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Zero-emission bioenergy myth under Kyoto Protocol fuels climate change


TIANJIN, CHINA (UNFCCC) – Greenhouse gas emissions from bioenergy1 – the development and burning of biofuels and the combustion of biomass to generate electricity – must be accounted for in national emission reduction targets under the Kyoto Protocol, say forest and climate experts from the Ecosystems Climate Alliance (ECA), of which Wetlands International is a member.

Emissions from biofuels and biomass risk being entirely ignored since they are considered zero-emission, carbon-neutral sources of renewable energy. But the real emissions from chopping down trees to create biomass, or from the production of biofuel crops including those on emissive peat soils, are often not captured anywhere in the Kyoto Protocol. This creates an attractive but misleading way for industrialized countries to achieve their national emissions reduction targets under the Protocol by substituting bioenergy for fossil fuels without accounting for the emissions from burning wood or other plant material.

ECA campaigners are urging countries to account for all emissions resulting from land use and land-use change – including logging, cropland management, and the drainage of organic soils (peat) – as they set emissions reduction targets for the Kyoto Protocol’s next commitment period starting in 2013.2 Negotiators will consider the inclusion of more emissions from land use as well as eventually accounting for emissions from all land (known as “land-based accounting”) as UN climate change talks resume here on Monday.

“Not accounting for bioenergy emissions under the Kyoto Protocol creates a ‘paper reality’ and is misleading to all those who want to reduce their emissions,” said Peg Putt of The Wilderness Society. “Bioenergy has been falsely represented as having net zero emissions, a myth perpetuated by the Kyoto Protocol which allows countries to ignore emissions from logging and burning forests.”

One myth surrounding the carbon neutrality of bioenergy sources assumes that emissions from the combustion of plant biomass are “recaptured” through photosynthesis of new plant growth. But the process to equal the carbon loss from forest and peatsoil destruction can take decades or even centuries. Also ignored are emissions from the use of fertilizer, pesticides and biomass transport.

“Countries should at least account for their emissions ‘hotspots’ – thoseareas of land with the most significant pools of emissions – starting with the Kyoto Protocol’s next commitment period,” said Alistair Graham of Humane Society International.

Emissions from biomass production in developing countries also unaccounted

Emissions from the production in developing countries of biomass for energy also remain unaccounted by the importing developed country.  “Countries that import palm oil from Indonesia, where this crop destroys thousands of hectares of tropical peatswamp forests, are exempted from accounting for all these emissions. An expansion of palm oil plantations encompassing millions of hectares is envisaged in southeast Asia, and about one-third of that expansion is likely to occur in peatland areas. Drainage of these areas results in large emissions of 50-75 tonnes of CO2 per hectare per year,” says Susanna Tol of Wetlands International.

Completely overlooked and unaccounted are emissions due to “indirect land-use change.” For instance, while biodiesel produced in Europe may meet rather strict environmental criteria, its use leads to increased vegetable oil production in Indonesia or Malaysia, with often large emissions.

Strong increase in biomass production expected

The production of biomass for bioenergy will see strong growth in the near future as more fossil fuel is substituted with renewable energy so that countries can meet their renewable energy targets, accommodate growing energy demands, and decrease dependency on politically unstable regions that export fossil fuels. Biomass production also provides new opportunities for farmers, a politically important factor in Europe and North America.

“Demand for biomass energy in the European Union increasingly pushes agricultural activities forward into marginal lands, including peatlands that had been abandoned earlier,” added Susanna Tol. “In the EU thousands of hectares of drained organic soils have been planted with crops such as maize and rapeseed, but thus far there is rarely any accounting for the losses in soil organic carbon from this land.”

“In Australia large biomass-burning power stations based on natural forests are planned, with huge emissions certain,” added Peg Putt. “The re-absorption of this carbon dioxide would take 400 hundred years whilst these forests regrow, but they will instead be logged repeatedly to supply additional biomass. The emissions from such logging will not be accounted for by Australia or by most other countries.”

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 1Bioenergy is herein defined as energy derived from organic materials, including energy used for electricity production in power plants, heating for industry, or vehicle fuel for transport, and includes the terms “biofuel” (fuel derived from biological sources) and “biomass” (the biological material used as biofuel).

 2Greenhouse gas emissions from forests and land should be accounted for in the “Land Use, Land-Use Change and Forestry” sector (known as LULUCF) in the Kyoto Protocol. 


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