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Biomass? Burning trees is burning future treasure


Chemical companies are watching the raw materials they need for future production go up in flames as the Fit for 55 package continues to support the burning of trees as a ‘renewable’ form of energy.

The increasing scarcity of such bioresources makes the EU more dependent on imports from its former colonial areas.

To avoid further tragedies, Europe should stop calling plants ‘waste’ and pay for their real value.

Although burning wood releases more CO2 than burning coals, the Renewable Energy Directive (RED III) proposed in the Fit for 55 package still recognises burning biomass as a ‘renewable’ source of energy that member states can rely on to meet their Paris climate commitments.

In fact, raising renewable energy targets for 2030 to 40 percent, RED III is likely to increase pressure on existing fuel crops.

That is bad news for the forests and the hundreds of thousands of citizens and hundreds of scientists who have petitioned against the loss of carbon sinks and biodiversity.

As we don’t have plantations full of harvestable fuel woods yet, this wood will come from existing forests. Until the burning of biomass is phased out of RED III, strengthened sustainable criteria are supposed to limit the damage done.

If the woody biomass is only ‘waste’, the authors argue, burning it would be alright. Yet one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.

Shortage of biomass

Last summer, a number of Dutch research agencies came with advice to their government: if the Netherlands want to continue its position as an export country of chemical produce, it should stop using biomass for biofuels and heat, and save it to make materials for construction and to feed the chemical industry.

By 2050, they estimated, Dutch farms could help produce 25x more biomass than the forests do today, but still that would hardly be a quarter of what the country would need.

To feed a future bio-economy in the Netherlands, the tiny country would need 1 to 1.5 percent of global resources, when it hosts only 0.2 percent of its people and covers only 0.03 percent of its land.

The government’s advisors had some serious questions about the morality of such a set-up.

The foreseen scarcity of domestic bioresources is not unique to the Netherlands.

The EU is already “import dependent for feedstock in most bio-based chemical application categories”, a group of scientists led by the Joint Research Centre (JRC) recently noted, and imports are likely to increase as the highest production sectors in the EU are expected to turn to biomass by 2025.

Dow Benelux president Anton van Beek is sceptical whether the biomass imported will be as ‘sustainable’ as suppliers may promise. “How are you going to check what is ‘waste’ and what is not? We just need to reduce our need for biomass. We plan to get most of our feedstock from waste from recycling: first things like plastics and old mattresses, and then the carbon atoms themselves. Biomass should make for only 10 to 15 percent of all our feedstock”.

Palm oil 2.0?

However, producers that rely on specific plant characteristics do not have that choice. They don’t just need the carbon-atoms you can find in anything, but rely on certain enzymes, oils or pigments that come from specific plants.

As such bioresources are prone to face erratic harvests or competition with food or fuels, supplies may fall short, forcing producers to get biomass from far away.

Like in colonial times, Europe may be getting its raw materials from the tropics, putting more pressure on biodiversity resorts like the Congo basin or the Amazon.

Stories about social and ecological tragedies surrounding ‘blood’ wood, palm oil or jatropha seem insufficient to stop renewed plundering of the tropics, as the word ‘sustainable’ is often used as a bandage to cover up festering wounds.

Though many argue that trading with the industrial world is a cure to unemployment, undereducation and poverty in former colonies where many bioresources are grown, history tends to tell us otherwise.

As long as we fail to structurally pay for things like the water, pollution, infrastructure, biodiversity, climate adaptation and education that is needed to produce oil, food or fibres for European markets, Indian farmers will continue to commit suicide, Zambian market women will pay more tax than the international sugar company they supply and Amazonian forests will disappear to fill our carnivorian preferences.

If we really want a circular and just economy in 2050, we need to recognise that biomass is never ‘waste’ and make sure we pay for its true costs.

This opinion piece was made possible with the climate grant from the European Federation for Science Journalism (EFSJ).



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