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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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  • Pete


  • Andrew Allison

    Not quite as simple as that. Much of the Southeastern US is devoted to tree farming — fast growing crops which make, for example the cardboard which surrounds all the stuff bought online. They also partially account for the fact that the US is a net consumer of carbon.

  • CaliforniaStark

    There is a recent study in the journal Nature which states a new secondary growth rain forest consumes 11 times more carbon than an old growth rain forest. The reason is young, growing trees absorb more carbon to grow than grown mature trees. On this type of an issue you likely can find studies backing whatever position you want to advocate.

  • Blackbeard

    About 60 to 70% of Europe’s renewable energy goals are slated to be met by wood pellet fueled boilers and the large majority of those pellets will come from the US. So we are going to clear cut huge expanses in the SE US, manufacture wood pellets, ship those pellets across the Atlantic, and burn them in huge industrial boilers all over Europe. And this is an environmental benefit?

  • Kevin

    Much of Japan us a temperate rain forest (or nearly so) so trees should grow back somewhat quickly. Also, Japan has a pretty effective bureaucracy so Burmese or Indoesian-like clear cutting is not such an issue. But there’s a limit to how much land Japan has to grow these trees on and burning wood causes some pretty nasty local air pollution. Nuclear and LNG make a lot more sense.

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