Countries continue to promote bioenergy and biofuels as part of the solution to the climate crisis. But concerns over the environmental and ecological damage these energies can cause have been growing for years.

Tackling the extinction crisis is firmly on the global agenda in 2022. The UN’s delayed biodiversity conference – COP15 – is meant to be taking place in China. That makes this year the perfect time to ask whether bioenergy and biofuels can play a significant role in tackling the joint crises we face? The evidence suggests that it cannot.

Biomass-derived energy

The terms bioenergy and biofuel refer to energy that is derived from biomass, meaning organic matter. Biomass can create heat, electricity, and liquid fuels for transport. The latter is what people largely mean when they talk about biofuels. The term bioenergy generally relates to electricity and heat or is utilized as the catch-all term for all biomass-derived energy.

In theory, people can replenish organic matter like crops or trees that they’ve used for these energies. So authorities often categorize them as renewable. Moreover, this replenished matter can, over varying timeframes, suck up carbon as it grows. Due to this, industry players often characterize bioenergy as ‘carbon neutral.’ This is highly contested by scientists and campaigners.

Fueling pollution and destruction

The environmentally-friendly impression that the ‘renewable‘ classification gives the industry is misleading. Businesses can make transportation biofuels, for example, from biomass like corn and soy. The biomass is often blended with its fossil-based counterparts in the fuel. As Yale E360 explained in 2016, corn can yield ethanol that is then mixed with gasoline for biofuel. But it said that this fuel can “produce significant levels of air pollution, reduce fuel efficiency” and “jack up corn and other food prices.” Meanwhile, sugarcane-derived ethanol for biofuel produced in Brazil “led to deforestation and, paradoxically, more carbon emissions”, according to Grist. This is due to people destroying parts of the country’s Atlantic rainforest to make way for the crops.

These examples are not anomalies. Indeed, in its 2019 Summary for Policymakers accompanying its Climate Change and Land report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change asserted with “high confidence” that while producing and using bioenergy can have “co-benefits”, it can also have “adverse side-effects, and risks for land degradation, food insecurity, GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions, and other environmental and sustainable development goals.”

Well-known villains

A 2018 investigative report by Mighty Earth and ActionAid USA also linked US imports of soy- and palm oil-based biodiesel to deforestation in Argentina and Indonesia. Production of these commodities is well-known for the devastating impact that it’s having on tropical forests and the species that call them home. A 2021 investigation by Global Witness also linked soy production to land conflicts and human rights abuses in Brazil.

Palm oil is an ingredient in around 50% of products in supermarkets, according to Greenpeace. And around 90% of the soy produced is consumed as feed by farm animals, the organization says. In short, the production of these commodities is excessive due to their extensive use in food, for both humans and other animals. It is causing rampant deforestation as a result. So their further use for biofuels is adding to an already dire problem.

Some non-food crops, including agricultural waste, can also provide the basis for biofuels. Municipal waste, meaning the waste local authorities collect, can too. However, if biofuel producers use crops that are grown specifically for energy use they still risk land issues because those crops need space for growth.

Meanwhile, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) characterizes generating energy through municipal waste as an “environmental misstep.” It states that: “Recycling, or capturing materials from the waste stream and returning them to production or nutrient cycles (in other words, using them in manufacturing or allowing their nutrients to flow back into a living organism or the environment) is much better for the planet.”

Not so green energy

Wood has long been a source of energy too, of course. For centuries, people have burned it for heat. This continues within the bioenergy sector. Some of the wood involved is waste from other industries, such as forestry and paper production. But a significant amount of it comes from trees cut down for electricity generation by the bioenergy industry.

There are several environmental issues associated with the burning of trees for this industry. Firstly, burning wood releases lots of carbon, adding to global warming. Indeed, research by the climate and energy thinktank Ember released in 2021 highlighted that a tree-burning power plant in the UK, which is run by Drax, is the country’s biggest single source of carbon emissions. The plant also burns coal. But the vast majority of its emissions in 2020, 13.3 million tonnes (Mt) out of 14.8Mt total, came from burning biomass.

Companies like Drax insist that the biomass they use is ‘sustainable.’ However, the industry appears to be destroying long-standing forests. Such forests are important in fighting the climate crisis, with their carbon-holding capacities. They’re also a home for countless species. So bioenergy is implicated in the extinction crisis too due to the habitat loss it can cause.

Kicking the can

Proponents of bioenergy argue that the industry’s carbon problem is effectively solvable. Fossil fuel producers make similar claims about their industry too. They argue that technologies can capture the carbon they produce at scale and store it to avoid CO2 entering the atmosphere. These technologies are known as CCS, and for bioenergy specifically, BECCS. They have been in development for decades but to date remain fairly limited.

Drax says that BECCS would transform its ‘carbon neutral’ energy into ‘carbon negative‘ power. However, the NRDC conducted an analysis of the standard supply chain for bioenergy production currently, about such claims. It asserted that: “far from being carbon negative, the lifecycle of this approach to BECCS generates about 80 percent as much carbon as comes out of a coal plant smokestack per megawatt-hour.” The organization explained that this is because “a large fraction of the total emissions occur off-site rather than at the power station and are thus uncapturable by the addition of CCS at the smokestack.”

Slow progress

The IPCC and other experts have asserted that biomass could assist in the mitigation of emissions if the sources are sustainable. But the evidence suggests that the industry as a whole has not developed sustainably. Its emissions mitigation potential isn’t certain either. And, as is too often the case, biodiversity appears to be getting a very raw deal out of ‘renewable’ bioenergy and biofuels.

Some statutory bodies, institutions, and financial entities appear to be slowly acknowledging this. Wider recognition – and action – among the authorities that are subsidizing and promoting the industry as one that plays a major role in tackling the climate crisis cannot come too soon.

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