How can bioenergy suddenly be a problem?

How can bioenergy suddenly be a problem

Just the other day I wrote about bioenergy from the forest as a savior in the current energy situation in Europe. This week I read a press release from the EU Parliament that informs that MEPs (Members of the European Parliament) voted for a raise in the use of renewable energies in the EU to 45 percent by 2030. That should be good, shouldn’t it?

How can bioenergy suddenly be a problem
Renewable energy! No doubt, as it is not primary wood.
Photo: Per Jonsson

How can bioenergy suddenly be a problem?

A worrying detail in the text that was adopted with 418 votes in favor, 109 against, and 111 abstentions, was the phrase:

“MEPs also adopted amendments calling for phasing down the share of primary wood counted as renewable energy.”

The question is: Should we be worried about this? “Primary wood” is what the saw- and pulp mills use in their production. What normally ends up as bioenergy is the rest, the material that can’t be used for anything more than fuel.  Material that otherwise would have been left to rot and leak carbon. Bark, sawdust, and forest residue, like in the photo above.

Strange signals from the rulers

If “the leftovers” is enough to feed the boilers it may not be so bad. But what should be used if that isn’t enough? If we must use the primary wood for fuel after all. It is, by the way already used as firewood in many private houses. Something that is increasing by the minute as the winter is coming closer.

In the EU we are now in the middle of an energy crisis that we haven’t seen since the second World war. Russian oil and gas are available only in limited volumes. Winter is coming closer, and something must be done to solve the situation. The forest is a renewable and local resource which should be a good thing also when primary wood is used as fuel.

Critics say that burning wood lets the carbon out. That’s true. But they forget that the forest is part of a renewable circle where the growing forest stores carbon. Another question is what we should use instead. There is an obvious risk that coal, natural gas, and oil will be used to solve the problem. This type of fossil fuel is not renewable, and for many not local, and also lets carbon out. And now I haven’t even mentioned that local fuel needs less transport.

So, the message in the quoted phrase above sure sends strange signals, to say the least.

Read the press release from the EU Parliament here.


How can anyone claim that the forest is not renewable?

If you fell a tree, you can plant a new one that will be ready for harvest within 100 years at the most (a much shorter time in warmer climates). If you don’t plant a new one, a tree will most likely grow there anyway. It’s just a matter of what tree you want.

A harvested tree is used for wood and pulp (that becomes paper). Paper can be recycled 4 – 7 times depending on the type of paper and whom you ask. Wood can be reused as wood, recycled as energy, or engineered wood. Solid wood and engineered wood are also very good carbon storage.

Ok, I’m aware that there are downsides to energy from wood. Especially old and in-efficient ovens and fireplaces that don’t burn the wood properly and lets too much carbon out. It can also be discussed how the forest should be managed. But you must see the whole picture. Are the alternatives better?

Think of this: A fallen tree or a forest grows back within 100 years in the northern hemisphere. How long does it take for coal, oil, and gas to “grow back”? One must see the whole picture.

Of course, there are other energy sources to choose from. Still, the forest should be one of the best as it grows more or less everywhere, it can be used for many purposes, and it’s renewable.

By the end of the day, it’s all about finding the right mix of energy sources. Something that may not be so easy as strong lobbies are going on in the corridors of power. Every energy business wants to push its idea upfront to eventually be the only one.

The forest is too visible

One problem for forestry is that the forest is very visible, and means a lot to many people. The forest is not only a source of raw materials for industries. It’s a place for recreation, sports, berry- and mushroom picking, hunting, and much more. It’s a place where many are and can see what’s going on. One challenge is to make people understand why also forestry is a part of what’s going on in the forest. I guess that most people would say that they prefer energy and products from renewable sources, such as the forest. But they must be aware of how it’s done and what the alternatives are.

If you cut down a forest or make a thinning, it leaves very visible marks in nature. Marks that people, the public sees (and obviously the politicians). If you drill a hole in the ground to pump up oil or gas or blast a hole in a mountain to get coal, the mark on the surface is relatively small. The damage to nature and the environment is much bigger but invisible. “What you can’t see doesn’t happen”.

Are the public and the politicians really that stupid?

Maybe they are, some of them anyway. I recall a discussion I had with a German forest machine dealer about forest certification. He was very annoyed that the rules in Sweden were much more forgiving even though we had the same certification standards. Germany has ten times the population compared to Sweden but only about two-thirds of the area. That means that there is much more “public” to see when you fell a tree in Germany than it is in Sweden. Here we see the importance of having a well-informed public.

How do we inform the public?

This is the main challenge that we have in forestry if you ask me. The understanding of what’s going on in the forest and why. The connection between wood- and paper products and forestry. Common people don’t seem to see that connection. They criticize forestry but buy the products that come from the forest.

Let’s face it, the oil- & gas lobby and the environmentalists have better lobbyists and marketers than forestry.

Some environmentalists tie themselves to forest machines and trees to stop tree felling. What should we tie ourselves to if we want to do something similar for our causes?

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