There has been a growing push for the use of forest biomass as a source of energy production. Some environmental advocates assume that those efforts would be carbon neutral, job-creating, and an effective way for the United States and Europe to reduce dependence on fossil fuels. However, a recent study warns that implementing such plans could actually result in a net increase in greenhouse gas emissions.
The researchers, from the Max Planck Institute of Biogeochemistry in Germany, concluded that increased emphasis on forest biomass for energy would lead to shorter tree life cycles and less-developed forests with lower biodiversity, meaning a significant loss in the current ability of the world’s forests to absorb carbon dioxide and produce oxygen. They further add that there might be resulting depletion of the soil, greater erosion, increased use of carbon-positive fertilizers, and impacts on the price structures of biomass materials.
This all seems pretty obvious. If you asked me for a list of recommendations as to how to reduce greenhouse gas pollution, one thing that would definitely not be on the list is “cut down more trees.” Even if advocates’ plans include continually reforesting all of the areas that they intend to utilize for biomass energy production, they must realize that it takes decades to achieve this, and that even now reforestation cannot keep up with the rate at which we consume forests just for timber, paper, and so on.
A co-author of the study, Helmut Haberl declares that it “raises important issues for bioenergy policies.” Yes indeed; it raises the issue of carefully choosing the kinds of resources that we count as viable alternatives. And it should demonstrate to persons concerned with the environment that just having the prefix “bio” in its name does not necessarily make a particular item or strategy worth pursuing for the betterment of the Earth.
The old cliché about not putting all your eggs in one basket applies to the argument against over-reliance on fossil fuels, which, environmental damage aside, are increasingly scare and often tainted with bloodshed. But at the same time, it’s no wiser to start tossing your eggs into every basket you have on hand, some of which might have holes in the bottom of them.
There’s nothing wrong with biomass energy in general. We previously reported that biomass pellets constitute a clean alternative to coal, but in that case the fuel is primarily derived from scraps and waste material. If, on the other hand, the production of biofuel leads to deforestation or saps resources that would be better served elsewhere, it is coming from the wrong sources, or being handled improperly. There are effective alternatives to simply felling trees, turning them into fuel, and then burning that fuel while feeling content because its source had been green instead of black.
We also pointed out last September that new developments in chemistry might soon make it possible to efficiently turn bamboo into biofuel. When this becomes a commercially viable reality, it will be a highly preferable alternative to the use of forest biomass for energy. Essentially, it could provide the best of both worlds conferring all of the benefits of biomass energy that a growing number of environmentalists are embracing rather naively, but also answering the important bioenergy policy issues that the Max Planck Institute has raised for us.
Most importantly, it will avoid raising the demands we place upon our existing forests, allowing them to continue to naturally sequester carbon at the same time that we add bamboo crop as another, better oxygen source. That, after all, is the key difference bamboo: it can continue growing and consuming carbon dioxide even after it has been harvested. Once it has been established, it can regrow quickly enough that the same plants can be cut for processing year after year. And all the while it produces two-thirds more oxygen than do equivalent quantities of trees.
Even aside from worries about forest biomass not being carbon neutral, the authors of the given study also raise concerns about potential economic impacts, including the increase in prices for biomass for other purposes, the need to incursions onto lands used for agriculture or livestock, and the general possibility that biomass energy might not prove economically viable.
Again, if future emphasis was placed on bamboo instead of forest biomass, it seems that these sorts of issues would not apply. Once again, the amazing growth rate of the crop helps to place it in a better position, as does its remarkable versatility. Bamboo can grow almost anywhere, even in close proximity with other crops, meaning that as demand for it broadens to include biofuel production, it will usually be possible to supply the resource locally with minimal impositions on the production of other crops.
Heightened demand surely will broaden the geographic reach of bamboo as a commercial crop, and given a few years lead time, the resulting surge in supply will probably be able to keep up with that demand to such extent that prices are unaffected. In fact, though the popularity of the crop is on the rise, there are still relatively few commercial bamboo growers in the West. Under a situation of increased competition, prices will almost certainly decline.
Finally, if biomass does prove to be economically non-viable for some reason, or if in the future some other environmentally sustainable alternative utterly overtakes it, the crop itself will still have the capability of creating jobs and making money in a wide variety of ways. Whether it is biofuel and global warming concerns, or something else entirely that brings bamboo into more widespread production, once it is established, it can be used sustainably as a durable building material, a replacement for other woods in various consumer products, or it can be processed into bamboo clothing that’s about as soft as cashmere. And if you follow this blog you’ll know that its uses are growing all the time.
Despite the much needed warnings of the Max Planck Institute study, it is good that there’s been such a growing demand for natural and sustainable energy resources. Despite the warning, that trend should continue to build momentum, but it must also be followed cautiously and deliberately. There are excellent sources of future sustainability within our grasp, but often they are not right under our noses. Biofuel advocates ought to be able to see past the forest and the trees.