As the urgent need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is belatedly gaining recognition within the United States, a suite of policy initiatives, including the Markey-Waxman "American Climate and Energy Security Act 2009" (ACESA), are being considered that promote biomass such as tree plantations, and forest and agricultural 'waste', as renewable energy. Given well known issues of sustainability regarding industrial agriculture and land mismanagement, the need to more clearly define just what "renewable" means is clearly shown. It is vitally important that renewable energy be defined, within the context of federal energy and climate policy, in strictly ecological sustainability terms, including renewable energy and low carbon fuel standards.
In an alarming trend, burning, pyrolysis and other refining of plant biomass and also toxic municipal waste (or for that matter anything that burns) is being falsely promoted as renewable and of benefit to reducing emissions that cause climate change. Humans already consume a large amount of the energy represented in annual biological growth. To try to consume more of Earth's primary productivity is clearly unsustainable land use. Even partial replacement of fossil fuels with fresh plant biomass energy is absolutely impossible for more than a few years. Trying will denude Earth and make a very different planet, that is hostile and uninhabitable to human life.
Burning biomass is being falsely hailed as one of the "cheapest and most versatile" ways to produce non fossil-fuel energy for electricity, heat and manufacturing processes. Generating electricity and transportation fuels including cellulosic ethanol from wood is gaining tremendous support, though it is a commercially untested and highly inefficient process, and would have devastating consequences for already overburdened terrestrial ecosystems, climate and the biosphere..
The world‘s land and forests are already past their carrying capacity, and terrestrial ecosystems, upon which all life depends, are crashing. Biomass based climate and energy plans dependent upon further intensification of industrial agriculture -- either through using 'waste' which is really non-renewable nutrients for new plants, or expanding industrial tree plantations -- are premature.
As eight millennia of experience and the unfolding disaster of agrofuels from corn, soy beans and oil palm clearly demonstrates, expansion of land-conversion by industrial agriculture strongly threatens biodiversity and ecosystems that play an essential role in stabilizing and regulating the climate, and are necessary to ensure food and water security Further large-scale industrial pursuit of energy from biomass will almost certainly be ecologically devastating, and no one knows if they will work.
It is clearly impossible for industrial agriculture and already depleted terrestrial ecosystems to meet the wood and crops needed to significantly reduce atmospheric carbon, or provide for continued industrial energy use. After losing 80% of the world‘s natural and intact forest habitats, mostly to agriculture, how can Earth accommodate these additional demands upon plant's primary productivity and still produce food, preserve wild places and maintain ecosystems required to sustain a habitable Earth? It is more likely that even trying will continue the processes leading to global ecosystem collapse.
While turning live plants into liquid fuels has shown to be highly energy inefficient, massive subsidies are being directed towards this goal. Massive demand for all forms of "biomass" -- from wood, to corn stover, grasses, garbage, chicken manure, municipal solid wastes and landfill gases -- are coalescing into a looming disaster for forests and ecosystems, for communities living near “burn” facilities and for efforts to reduce wasteful consumption and pull human society into global ecological sustainability.
Burning wood or other plant material for electricity will assuredly build markets beyond what can be met by 'waste' biomass, and will require unsustainable, massive quantities of industrial grown tree plantations, while increasing cutting and harvesting from both public and private forested lands. In Massachusetts, for example, increasing electricity generation by only 0.1% will demand 2.4 million tons of wood. The scale of demands for wood, grasses and other plant biomass for 'cellulosic fuels', particularly when indirect land use changes are properly accounted for, are similarly unsustainable and entirely unrealistic.
Meeting the current U.S. government mandate for liquid biofuels alone would require 80% of ALL annual biomass growth on the continental U.S. including forests, agricultural crops and grasses! At a time when the protection and regeneration of forests, soils, freshwater resources and biodiversity is urgent, creating massive new demands for any plant material is misguided and will further degrade ecosystems. Burning garbage "biomass", including construction and demolition debris treated with paints and preservatives, results in toxic air emissions including dioxins that are extremely harmful to health as well as creating incentives to perpetuate waste production when it is clear that "zero waste" practices must be adopted.
As policy makers seek to expand mandates for renewable energy through a federal "renewable energy standard" it is essential that the focus remain upon true renewables such as wind, solar and ocean-derived technologies. Burning or refining plant biomass, garbage or landfill gases is not "renewable". Support us in demanding “no biomass/no burning” in definitions of renewable energy within the Markey Waxman climate bill and beyond!
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Meeting the current U.S. government mandate for liquid biofuels alone would require 80% of ALL annual biomass growth on the continental U.S. including forests, agricultural crops and grasses!
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