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Europe’s Green Ambitions Don’t Grow on Trees

If you want an indicator of how confused green policy is in Europe, look no further than the fact that EU policy treats burning wood as an energy source of the future. This madness stems from the EU’s attempt to derive 20 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2020; burning wood—or biomass, as it is frequently called—is a key component of that green mix. But as the Economist reports, its green credentials are dubious at best:

In some countries, such as Poland and Finland, wood meets more than 80% of renewable-energy demand. Even in Germany, home of the Energiewende (energy transformation) which has poured huge subsidies into wind and solar power, 38% of non-fossil fuel consumption comes from the stuff. […]

[A]n alliance quickly formed to back public subsidies for biomass. It yoked together greens, who thought wood was carbon-neutral; utilities, which saw co-firing as a cheap way of saving their coal plants; and governments, which saw wood as the only way to meet their renewable-energy targets. The EU wants to get 20% of its energy from renewable sources by 2020; it would miss this target by a country mile if it relied on solar and wind alone. […]

In short, the EU has created a subsidy which costs a packet, probably does not reduce carbon emissions, does not encourage new energy technologies—and is set to grow like a leylandii hedge.

Burning wood releases carbon dioxide, but if a new tree is planted for every one burned, that carbon can be offset (trees absorb carbon dioxide). This, however, ignores the energy expended by harvesting, transporting, and cutting up the wood. Of course, fossil fuels have similar costs, but no one claims that those fuels are renewable.

Biomass’ green credentials rely on proper forest management after the initial timber harvest. That’s a long-term commitment; it isn’t as simple as planting seedlings and claiming carbon offsets. With demand for biomass as high as it is, there’s a market incentive to replant and eventually sell a new “crop” of wood. But there is also a lot of room for mismanagement and, if we’re being cynical, opportunities for a firm to make a quick buck by clear-cutting a forest without any intention of replanting.

Even the EU’s own European Environment Agency recognizes the folly of assuming biomass is a “green” resource: “that biomass combustion would be inherently carbon neutral…is not correct…as it ignores the fact that using land to produce plants for energy typically means that this land is not producing plants for other purposes, including carbon otherwise sequestered.”

We can’t think of a starker demonstration of the folly of Europe’s greens than this: while much of the rest of the world is racing to capture the economic and environmental advantages of the shale gas boom, EU green policies are pushing the Continent to burn coal and wood.

[Wood fire image courtesy of Shutterstock.]

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  • MWFlorida

    Several of the facts about biomass in this post are misleading and appear to reflect a knee jerk, ideological bias against renewable energy.

    First, the fossil fuel energy consumed in harvesting, processing, and transporting biomass is small — a few percent of the total energy produced. This factor hardly detracts from the renewable nature of this fuel.

    Second, when biomass is harvested, trees are almost always regrown on the land. For more than a century the U.S. has experienced reforestation. The acreage of forested land is much higher today than it was in 1900. Yet this growth has occurred despite vastly higher consumption of wood for paper, lumber and other forest products. Energy supplies will be no different.

    Third, from the landowner’s standpoint, trees are a less desirable agricultural product than food crops. So trees are typically grown on marginal land that isn’t suitable for growing higher value corn, wheat, etc., rendering the European Environmental Agency’s comments about biomass displacing food crops irrelevant.

    Fourth, much of the current biomass fuel supply is derived from byproducts of another operation, such as sawdust from sawmills, bark from paper mills or logging residues left behind in the forest after harvesting. These waste materials are not suitable for making lumber, paper or other forest products. If they aren’t collected and used for energy production, they rot away and generate methane, which is 25 times as potent a greenhouse gas as carbon dioxide. For these waste biomass sources, energy production actually is better than carbon neutral, it actually reduces greenhouse gases, since all of the carbon is combusted to carbon dioxide and no methane is produced.

    Biomass is a valuable energy source. It constitutes a surprisingly large 3% of the total energy supply in the U.S. Biomass is complex story that must be carefully analyzed, not summarily rejected as another green boondoggle.

    Mike Whiting
    Winter Park, FL

    • BrianFrankie


      Generally agree, but your facts on degradation are not correct, or, more accurately, only partially correct. Wood and wood products decompose to methane only in anaerobic conditions, which are not common for wood wastes. Primary decomposition is aerobic, resulting in CO2, with a substantial portion of the carbon remaining as solid products (peat, loam, etc. which sequesters the carbon). Only a small portion will be emitted as methane.
      Your final sentence is the key – the biomass story is very complex, and details are critical to determining whether any particular application is worthwhile. Properly done, biomass can be a valuable contributor to reducing GHG emissions, effectively becoming concentrated solar energy. But the point of the Via Meadia article remains – Europe has royally screwed up their environmental incentives and subsidies, biomass included, resulting in considerable wealth destruction and no proportional impact on GHG emissions.

  • Andrew Allison

    Although there’s a good argument (CO2 sequestration) to be made for “farming” trees, it vanishes like a puff of smoke (sorry!) it the wood is burned. The huge plantations of fast growing trees in the SE USA are sequestering enormous amounts of CO2 in cellulose products. Burning them would simply returns the CO2 to the atmosphere.
    I have no idea of the “carbon economics” of burning waste products, but suspect that it might be better to leave the carbon sequestered.

    • MWFlorida

      If the trees are replanted, as they almost always are, the CO2 is sequestered again. Growing trees are a part of the carbon cycle.

      The carbon in waste biomass does not stay sequestered. Wood doesn’t last forever. If it is not burned, it instead decomposes into methane, which is 25 times as potent a greenhouse gas as CO2. Hence the use of waste biomass for energy is better than carbon neutral.

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