On Thursday morning in Brussels, I attended a breakfast briefing on the Commission’s plans for “A bio-economy for Europe”. It was billed as follows: “In 2012, the European Commission adopted the strategy ‘Innovating for Sustainable Growth: A Bioeconomy for Europe’ — including agriculture, forestry, fisheries food and chemicals — stressed the importance of the bioeconomy sector as it provides an annual turnover in Europe of € 2 trillion employing around 22 million people. Forest-based bioeconomy is an important player in the picture as the forest-based industries have a production value of € 365 billion providing more than 3 million jobs”.
We heard a lot about the circular economy, the green economy, the blue economy (don’t ask), and so on. Forests and other bio-products can be used not just for energy and biomass, but for chemicals, cosmetics, textiles (I happen to own a sports jacket made from bamboo), construction materials and other uses. Mushrooms, blueberries and other food crops can be grown in forests. The opportunities are endless.
Apparently the 21st century economy will be powered by wind, and we will have wooden houses (each ton of concrete saved represents two tons of CO2 emissions, they said). It would be unkind to point out that these two technologies (wind power and wood construction), far from being ultra-modern, are millennia old.
After interminable speeches from forest-related interests, I managed to get a word in edgeways:
“I think everyone in this room this morning will be gratified to reflect that today’s elevated level of atmospheric CO2 means more plant growth, higher crop yields and faster bio-mass formation. But I fear that there are some conflicting trends in the use of forestry products. I was recently approached by the European chip-board industry. You will recognise that wood-chip-board is a key construction material, with high insulation properties, and will become even more important if we build more wooden houses.
“Yet the industry is facing problems. Previously it was the main user of forest waste from saw-mills – the branches too small to be used as timber. But now, with its basic raw material in demand from the bio-fuels sector, the price of this forest waste has increased and is undermining the chipboard industry.
“I have been following these issues for all my eighteen years in the parliament. Ten years ago, we thought that bio-fuels were the silver bullet to slay the dragon of CO2 emissions and global warming. Then we started to realise that the husbandry of bio-fuel crops, plus their transportation and processing, required considerable energy inputs, undermining their emissions savings. Later yet, we started to worry about ILUC, the indirect land use change consequent upon the allocation of agricultural land for bio-fuel crops. Factoring this in, we found that the savings achieved by biofuels ranged from derisory to negative.
“An example from my own country, the UK. We used to have a large coal-fired power station, called Drax. You may have heard of it. In a grand green gesture, it was converted to bio-mass and wood chip. So now we cut down mature forests in the USA, and we chip the wood (a very energy-intensive process). We truck the wood-chip to the port, we transport it across the Atlantic in diesel-powered ships, and we truck it or rail it from the UK port to the power station. Several studies reportedly suggest that the net savings in CO2 are derisory – and the power station produces less power than before, at significantly higher cost. This is gesture politics run mad.
I think we need to take great care that our bio-fuel initiatives do actually achieve the objectives we set for them.
There was no point (on this day when President Trump has pulled out of the Paris Climate Deal) in raising the point that cutting CO2emissions is pointless anyway. They already knew my views on that.