Wood-based bioenergy: the green lie

Attributed Authors: Fiu Elisara Mata'ese, Almuth Ernsting, Diego Alejandro Cardona, Wally Menne Published: May 2010
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Adapted from the report's introduction:

The European Union (EU) recently admitted that agro-fuels might be as much as four times more damaging to the climate than conventional fuels due to their indirect impacts. Still, such indirect impacts are being ignored in EU policies. Promoting woody bio-energy ignores the fact that a rapid increase in wood demand will have immense negative impacts on the world's forests and forest peoples as well as on indigenous communities that are already suffering from the direct and indirect impacts of monoculture tree plantations being expanded in their lands and territories for this purpose.

The demand for industrial wood bio-energy is causing large areas, especially in the South, to be taken over by monoculture tree plantations. The displacement of North American paper production increases the likelihood of massive pulp mill and plantation expansion in South America, South-east and East Asia and southern Africa as well as in Russia. The demand for wood (and other forms of biomass) will rise even further as 'second generation' agro-fuels are becoming commercially viable and economically attractive. So far, these liquid fuels remain largely in the research arena and development phase, but biotech firms, pulp and paper companies, and oil firms have joined forces to invest billions of dollars into research on unsustainable wood-based agro-fuels, including research in genetically engineered trees.

Genetically engineered (GE) trees pose a new threat to forests, forest-dependent communities and the climate. It is impossible to predict the impacts of GE trees because unexpected mutations are the norm rather than the exception. This is true with all genetically engineered plants. Trees can spread themselves across large areas and GE trees can easily establish themselves in native forests and/or cross-fertilize with native trees. Unstable low-lignin trees are being engineered for cellulosic ethanol production, whereas fast-growing and cold-resistant trees are engineered for wood bio-energy for heat and electricity.

Deadwood, branches, leaves and twigs and even tree stumps are increasingly defined as 'residues' which are essential for recycling nutrients and thus for keeping soils fertile, for biodiversity enhancement, and for carbon storage. However, the concern is, the demand for wood biomass far outpaces the production of "residues".

The European debate regarding biomass has so far largely focused on sustainability standards - which the European Commission has, for the time being, ruled out as far as EU-wide standards are concerned. The question whether a further massive increase in Europe's demand for wood can possibly be met sustainably, particularly in a global market, has been largely ignored in the policy debate. Yet no standard can prevent higher prices for wood driving plantation expansion and increased logging elsewhere in the world. The wider impacts of ecosystem conversion to industrial monoculture plantations and greater and more destructive logging of natural forests are likely to be severe. By driving up the European demand and the global price for wood, industrial bio-energy is set to increase land grabbing, speculation for tree plantations, expand destructive logging, and speed up the conversion of biodiversity rich native forests to monoculture tree plantations.

Replacing highly energy-dense fossil fuels with plant materials requires far more land per unit of energy than almost all other types of energy. Greater pressures on forests and other ecosystems, on soils and freshwater as well as more land-grabbing for tree plantations are consequences of a new global market in wood for bioenergy. Indigenous Peoples and other forest-dependent peoples in the South, in particular women, depend on access to forests for fuelwood and other small-scale bio-energy extraction for their families and may become victims of these policies.

Tags: timber subsidies GMO biofuels