Biomass explained, for #WorldWildlifeDay: Why biomass energy production is devastating for animals and the environment

Today is World Wildlife Day – a day not only to celebrate the world’s wildlife, but more importantly, to raise awareness of the threats facing the environment and all the animals who call our planet home.

One of these threats we barely hear about, and urgently need to make a priority of public environmental discussion: biomass energy production, a form of bioenergy.

Biomass energy production involves clearing forest to collect “biomass” (organic matter) to produce electricity.

Here in NSW, even after drought, bushfires, and logging, biomass has become just another way the Berejiklian Government is monetising what’s left in our forests: NSW Forestry Corporation buys discarded smaller trees, limbs from the broken canopies, and other woody matter from the forest floors of state, private, and plantation forests, and then sells this “biomass” to energy companies claiming to be green.

Saplings, logs, leaf litter – these all make up the last remaining sources of habitat and food for animals in devastated forests, yet are considered fair-game to remove as part of biomass energy production.

It gets worse.

The NSW Government considers this a form of “renewable energy”, meaning statistics and statements you see from the government about “advances” in “renewable” energy may talking about a process that devastates fragile ecosystems.

Leaves taken from koalas. Nesting hollows taken from birds and small mammals. Undergrowth and shrubbery taken from tiny marsupials and rodents. Entire forests stripped of vegetation, leaving every animal without food or shelter, and a bare forest floor exposing them to predators.

Then there’s the small animals which can be caught up in the collection of vegetation being harvested to be burnt or otherwise processed.

This is considered renewable energy.

Biomass is considered a renewable energy source because trees and plants can regrow in a relatively short period of time. Bizarrely, 50 to 100 years for regrowth and replenishment is considered to fit the definition of ‘renewable’, but we know how quickly humans can clear swathes of forest into nothing.

So how does biomass energy production actually work, and what is the impact on carbon dioxide emissions?

Trees and other plants absorb carbon dioxide from the air, use photosynthesis to isolate the carbon, and then use it to build tree trunks, bark and leaves. When the plant dies, it rots down and much of the carbon is released back into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide.

Current carbon accounting assumes that all the carbon from dead wood is released back into the atmosphere again, so biomass advocates argue that removing forest “waste” and burning it to produce energy is better than leaving them on the forest floor to rot, because energy for human use is created in the meantime.

So what about the carbon that is also emitted in the combustion process? Biomass advocates say that if plants harvested as biomass are replanted as fast as the wood is burned, new trees take up the carbon produced by the combustion, so that the carbon cycle theoretically remains in balance, and no extra carbon is added to the atmospheric balance sheet. This is why biomass is arguably considered “carbon neutral.” Since nothing offsets the carbon that fossil fuel burning produces, replacing fossil fuels with biomass theoretically results in reduced carbon emissions.

In reality, this thinking is too simplistic and ignores a host of factors, including the environmental devastation biomass production causes. In 2014, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found that “whether or not biomass is truly carbon neutral depends on the time frame being studied, what type of biomass is used, the combustion technology, which fossil fuel is being replaced (since the combustion of both fossil fuels and biomass produces carbon dioxide), and what forest management techniques are employed in the areas where the biomass is harvested.”

In 2010, a group of prominent scientists wrote to the US Congress explaining that the notion that all biomass results in a 100 percent reduction of carbon emissions is wrong. Biomass can reduce carbon dioxide if fast growing crops are grown on otherwise unproductive land; in this case, the regrowth of the plants offsets the carbon produced by the combustion of the crops. But cutting or clearing forests for energy, either to burn trees or to plant energy crops, releases carbon into the atmosphere that would have been sequestered (held onto) had the trees remained untouched. As we know, carbon is also emitted in the combustion process, resulting in a net increase of carbon dioxide.

It’s also important to remember that regrowing and therefore recapturing carbon can take decades or even a century, and regrowth is never guaranteed Where forests have been cleared with the promise of regrowth, the land may eventually be converted to other uses like agriculture or development. Even if the land does remain forest, bushfires, climate change, disease and other factors can limit or prevent regrowth, meaning the carbon debt incurred by biomass energy is never repaid.

Though it has been scientifically denounced, community understanding of biomass energy production is poor, so it’s relatively easy for governments and businesses to greenwash the practice as being sustainable.

Clearly, defining biomass as a “renewable” form of energy production is deceptive, and biomass should not be a 21st century “solution” to energy production.

The complex reality of biomass energy production needs to be exposed.

That’s why in this week’s Budget Estimates, I asked Minister for Energy and Environment, Matt Kean, a number of questions about the use of biomass in NSW and its impacts on the environment and all animals who call NSW forests home. Over the coming weeks and months, I will be campaigning against biomass energy production in NSW, and the questions I put to the Environment Minister, and his responses, will become vital to understanding the extent and impact of NSW’s current biomass energy production practices.