A Biomassacre Down Under 

A new report out of Australia, Biomassacre: How Logging Australia’s Native Forests for Bioenergy Harms the Climate, Wildlife and People, by Markets for Change, highlights the harm to forests, climate, wildlife and human health from logging native forests for industrial-scale bioenergy.

Instead of being a clean, green solution to wean Australia off of fossil fuels, biomass incineration—including liquid biofuels, biomass power and wood pellets—from native forests will “seriously threaten our surviving forest heritage…actually exacerbate climate change” and will come “at the cost of genuine clean, renewable energy,” such as solar and wind power.

Often referred to as “dead koala power” because of its impact on the habitat of this iconic threatened species, the majority of Australians have historically opposed native forest biomass energy, as evidenced by a 2001 Morgan Poll finding that “88% of people opposed the use of native forest for wood-fired power.” A follow up Galaxy poll in 2010 revealed that “77% of Australians want an end to the logging of Australia’s native forests in order to conserve their carbon stores.”

Obvious to anyone who received a passing grade in their 8th grade Earth Science class, cutting and burning carbon-storing forests for bioenergy not only won’t get us out of climate change, but will actually make things worse. Protecting forests, rather than logging them, is the best way to mitigate climate change, according to Biomassacre, since forest “ecosystems play a fundamental role in the global carbon cycle—keeping carbon on the ground and out of the atmosphere.”

The report debunks the bogus 20th century “biomass is carbon neutral” myth pushed by the biomass industry, reminding us that, “in many circumstances, forest biomass combustion emits more greenhouse gases than fossil fuels per unit of energy produced.” While the biomass industry insists that carbon emissions from burning biomass don’t count the way emissions from fossil fuels do, the reality is that the atmosphere doesn’t care where the carbon comes from. “Large emissions are created immediately” by burning biomass, says the report, “yet many decades and even centuries are required to regrow and recapture carbon into a restored forest,” and climate scientists maintain that we don’t have that much time to wait.

Meanwhile, other studies paint a bleaker picture by demonstrating a “permanent” increase in atmospheric carbon from cutting and burning trees for biomass energy.  The biomass carbon issue is particularly relevant to Australia, which possesses some of the “most carbon dense forests in the world.” The report determines that the “highest known density” of forest carbon in the world is found in the eucalpytus forests of Victoria.

Biomassacre calculates that “retaining the current carbon stocks of the 14.5 million ha [hectares] of natural eucalypt forest in south-eastern Australia would equal 25.5 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide,” which would be the same thing as avoiding 460 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions per year for the next 100 years, or “almost 80% of Australia’s net greenhouse gas emissions for 2008.”

The biomass industry typically argues that forests can always be replaced by tree farms, however the report clarifies that “natural undisturbed forests in south-eastern Australia contain around 40-60% higher carbon stocks than those of monoculture plantations or of forests subject to industrial logging.” Study after study from around the world has demonstrated that intact, natural forests are far superior climate buffers than logged and intensively-managed monocrop tree plantations.

While the biomass industry has largely given up the pretense that they only use forest “waste” to feed their massive incinerators, the report reminds us that “woodchipping has been an enabler and driver of native forest logging, with a massively damaging impact on natural forests.”

Even when the biomass industry isn’t directly competing with lumber quality wood by choosing “low grade” trees to chip for fuel, Australian scientists say that “efforts to remove large quantities of defective stems and logs will be ‘value-subtracting’ for some elements of the biota and key ecological processes.” In other words, the forest doesn’t care how straight its trees are—they’re still providing essential ecosystem services including pure water, clean air, fertile topsoil, flooding and erosion control, wildlife habitat, and a livable climate.

120,000 hectares of forest would need to be logged to feed a 30 megawatt native forest biomass power incinerator, according to the calculations in the report. Native Australian species such as koala, black cockatoo, wedge tailed eagle, and Leadbeater’s possum are all threatened by logging for biomass.

Biomassacre also makes mention of the “dangerous emissions of toxic substances and fine particulates” from biomass incineration, listing “at least five known human carcinogens and at least 26 chemicals categorised as hazardous air pollutants,” including nitrogen oxides, particulate matter and heavy metals.

The report contests the industry assertion that burning biomass from native forests would be an economic boon. Instead, it counters that biomass incineration is “heavily reliant on government financial assistance” and “poor for job creation.”

After years of pushback by campaigners against the negative environmental impacts of native forest bioenergy, the Australian Government removed all “wood waste” from native forests from the Climate Change Authority’s Renewable Energy Target (RET), “to ensure that the RET did not provide an incentive for the burning of native forest wood waste for bio-energy, which could lead to unintended outcomes for biodiversity and the destruction of intact carbon stores.”