RP Siegel, Monday, Feb 15th, 2016
Last week, a group of 125 organizations from 45 countries signed a declaration asking that the European Union exclude large-scale biofuels from its next Renewable Energy Directive (RED).
Among the signatories are Biofuelwatch, Center for Biological Diversity, Food and Water Watch, Gaia Foundation, and the World Rainforest Movement. The declaration asks that the EU “exclude bioenergy from its next Renewable Energy Directive, and thereby stop direct and indirect subsidies for renewable energy from biofuels and wood-burning.”
The declaration further states: “The EU claims to have a very ambitious climate policy and emission reduction targets. But this claim is built on the false premise that large-scale bioenergy is inherently carbon neutral, or at least ‘low carbon.’ A growing body of evidence, however, shows that, especially when bioenergy is produced and used on a large scale, it tends to increase rather than decrease carbon emissions when compared to fossil fuels.”
While the declaration itself is short on specifics, a linked supporting document focuses primarily on the widespread use of wood pellets for power generation and palm oil for biodiesel, and the impact of these two energy sources on forests and the communities that depend on those forests. The signatories also link to the World Rainforest Movement, an organization that cites concerns about the administration of the United Nations’ REDD+ program, which was specifically developed to protect forests.
From the U.N.: “Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD)is an effort to create a financial value for the carbon stored in forests, offering incentives for developing countries to reduce emissions from forested lands and invest in low-carbon paths to sustainable development. ‘REDD+’ goes beyond deforestation and forest degradation, and includes the role of conservation, sustainable management of forests and enhancement of forest carbon stocks.”
So, we have two groups that both claim to share the same concerns but differ widely as to how best to go about addressing them. The forest-protection groups cite examples in which efforts to protect forests through carbon-credit programs like REDD+ are counterproductive in places like the Congo and Costa Rica. They question assumptions made by agencies acting under REDD+, and challenge their basis for assigning credits for preventing deforestation. Furthermore, they assert that locals have not been involved in the process and receive little or no benefit, despite claims to the contrary, and that deforestation actually soared during the period in question.
It underscores the fact that these intervention efforts by well-meaning entrepreneurial outsiders, who see an opportunity to do some good or make a few bucks (or perhaps a little of both), often fall short because of their failure to comprehend the complete picture.
But if oversimplification is the sin of those who would come in and attempt to solve complex problems with simple solutions, it is also the sin of those who would ban all such attempts with a single stroke of the pen. To eliminate all large-scale biofuel production from consideration as renewable energy is to overreact to a few bad experiences and to throw out the baby with the bathwater.
While it’s true that biofuels could be considered less renewable than sunshine or wind, in that it takes longer for the fuel to be renewed, it is clear that they are many, many times more renewable than the fossil fuels they replace. While those good folks wearing environmental hats, passionate in their desire to protect nature from human greed, oppose the idea of industrial agriculture (or anything with the word ‘industrial’), it’s pretty clear that this is an approach that unduly limits our options as we try to rapidly transform our economy to a more sustainable one.
There is a presumption here that small-scale efforts tend to be cleaner and greener than large scale. That has not been documented and is certainly not always the case. But even if it were, it’s unlikely that small-scale efforts alone are enough to get us where we need to be in the little time we have remaining. Is this not another case of letting the perfect get in the way of the good?
Biofuels may or may not ever be perfect, but there are several reasons why they should be included as an important aspect of any renewable portfolio. First, while most renewables like solar and wind are useful for electricity, they don’t directly feed our transportation needs without a massive overhaul of the entire system. Liquid fuels not only provide more energy per pound, but also fit seamlessly into our existing infrastructure. The current regimen in the U.S., while not without its problem, very quickly enabled us to cut gasoline consumption by 10 percent by supplementing it with ethanol. Early reports showing that first-generation, starch-based ethanol produced more carbon than gasoline have been discredited, and efficiencies in both crop production and conversion process have only improved since then.
Biofuel production processes that are carbon-neutral and even carbon-negative havealready been demonstrated and are beginning to scale up.
The path to a sustainable energy future will undoubtedly be filled with numerous potholes, detours and dead ends. Efforts that can’t deliver intended results need to be recognized as such and appropriate actions taken. We have no choice but to use the tools available, including certifications, though the EU declaration argues against this approach. Wood pellets and palm oil needed to be looked at carefully. Most important of all, though, we need to recognize that we don’t have the luxury to rule out an entire category of energy sources on the basis of a few bad experiences.