Europe’s Green Energy Portfolio Up in Smoke?

  • Date: 08/06/10

Europe seems hell-bent on burning the world’s forests for bioenergy, even as it offers billions of euros to save them, critics say. The dirty secret of Europe’s vaunted green energy revolution is the fact that 68.5 percent of its renewable energy portfolio comes from biofuels and burning wood for energy, according to a report released in Brussels last week. Modern technologies like wind and solar get all the press, but burning wood is well, prehistoric.

“We estimate at least 27 million tonnes of wood biomass will be needed annually to supply planned power stations in the UK (United Kingdom) alone,” said Almuth Ernsting from Biofuelwatch, a British NGO focused on bioenergy issues.

In a story broken by IPS last fall, at least one million hectares of forest annually will be needed to feed the dozens of planned wood-fired power plants in Britain alone. The Netherlands is already burning one million tonnes of wood. Germany is up 23 million cubic meters (16.5 million tonnes) – mostly imported – and plans to double this figure by 2020, said the report, “Wood Based Bioenergy: The Green Lie”.

“It’s getting pretty scary,” Ernsting, a report co-author, told IPS.

There is already a huge problem of deforestation without bioenergy, said Anne Petermann, executive director of the Global Justice Ecology Project, an international environmental NGO based in the U.S.

Deforestation has long been a dangerously intractable problem, eating up 13 to 16 million hectares every year and responsible for 20 percent of the global warming emissions that are destabilising the climate.

“Current deforestation is having serious impacts on forests and forest peoples around the world,” Petermann said in a phone interview.

The centrepiece of Europe’s climate-change reduction strategy is the production of 20 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2020. That objective has become a classic “good idea gone wrong”, said Petermann. She was in Brussels to tell members of the European Parliament their policies are killing forests and hurting indigenous and local forest peoples.

“We have an enormous deforestation problem already, there is no way massive increases in wood to feed bioenergy furnaces could ever be sustainable,” she said.

It turns out not many of members of the European Parliament were interested in learning about that, or the fact that particulate emissions from wood-burning are worse than coal, putting public health at risk. In the U.S. scientists, have been warning about the health risks posed from biomass burning since these emit more fine particulates than coal. These invisible particles can damage lungs and make asthma worse, Petermann said.

Nor did European legislators really want to know the truth about the “big lie” that burning wood for energy is carbon- neutral, she said. […]

“Wood biomass energy is twice as crazy an idea as maize ethanol was,” said Helena Paul of EcoNexus, a public interest research organisation and science watchdog based in Oxford, England. Heavily subsidised maize (corn) based ethanol production in the U.S. drove up food prices worldwide, and increased water pollution and fertiliser use in the U.S. with little, if any, reductions in greenhouse gas emissions by most analyses. Many of the same corporate interests – agribusiness, biotech, energy – are investing and convincing governments to subsidise wood bioenergy, Paul told IPS from the resumed climate negotiations in Bonn, Germany last week.

Subsidies in Britain paid as Renewable Obligation Certificates will cost taxpayers about three billion dollars a year for the biomass power plants currently under construction or planned, reports Robert Palgrave of Biofuelwatch.

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