Forest biomass: trading one crisis for another
The energy crisis has led policymakers to take real steps to encourage forest biomass as an alternative energy source. Recognising the dangers of forest harvesting at scale, CEEweb calls for alternatives that are less costly to our collective futures, and do not threaten irreversible ecological losses.
The high stakes of the energy crisis we are facing have placed it at the forefront of debate for policymakers. With the effects felt intimately by many millions, there is significant pressure for solutions: under this pressure to respond to the need for accessible energy, it can be difficult to see sustainability as an important consideration. Nonetheless, we must be critical about the path forward and avoid inviting further crises in the future through our short-term solutions. Burning the valuable reserves of forests, particularly protected forests, is one such short-term solution that can only lead to far greater eventual costs.
With rising energy prices and fears around the availability of gas, many EU countries are turning to biomass as a supposedly renewable solution to align with the EU Renewable Energy Directive. A recent emergency decree in Hungary eased protections for important forests, promoting wood as an alternative energy source for heating homes in particular. The decree relaxed rules on mandatory periods for forest regeneration after cutting, opened up new areas to logging, and removed bans on cutting in certain ecologically sensitive periods of the year. The move and others like it — which promote forest biomass energy — view this as a route to domestic energy security. However, forest clearing produces a range of environmentally destabilising effects, which contravene hopes of security associated with a shift toward wood-fired biomass.
Piled woodchip in a biomass plant. Source: PSNH, Flickr, distributed under a CC-BY 2.0 license.
Forests provide a wide range of indispensable ecosystem services, making forest biomass energy far more costly than just the carbon dioxide it releases. Forest felling increases exposure to drought and flooding, by removing the vital water storage capacities and flow regulation effects provided by vegetation cover. It also takes away regional cooling effects provided by the forest canopy, which has a vital role to play in mitigation and adaptation for a warming climate. These are losses which will lead to real, material damages via increased vulnerability to severe weather: the costs hidden behind the immediate gains of logging. Forest clearing will also produce irreversible long-term damage to biodiversity, which will often not recover even where forests are replanted or allowed to regrow.
The alignment of forest biomass with sustainability targets and policy incentivising renewable energy sources rests on its supposed carbon neutrality. The notion that biomass is carbon neutral is based on the idea that CO2 from wood we burn today will be absorbed by trees grown in the future. Forests are rarely allowed to recover to the same extent, however. Where cleared forest area is replanted or allowed to recover, the full recovery of carbon can take up to 120 years, well beyond important climate mitigation timelines. Furthermore, wood is generally burned less efficiently than fossil fuels in homes and biomass plants, producing less energy per unit of carbon emitted. These factors combined mean that in the short to medium term, biomass energy is no more sustainable than conventional fuels, and generates problems which are not encapsulated in the short-term financial costs.
A bog forest highlights the visible water retention services provided by this ecosystem. Source: Julian Paren, Geograph, distributed under a CC-BY 2.0 license.
Considering this, it would appear that any shift toward forest biomass as an answer to the present energy crisis would be a mistake. Despite being ostensibly renewable, the resultant deforestation leads to damages, many long-term or irreversible, whose costs far exceed any immediate benefit. CEEweb reaffirms its call for reconsideration of policies which have moved to promote or incentivise the use of forest biomass energy: we cannot afford the long-term impacts which will only spawn further, worsening crises. Instead, CEEweb advises policymakers to invest in real, long-term renewable energy plans to produce legitimately sustainable routes to energy security.