Saturday, April 6, 2013

Europe’s Green Ambitions Don’t Grow on Trees


April 5, 2013

Europe’s Green Ambitions Don’t Grow on Trees

If you want an indicator of how confused green policy is in Europe, look no further than the fact that EU policy treats burning wood as an energy source of the future. This madness stems from the EU’s attempt to derive 20 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2020; burning wood—or biomass, as it is frequently called—is a key component of that green mix. But as the Economist reports, its green credentials are dubious at best:
In some countries, such as Poland and Finland, wood meets more than 80% of renewable-energy demand. Even in Germany, home of the Energiewende (energy transformation) which has poured huge subsidies into wind and solar power, 38% of non-fossil fuel consumption comes from the stuff. [...]
[A]n alliance quickly formed to back public subsidies for biomass. It yoked together greens, who thought wood was carbon-neutral; utilities, which saw co-firing as a cheap way of saving their coal plants; and governments, which saw wood as the only way to meet their renewable-energy targets. The EU wants to get 20% of its energy from renewable sources by 2020; it would miss this target by a country mile if it relied on solar and wind alone. [...]
In short, the EU has created a subsidy which costs a packet, probably does not reduce carbon emissions, does not encourage new energy technologies—and is set to grow like a leylandii hedge.
Burning wood releases carbon dioxide, but if a new tree is planted for every one burned, that carbon can be offset (trees absorb carbon dioxide). This, however, ignores the energy expended by harvesting, transporting, and cutting up the wood. Of course, fossil fuels have similar costs, but no one claims that those fuels are renewable.
Biomass’ green credentials rely on proper forest management after the initial timber harvest. That’s a long-term commitment; it isn’t as simple as planting seedlings and claiming carbon offsets. With demand for biomass as high as it is, there’s a market incentive to replant and eventually sell a new “crop” of wood. But there is also a lot of room for mismanagement and, if we’re being cynical, opportunities for a firm to make a quick buck by clear-cutting a forest without any intention of replanting.
Even the EU’s own European Environment Agency recognizes the folly of assuming biomass is a “green” resource: “that biomass combustion would be inherently carbon neutral…is not correct…as it ignores the fact that using land to produce plants for energy typically means that this land is not producing plants for other purposes, including carbon otherwise sequestered.”
We can’t think of a starker demonstration of the folly of Europe’s greens than this: while much of the rest of the world is racing to capture the economic and environmental advantages of the shale gas boom, EU green policies are pushing the Continent to burn coal and wood.
[Wood fire image courtesy of Shutterstock.]