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The European Commission intends to reach carbon neutrality by 2050. To mitigate the climate crisis and meet its targets, the EU has utilised biomass; the biomass feedstock of forestry has become the main source for renewable energy in the EU and is a key part of the European Green Deal. Although the EU nations produce biomass themselves, they have also turned to importing biomass from developing countries, such as Denmark importing from Brazil. While this supports European countries in reaching their environmental goals, what cost does it incur on the environments of developing countries?

In the EU, forestry is the main feedstock (logging, residues, wood chips and fuelwood etc) for bioenergy, accounting for more than 60% of all EU domestic biomass supplied for bioenergy with 96% of biomass produced domestically and 4% imported from non-EU countries, shown below in Figure 1. But to reach environmental targets, several EU countries have subsidised the biomass industry, including Germany, France, Italy, Sweden and the UK, the largest bioenergy consumers.

With this in mind, the European Commission is aiming to conduct a further ‘transformative approach’ to increase their reliance on biomass for renewable energy purposes.

Woody Biomass: A Carbon Neutral Energy Source?

While the burning of forest biomass has been promoted as a cleaner and more renewable alternative to coal and gas, it is believed that biomass is ‘a carbon emission accounting loophole’, which could destabilise the global climate. 

UK-based researchers found last year that burning wood is a ‘disaster’ for climate change as older trees release large amounts of carbon when they are burned and aren’t always replaced and even when they are, it can take up to 100 years to cultivate an area that soaks up as much carbon as was previously released. 

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The Double Standards of Denmark’s Carbon-Neutral Mission

Biomass is the most dominant source of energy in Denmark, embodying more than two thirds of its overall consumption of renewable energy. It represents an important component of Denmark’s mission to make its capital city, Copenhagen, the world’s first carbon-neutral capital by 2025. Denmark is the second-largest consumer of wood pellets in the EU, using 2.1 million tons in 2018 to generate heat and power with woody biomass usage set to increase by 130% by 2025.

Business with Brazil

Although Denmark is considered the global poster child for renewable energy, driven by its advancements in onshore and offshore wind power, the Danish energy supplier, Hovedstadens Forsyningsselskab (Hofor), has been denounced for wood chip biomass feedstock importations. These imports, approximately 60 000 tons of wood chips since mid-November, originate from Brazil’s eucalyptus plantations in the state of Amapá and are used within the Copenhagen biomass plant of BIO4. The biomass feedstock is produced by AMCEL, a large Brazilian pulp company. 

However, these importations of Brazilian wood chips are facing strong condemnation for not being sustainable biomass, deriving instead from monoculture plantations aimed at producing cheap raw materials while stimulating economic growth. Additionally, AMCEL has been involved in illegal land grabbing and deforestation within these specific eucalyptus plantations. 

Biomass in Developing Countries: The Amazon for Sale

Deforestation in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest has increased rapidly since the hard-right Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro took office. The pro-development president once stated, “deforestation and fires will never end.” From August 2018 to July 2019, deforestation of the Amazon rainforest rose 34.4% from a year before, to 10 129 sq kms. Furthermore, between January and April of 2020, the destruction of the forest by illegal loggers and ranchers rose 55% compared to the same four month period last year. It appears that criminal organisations have expanded their operations, as bulldozer sales doubled in Brazil within this four month period. This increase in deforestation activity comes at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic strains Brazil politically and economically, exacerbating Bolsonaro’s government policies to expand the commercial development of the Amazon rainforest, enabling illegal loggers and miners to face minimal risk of punishment.

While illegal loggers, miners and land grabbers have directly contributed to the increase of deforestation, Bolsonaro is arguably responsible. When he was running for president, it was his rhetoric that suggested deforestation-related practices in the Amazon could help lift the country out of poverty at the expense of indigenous people. “The Indigenous person can’t remain in his land as if he were some prehistoric creature as where there is indigenous land, there is wealth underneath it,” he said in February.

It is this attitude that has made it easier for foreign countries to take advantage of the paper and biomass opportunities afforded by the Amazon. Encouraging developing countries, such as Brazil and Indonesia, to cut down their own forests and export their unsustainably harvested wood to meet foreign demand for bioenergy while developed countries protect their own forests is unfair and irresponsible. 

Phasing Out Biomass

While the importation of woody biomass from developing countries is legal, methods used to cultivate biomass feedstock are arguably unethical. Denmark, an apparent global renewable energy role model, should be held accountable for acquiring biomass feedstock from dubious feedstock sources in Brazil, a developing country with an important responsibility to protect the Amazon but which has a president that promised to exploit the Amazon. This showcases how developed countries, such as Denmark, aim to expand their green capacities at the cost of developing countries’ environmental health.

Furthermore, biomass as a reliable energy feedstock remains ambiguous. Unless we can guarantee forest regrowth to carbon parity, recent research indicates that the production of wood pellets for fuel is likely to put more CO2 in the atmosphere and maintain less biodiversity on the land during the next several decades.

If EU countries continue to use biomass to reach their climate goals, they must either closely examine its origins, or phase out all land-based biofuels and devote greater efforts to promoting sustainable renewable sources such as solar, wind and geothermal processes. 

Featured image by: photoheuristic.info

The government of South Korea is subsidising the development of biomass power so heavily that it’s hindering the adoption of renewable energy technologies like solar and wind, new research finds.

South Korea and Renewable Energy

South Korea adopted a Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) policy in 2012 in order to increase the market share of renewable energy. But according to a report issued by Seoul-based NGO Solutions For Our Climate (SFOC), forest biomass is considered a carbon-neutral alternative to fossil fuels under Korean law, and the country’s government has so aggressively supported the growth of biomass-fueled energy production that it has become one of the most subsidised renewable energy sources in South Korea.

Due to the direct subsidies and other forms of financial assistance directed to biomass projects, electricity generation from biomass in South Korea rose 160 percent every year between 2012 and 2018, per the report.

Soojin Kim, a senior researcher at SFOC and an author of the report, told Mongabay that biomass projects have been so overcompensated by the government that it is causing serious disruption and uncertainties in the Korean renewable energy market, including steep declines in the price of Renewable Energy Credits (RECs). These uncertainties, in turn, are discouraging utilities from investing in renewable energy technologies such as solar and wind, she said.

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“Korea has this market-based system where any utilities of more than 500MW have to supply some renewable energy in their portfolio, and biomass is one of the eligible sources of renewables they can do,” Kim said. “Once they produce renewable energy through biomass, the government issues them renewable energy certificates, and [biomass projects] were receiving about twice as much certificates because of the REC schedule that grants them higher RECs than other sources.”

Biomass projects received as much as 40 percent of total RECs on average between 2014-2018, the report states. These subsidies are meant to help offset the operating and construction costs of converting coal-fired power plants into biomass plants, but those costs are overestimated, Kim said, “in some cases 15-times higher than actual cost.” About 75% of the biomass used in Korea is burned together with coal in what’s known as a “co-firing” plant, Kim noted, and whether utilities want to turn old power plants into biomass plants or simply try to improve the environmental performance of their plants by adding some biomass to the existing coal, they can count on government support.

“It’s been a pretty profitable business for them in the biomass industry,” Kim said.

As Kim pointed out in a blog post co-authored with the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Debbie Hammel, the expansion of biomass energy in Korea is not only crowding out truly green forms of renewable energy, it’s also undermining the government’s own attempts to rein in emissions in response to global climate change.

“Korean utilities have boasted about the positive climate outcomes of their coal-to-biomass conversions, some reporting up to a 90% decrease in greenhouse gas emissions,” Kim and Hammel write. “This is misleading because the emissions from burning biomass were simply omitted under the erroneous assumption of biomass ‘carbon neutrality.’ In reality, scientists have warned for years of the disastrous outcomes of burning biomass for power. Years of research has shown that even under best-case scenarios, burning biomass for electricity makes climate change worse for decades.”

Growing Biomass Industry Threatens the World’s Forests

Burning forest biomass is something of a double-jeopardy scenario for the global climate, as it both increases greenhouse gas emissions and threatens forest ecosystems around the world that are important carbon sinks.

Some 98% of the wood pellets used to produce energy in Korea are imported, mainly from Southeast Asian countries like Vietnam, the number one exporter of biomass, as well as Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand. Russia and the United States are also important sources of wood pellet exports to South Korea, which has become the third-largest importer of biomass in the world.

Kim and Hammel note in their blog post that “When forests are logged, the amount of carbon stored in that forest is reduced, even under a best-case scenario in which harvested trees are immediately replanted or naturally re-grow. A recently published study showed that the same holds true even when biomass energy is generated by burning forestry residues — the leftovers from logging operations, like treetops and limbs.”

Thanks to a similar push in Japan to develop biomass-fueled electricity production capacity, East Asia has become a major driver of global biomass growth, according to Roger Smith, Japan Project Manager for the NGO Mighty Earth. “Forest biomass is a false climate solution unworthy of public subsidy. Solutions for Our Climate highlighted the major problems with wood biomass — it increases near-term greenhouse gas emissions over the coming decades, and has the potential to harm forests in exporting countries,” Smith told Mongabay.

He added: “Ironically, while Korea and Japan are turning to biomass to meet global warming and renewable energy goals, neither country has greenhouse gas standards to ensure any actual pollution reductions. This leads to an absurd situation where trees can be cut down, dried and processed into pellets, shipped across the ocean, and burned in Japanese or Korean power plants with none of the carbon pollution counted. Both nations need to close this loophole and set a stringent greenhouse gas emissions standard for all biomass fuels.”

Of course, the European Union’s renewable energy policies also recognize biomass as carbon neutral, and Europe is a major growth region for biomass energy, as well. “In fact, 65% of EU renewable energy comes from burning biomass, and so we are now seeing countries like South Korea and Japan following that same path,” NRDC’s Hammel told Mongabay.

The carbon neutrality of biomass is predicated on the idea that any trees cut down to be burned for electricity can be replanted, thus canceling out the carbon emissions of burning that biomass in power plants. But these are “erroneous” assumptions, Hammel argued, saying: “There’s no guarantee, first of all, that trees will be replanted, or that they will regrow. That’s not a safe assumption. And then, secondly, if they are replanted and allowed to regrow, it’s going to take decades. And we don’t have the time to wait.”

Forests are going to be under increasing pressure if the biomass industry keeps expanding, Hammel warned. “The EU imports for woody biomass are expected to climb to 30 million tons by 2020, and these new markets in South Korea and Japan are going to expand that demand. So I think that this is a huge threat to the world’s forests,” she told Mongabay. “It’s also a huge threat in terms of addressing climate change. Scientists have said we need to reduce our emissions over the next decade in order to avert the worst consequences of climate change and keep temperature rise to 1.5 to 2 degrees.”

But burning biomass from forests will make reaching those climate targets impossible, she said: “It’s going to worsen the effects of climate change and it’s going to degrade the world’s forests, which are some of the best tools to mitigate climate change.”

This article was originally published on Mongabay, written by Mike Gaworecki, and is republished here as part of an editorial partnership with Earth.Org. 

The continued use of wood – derived biomass could result in a potential 30% increase in worldwide forest cover — more than a billion hectares (2.5 billion acres) — by the year 2100, according to a new research paper. The researchers say their calculations show that all that’s needed are the right incentives, higher values on products, and stricter forest management.

The outcome of the study is the idea that providing a competitive financial incentive is one factor in encouraging the reforestation of areas where wood has been cut for biomass. For instance, if wood can earn harvesters more money than a replacement crop, such as palm for oil, then they would be more inclined to replant trees or afforest other areas, thus leading to an increase, over time, of overall forest cover.

Other factors like intensive forest management can result in the faster regrowth of areas of newly planted trees.

“We calculate that for every 1% increase in timber price, the area of plantations increases by 0.32% globally,” the report said.

The European Union’s Renewable Energy Directive (RED) considers the use of wood biomass to be a carbon-neutral form of renewable energy because in theory, wood waste releases carbon as it naturally breaks down anyway, and therefore wood pellets are no more of a carbon pest.

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forest cover wood biomass
Wood pellets are a less efficient energy source than coal, meaning they actually release more CO2 into the atmosphere per megawatt of electricity produced.

But critics argue that whole trees end up being cut to make wood pellets instead, and concerns have been raised that the time it takes to replant forests used for biomass is too long, which reduces the forest cover and negates an area’s ability to act as a carbon sink.

Last year, six plaintiffs from across Europe and the U.S. filed a suit against the EU, alleging that the conversion from coal- to wood-pellet burning was having a disastrous effect on the atmosphere, because the reduced forest cover combined with newly planted trees do not grow fast enough to absorb carbon.

The new study comes just months after the COP25 climate summit in December, when Michael Norton, the program director of the European Academies’ Science Advisory Council (EASAC), warned against “waiting for new trees to grow while pumping additional carbon into the atmosphere by burning trees for energy.”

At the same summit, Will Gardiner, the CEO of wood pellet firm Drax, insisted that “a managed forest that keeps growing continues to capture more carbon.”

Speaking to Mongabay by phone, Adam Daigneault, one of the study’s co-authors and an assistant professor of forest, conservation and recreation policy at the University of Maine, stressed that the study was “not saying that this is a perfect cure all, because if you’re killing all incentives to have biomass removed … you actually get more forest loss.”

“Yes, it’s not perfect, but you’re at least retaining some forest as forest that might not otherwise be there,” he added.

Daigneault said it’s important to note that increased demand for biomass would not reduce logging; “It will go up,” he said. However, in the long run, the adjustment of prices for timber for biomass could mean that “the land is worth more as trees than something else.”

A statement from the University of Maine that accompanied the release of the report said the researchers used a global timber model to assess and compare bioenergy demands and timber harvesting in more than 200 forests in 16 different regions.

“While policy approaches vary on the regional level, their modelling analysis of the forest carbon rental payment approach indicates that forest area will increase substantially across the globe, with medium price scenarios leading to 500 million to 700 million new hectares of forests,” the statement said.

Asked if the billion-hectare projection was reasonable, Daigneault said it was achievable because “the model assumes that you have proper institutions … and proper knowledge” of forest management.

He pointed to South America as one region where he has anecdotally observed an increase in monoculture tree plantations, and said that, globally, the number of new tree plantations has “doubled” over the past 30 years.

“Incentivizing both wood-based bioenergy and forest sequestration could increase carbon sequestration and conserve natural forests simultaneously,” the researchers said in the abstract of the report. “We conclude that the expanded use of wood for bioenergy will result in net carbon benefits, but an efficient policy also needs to regulate forest carbon sequestration.”

The report does say, however, that while higher timber prices can incentivize afforestation, they also “encourage harvesting of natural forest areas.” In addition, the model only projects an increase in total carbon sequestration when the demand for woody biomass exceeds 1.1 billion cubic meters per year by the year 2100.

Mary Booth, an ecosystem scientist and the director of the nonprofit Partnership for Policy Integrity, described the study as a “disaster” that is being spun “as a positive story.”

“Every one of their scenarios shows a massive loss in natural forest area relative to the baseline,” Booth said in reference to the report’s graph projections. “They are projecting up to 250-million hectare loss in natural forests; whereas natural forests are the best defence against climate change. They are proposing that we should just tear them all up and replace them with plantations.”

In reality, she told Mongabay in an interview, replacement plantations are poor substitutes for the existing carbon sinks — both above and below ground — in natural forests, and “you would completely lose the ecosystems” in them, too.

“I say that if you want to start saving carbon right away, [natural forests] are already doing an amazing job soaking up carbon,” Booth said.

Booth, who advised the plaintiffs in the biomass case against the EU, pointed to Latvia and Slovakia as countries where incentivized wood bioenergy policies have resulted in massive carbon storage losses. In the U.S., she said, similar losses have also been reported in southern forests, where “what we see is a loss in carbon.”

This article was originally published on Mongabay, written by Lauren Crothers, and is republished here as part of an editorial partnership with Earth.Org. 

While biomass fuels are considered to be carbon neutral, and use wood residue and production waste that would otherwise rot or sit in landfills, systems to ensure sustainable and healthy resource management are complicated and costly. Because of this, stillborn births are increasing in developing countries, and are robbing them of economic futures. 

An estimated 3.2 million stillbirths occur worldwide annually with 98% of these stillbirths found in developing countries. Researchers in the country are warning that exposure to the smoke produced from biomass fuels is killing Ghanaians at a rate higher than malaria and HIV.

Why is biomass used in developing countries?

In some developing countries, energy from biomass fuels such as wood and agricultural residues represents about 70% of total energy consumption per year. 2.3 billion people in developing countries rely on biomass fuels to meet their energy needs, and these fuels play a vital role in ensuring food security. 

However, biomass energy has its fair share of flaws:  it produces waste products that can harm the environment, such as carbon monoxide and it requires access to water resources, which can often be time-consuming to access easily in developing countries. It may also increase greenhouse gas emissions and reduce the quality of soils over time, since decaying organic matter that acts as fertiliser is cleared to use for cooking or heating.

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To create a sustainable supply of fuelwood, a variety of tree and forest systems, such as mixed forest plantations and integrated food systems that produce both food and energy are needed, considerations that many people in developing countries like Ghana are unlikely to have. 

Those living in coastal and rural Ghana use biomass fuels for cooking for both household and commercial purposes. Experts say stillbirth occurrences are higher among disadvantaged, marginalised and rural populations. In Ghana, these births are largely due to exposure to either industrial or household smoke. Many people are unaware of the effects of this smoke on their health; it is a byproduct of their work, passed down from generation to generation.  

According to a paper published in the BMJ 2019 and the 2007 Ghana Maternal Health Survey, the situation is affecting many pregnant women in Ghana due to ignorance and a lack of data to prove the impact of the harm caused. Lead author of the paper, Dr Kofi Amega, Environmental Epidemiologist at the University of Cape Coast in Ghana says, “The issue here is that most women who are vulnerable to the exposure don’t even know they are being affected simply because there is no data or physical evidence for them to see until they are sick.”

What can be done? 

Dr Amega and his team are optimistic that an investment into the provision of liquefied petroleum gas at an affordable rate will help solve the problem in the short term. In the long term, the team says that the country’s transport sector needs to properly manage the number of vehicles on the roads and get the public transport system up on its feet to address the situation.

Dr Judith Addo- Quansah, Physician Specialist at the Korlebu Teaching Hospital in Accra, echoes this view and adds that there is little information on how these biomass fuels are used in Ghana. 

There is a dire need for more concrete data on the effects of biomass fuel burning; not just on the environment, but on the people who have to live with the effects. There is insufficient mental healthcare in many developing countries, and the effects of increasing stillbirths are devastating for mothers and economies. The emotional stress these women go through following a stillbirth affects their output at work and in their family units, and a decreasing birth rate has an effect on population growth. In a country where nearly 20% of its population are over the age of 45, a smaller number of economically active citizens will have a devastating effect on Ghana’s future economic output.

In developing countries, plenty of commercial and household energy is powered with biomass fuels and so it is important to be aware of the potential side effects. There should be more information made available to the public that outlines how best to use these fuels. A potential method of doing this is by establishing certification schemes to ensure that bioenergy is created in a sustainable way and adheres to three principles, namely that biomass is produced in an environmentally responsible way, that there is sustainable management of social capital and that biomass production is economically viable.

Across Africa, increased motor vehicle use, industrial growth and dust storms coupled with wood-fired cooking stoves is resulting in air pollution that is choking the continent’s inhabitants.

While air pollution in India, China, and other emerging economies has become a major area of concern for scientists and policymakers, it has gained little traction in Africa where it is taking a serious toll on the economy and human health. Toxic air has been causing more premature deaths than unsafe water or childhood malnutrition on the continent while significantly contributing to the climate crisis.

Air Pollution in Africa: Facts

A report by UNICEF notes that deaths from outdoor air pollution in Africa have increased by 57% in less than three decades, from 164,000 in 1990 to 258,000 in 2017, resulting in a GDP loss of over $215bn annually. The pollution has also cut short the lives of children by 24 months.

A recent study from NASA states that pollution from industrial sources and motor vehicles cause high mortality rates in Nigeria and South Africa while emissions from burning biomass and poor air quality due to dust storms increase the number of premature deaths in West and Central Africa.

“Africa holds the world’s largest source of desert dust emissions and produces approximately a third of the Earth’s biomass burning aerosol particles,” the study says. “Sub‐Saharan biomass burning is driven by agricultural practices, such as burning fields and bushes in the post-harvest season for fertilisation, land management, and pest control.”

Causes of Air Pollution in Africa

Analysis of satellite imagery by Greenpeace reveals that the world’s deadliest air pollution spot on the planet is in South Africa, with its eastern province Mpumalanga being the largest single area infected by deadly nitrogen dioxide. The province is home to a dozen coal-fired power stations, processing plants, and factories, which release the gas into the atmosphere.  

Emissions such as sulfur dioxide, particulate matter, and mercury have been causing more than  2,000 deaths from respiratory disease, strokes, and heart attacks in many places in South Africa, including Johannesburg.

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Africa’s most populous country — Nigeria — suffers from air pollution worse than any other country on the continent. The World Health Organisation (WHO) lists four cities of Nigeria among the world’s worst-ranked cities for air quality. Onitsha — one of the country’s economic hubs — tops the list of worst-ranked cities globally with a record of 30 times more particulate matter (PM2.5) concentration in the air than the WHO’s recommended levels.

A world air quality report from Greenpeace ranks Nigeria as the 10th most polluted country in the world, with an estimated average PM2.5 concentration of 44.8 micrograms per cubic meter air (μg/m3). More than 64,000 people died from household air pollution in the country in 2017, mainly from the burning of solid fuels such as charcoal and wood for cooking in open fires and leaky stoves.

Senegal is also struggling with highly toxic air. Its capital Dakar scored an average PM2.5 level of 30 μg/m3 and a PM10 level of 146 μg/m3; that is seven times higher than WHO recommended threshold. During the dry season, dust-storm from the Sahara — harmattan — and pollution from industry and motor vehicles coalesce in a hovering toxic cloud.

Kenya’s predicament mirrors that of its neighbours, with particle concentrations that are twice the WHO health safety standards. Over 18,000 premature deaths in the country have been linked to air pollution, while respiratory diseases climbed to be Kenya’s number one killer, surpassing malaria.

The true scale of the problem is likely to be underestimated, as only seven of Africa’s 54 countries have installed functioning real-time air pollution monitors to collect the data. Population growth and rapid urbanisation are expected to further worsen conditions. With an additional 1.3 billion people set to occupy the continent by 2050, industrial, agricultural, and anthropogenic activities are likely to lower air quality. Costs associated with pollution might explode if bold policy changes are not urgently initiated by African nations.

The leaders of African nations need to resist the temptation of fossil fuel corporations seeking to exploit a country’s resources or enter their market. As urbanisation and industrialisation ramps up across Africa, policies must be put in place that prioritise renewable energy and use green technologies in urban construction. As the number of companies researching and developing such innovations continues to grow, the cost of engaging such companies and implementing new technologies falls. Policymakers should focus on partnerships and agreements with other countries to build sustainably. An international agreement that holds governments accountable for their country’s emission rates, while also involving the support of transnational agencies such as environmental NGOs and UN development agencies, can be a strong framework for industrialising African nations to follow. 

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