Canada’s wood biomass expansion raises environmental flags

Some industry experts are urging governments and policy-makers to rein in destructive biomass practices immediately.

Ecology professor Louise Vet says that the biomass industry has extracted wood material at a faster rate than it can be replenished. Alamy stock photo.

This article was published by The Energy Mix on Feb. 16, 2024.

By Christopher Bonasia

Canada’s federal and provincial governments are pushing ahead with investments in wood biomass amid a larger shift to clean energy, but scientists warn the environmental costs outweigh the benefits.

“Using biomass as an energy source once started as a green dream,” ecology professor Louise Vet told Market Screener. “That arose from the beautiful idea that you could plant trees to offset biomass emissions. Then you would be in some kind of equilibrium.”

“It endeared people, but it’s not reality.”

Biomass includes harvested organic materials like wood, crops, crop residues, and human or animal waste. It also contains chemical energy stored from the sun through photosynthesis of the organic material prior to harvest, and extracting that bioenergy—by burning or fermenting the material—has long been considered a leading renewable energy option.

Wood is currently the most widely used form of biomass. And because early concepts envisioned planting trees to replace harvested ones in a zero-sum trade off, bioenergy established a reputation for being a renewable resource that could help decarbonize global energy systems.

But in the decades since that idea was pitched by such high-profile organizations as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, scientists like Vet say that in reality, the biomass industry has extracted wood material at a faster rate than it can be replenished. Some 800 scientists sent an open letter to the European Parliament in 2018, protesting biomass as an energy source, and then again in 2021, 500 scientists voiced their opposition to it.

But misperceptions about biomass persist—and as a result, forests are being degraded and they’re emitting more climate pollution than they store. But in Canada, biomass is factoring into government policies to combat climate change. As recently as June, 2020, the Canada Energy Regulator’s (CER) long-term outlook modelling scenarios cited bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) as a key technology for moving the national energy system from net-zero to net-negative emissions. The CER also called for biomass fuel to be used to produce hydrogen.

Now, the federal government is rolling out new funding to expand Canada’s wood-based biomass industry. In January, Ottawa announced C$13.5 million for biomass projects in British Columbia. And at the end of the month, the Ontario government unveiled $9.4 million in funding for “14 research, innovation, and modernization initiatives to develop the untapped economic potential and environmental benefits of new and emerging uses of underutilized wood and mill byproducts, collectively known as forest biomass.”

Not all of Canada’s biomass initiatives focus on wood harvesting— there are also opportunities to expand facilities that capture bioenergy from waste. For instance, in its fall economic statement last November, the federal government announced that its Clean Technology Investment and Clean Electricity Investment Tax Credits would include systems that use waste biomass.

But forest products remain a major source of biomass in Canada, where trees are also harvested for biomass to sell abroad, with significant repercussions for Canadian forests and wildlife. For example, Japan is sourcing biomass from forests in B.C. But researchers warn the country’s plans to produce 5% of its power needs from biomass by 2030—driven by the same net-zero goals as Canada has set, as well as a search for alternatives to nuclear energy following the Fukushima reactor meltdown in 2011—will outstrip what the province can supply in the long term.

“And, for the present, it is leaving a trail of environmental destruction in its wake,” reports The Japan Times.

Some experts contend that, though forest-based biomass is proving to be environmentally destructive, its applications have been informative and it could play a helpful—if muted—role in future energy systems. Other industry experts are urging governments and policy-makers to heed the alarm bells and rein in destructive practices immediately.

“Biomass as an energy source is not necessarily bad,” said Edwin Hamoen, biorefinery program manager for Wageningen University & Research in the Netherlands. “In the future, we will increasingly use biomass for high-value applications, but in many cases that is not possible at the moment.”

But “cutting down trees that should not have been cut down, we have to stop that as soon as possible,” Hamoen added. “That’s really not a good development.”

And “everyone understands that clearcutting Canadian forests is a very bad idea.”

 

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