presented showing that the use of wood pellets from mature trees, widely used as a “green” substitute for fossil fuels in electricity generation, actually increases atmospheric CO2 levels for up to 50 years – a stunning and unexpected conclusion.  

The evidence comes from a study “Biomass Supply and Carbon Accounting for South-Eastern Forests”, conducted and published by the Biomass Energy Resource Center, the Forest Guild and the Spatial Informatics Group in the USA.    These appear to be thoroughly reputable organisations.  They were invited to the European parliament by the climate alarmist tendency, so they are unlikely to be front organisations for “big oil” or the coal industry.  Their representative David Carr of the Southern Environmental Law Center was commendably lawyerly and measured, and quite unlike the stereotype of an industrial lobbyist.

Many of us have been seduced into believing that biofuels generally – and bio-mass in particular – are a carbon-neutral option.  The European Commission counts bio-mass, along with wind, solar and bio-diesel and ethanol, as “renewables”.  After all, the CO2 emitted by burning wood is simply reabsorbed by new and sustainable growth of trees, in what can be regarded as a closed cycle.

So far, so obvious and reassuring.  But it’s not quite as simple as that.  The CO2 emissions on burning wood are more or less immediate, whereas the reabsorbtion in new growth takes an extended period.  So there is a “carbon debt” – a period when the CO2 released into the atmosphere actually exceeds what would have been released by the equivalent burning of fossil fuels.  Use of biomass will theoretically bring down CO2 levels in the long-term, but will increase them in the short-term.

The extent of the carbon debt depends to an extent on the fossil fuel alternative which is used for comparison.  The figures presented in this report show that the debt exists for 35 to 40 years if compared to a modern coal-fired power plant, and an astonishing 50 years if compared to (cleaner) gas.  Since the USA is currently enjoying a shale gas revolution, that seems the right comparison to make.

The calculation depends also to a considerable extent on the type of biomass selected.  We enjoyed a separate presentation by video-link from the Chairman of the EU’s Scientific Committee in the European Environment Agency, Detlef. F. Sprinz, who offered a sort of hierarchy of impact by type of biomass.  Organic wastes that would otherwise be land-filled, or woody wastes from timber harvesting, are benign; other crop residues somewhat less so.  But diverting crops to bio-energy on high-yielding agri­cultural land, or using mature trees for wood pellets, raises a high probability of creating the carbon debt.

The European Commission’s spokesman, challenged on the issue, gave a remarkable response.  He said that the IPCC advised that the real danger for climate change was fossil fuels, and that therefore biomass was helpful even if it created a carbon debt.  This is all too typical of the Commission’s prejudice which biases choice of technologies.  They favour “renewables” over nuclear, for example, despite the clear case that nuclear is more effective at reducing CO2 emissions. Now, it seems, they favour one kind of CO2 over another,

But molecules of CO2 in the atmosphere don’t carry labels saying “I came from a coal-fired power station”, or “I came from wood pellets”.  One molecule of CO2 is much like another, and if you believe that CO2 is causing a climate crisis, then CO2 from wood pellet is every bit as bad as from coal, oil or gas – or from the back end of a cow.

Let me own up.  I have studied the literature on climate change for some years, and I am satisfied that anthropogenic CO2 emissions have little or no effect on climate.  I also believe that the green policies that the UK and the EU plan to apply will have a trivial effect on atmospheric CO2 levels, given the rate at which India and China are building coal-fired power stations, and the US exploiting gas.  And our plans are disastrous in economic terms, for energy costs, competitiveness and indeed energy security.  We are impoverishing our grandchildren for the sake of a grand political gesture.  Or as I put it more succinctly in a recent slogan: our green policies are probably unnecessary; certainly ineffectual; and ruinously expensive.

Nevertheless, let’s take the alarmists at their word for a moment.  They are telling us that we face a crisis; that the world is at a tipping-point; that we risk runaway global warming; that the planet could be uninhabitable by the end of the century.  The crisis is now.  We have to act immediately to achieve massive early reductions in atmospheric CO2, at whatever cost.

Yet a landmark green policy, we now see, is actually likely to increase atmospheric CO2 levels at this critical time, and as far ahead as 2062, fifty years on.  It makes no sense even in its own terms.  We have green policies that drive up the price of electricity; undermine our competitiveness; force energy-intensive businesses and jobs and investment off-shore; drive pensioners into fuel poverty; threaten economic recovery; jeopardise our energy security — and now, which also increase atmospheric CO2 levels.  Maybe time for a re-think.

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4 Responses to Doing more harm than good

  1. John Russell says:

    You’re quite right about the undesirability of biomass energy, Roger.

    No knowledgeable environmentalist supports the use of so-called ‘biomass’, with the exception of small scale wood-collecting as part of a sustainable woodland management plan (which I practice myself for domestic woodfuel). I regularly fight planning applications for new biomass generating plants, which are often designed to burn palm oil imported from the Far East. I would also urge others to do the same whenever they see planning applications for biomass plants being submitted.

    I think you might have misunderstood the reasons why, what you call, ‘the climate alarmist tendency’ invited the ‘Energy Resource Centre’, for I’m sure they were well aware of what they would say. If I might be so bold, I’d suggest that your surprise at their conclusion shows rather a lack of understanding of the issues surrounding biofuels.

    Also, the idea that your ‘studies’ of climate change — which I very much doubt are more extensive than mine — put you in a position where you can question the facts about what climate scientists tell us is happening, is rather presumptuous.

  2. rfhmep says:

    Thanks John. But your phrase “What climate scientists are telling us” gives the game away, since many climate scientists reject the IPCC orthodoxy. Ah, but what about those 2500 climate scientists at the IPCC? But of course many of them are not scientists at all — they’re just green zealots and GreenPeace propagandists. Many more may be scientists, but in other disciplines (Ranendra Pachauri is a railway engineer). Boil it down to real climate scientists and you end up with “The Hockey Team” — the couple of dozen enthusiasts who brought you ClimateGate.

  3. David W. says:

    As you aptly pointed out, a molecule of CO2 doesn’t behave differently because its origin is different from others. CO2 cannot be subjective, it responds to immediate ambience just like any other molecule in the air, on the ground, in the ground, in the water, etc.

    As you probably know, despite EPA and conservation agencies’ best efforts, wood products are still a major economic resource in the Southeastern US, and vested parties have been working overtime to find the means to force the people and wood industries into submission to the whim of green whackos.

    Be very skeptical about EVERYTHING you hear from an environmental group associated with lawmaking or law research. As an American and formerly “poor” resident of Southeastern United States (we burned wood to stay warm), I can almost assure you the source of that information has an axe to grind. They’re simply creating yet another crisis structure for laws which force us Americans into compliance and financial servitude. Yet another scam like Albert Gore’s global warming context.

    Their claims are outrageous. Please know the intention has to be pre-emptive regulation of woodburning when the people of this region start really reeling from Obamanomics and the administration’s assinine energy policies.

    If the people of the United States are facing a crisis, it stems from crisis constructors. It’s time to abolish crisis construction.

  4. Pingback: Climate Policy and the Club du Bois | Roger Helmer MEP

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