Why Japan Wants to Fell and Burn Its Forests

Tokyo is turning to its forests as a way of making up the power generation capacity lost by Japan’s move away from nuclear energy following the 2011 Fukushima disaster. Bloomberg reports:

Japan is giving favorable tariffs to power producers who burn leftover wood as a way to cut the country’s dependence on imported fossil fuels.

It’s a program that’s so successful that local biomass producers already are having problems meeting demand, and researchers warn there may not be enough raw materials to feed the power stations now being planned. Some environmentalists even question whether the use of biomass is as carbon-free as advertised.

Japan doesn’t have much by way of domestic sources of energy, which is why we’ve seen it explore exotic new technologies like “fire ice” in the past, and why it had such a large fleet of nuclear reactors online before Fukushima. Following that event, Japan shuttered those nuclear plants and has had to rely heavily on imports of oil and LNG to keep the lights on—an unenviable position. It is in this context that the island nation is now looking inwards towards its forests for energy.

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen countries embrace burning wood—a decidedly low-tech power option—as an energy source of the future. Biomass facilities have been hyped before as renewable options, and for Japan, their biggest selling point is the fact that the feedstock—wood—is domestically abundant. But while biomass can have obvious benefits for Japanese energy security, let’s not fool ourselves into thinking it’s some grand green solution.

As an energy source, biomass can only be considered renewable or carbon neutral if the people burning it are also ensuring the forests they’re harvesting are being responsibly replanted. Historically that hasn’t been a given, and there are plenty of incentives for the unscrupulous to fell a swathe of trees, make a quick buck, and not follow through on that crucial next step of reforestation. Moreover, once you add in the emissions from the felling, transporting, and processing of the wood involved, net carbon neutrality is all but impossible.

Chopping down trees in the Land of the Rising Sun could lessen Japan’s demand for foreign energy sources, and that’s plenty of motivation to follow through with such a policy. Just don’t fall for the green window dressing here: This isn’t a boon for Gaia.

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