Biofuel from trees a looming disaster
The promise being made is that wood can produce fuels to run our cars. A few years ago we were told corn, rapeseed, sugar, oil palm, soy and various other crops could be grown for biofuels while providing energy security and reducing greenhouse emissions. The reality has been far different with globally surging food prices, loss of rainforests and other important habitats, further depletion and poisoning of aquifers, and rampant human rights abuses — all for little or no greenhouse gas emission reduction.
So called "second generation biofuels", including the use of woody biomass, is being given the same unthinking, ecologically bereft hype. I will focus upon the idea that a wide variety of woody plant materials — including both waste and planted woody crops — should be the basis of a cellulosic ethanol industry. Creating ethanol is trickier than with agrofuels, the cellulose more difficult to break down, but clearly it is possible to produce liquid fuels from woody biomass. But what of associated social and ecological issues that are again being ignored?
Second generation biofuels based upon woody biomass will clearly be an unmitigated disaster. As with agrofuels, a cellulosic ethanol industry will indirectly destroy forests and lead to more costly food by increasing land pressures upon natural forests and agricultural crop lands. We can expect more vast, lifeless, toxic and water dependent monocultures of genetically modified Frankentrees on stolen deforested lands at a net carbon loss. And the biofuels will be sold to us as a green product, perhaps certified as "well-managed" by WWF, FSC, and other forest sell-outs.
Global forest crisis the fundamental ecological problem
Forest waste is a euphemism for the materials left over when industrial forestry decimates a forest. The branches, bark, saw dust, etc. represent nutrients that are best returned to virtually mined soils to make new forests. There is certainly not enough such "waste" lying around unused to power industrial society. Just what the world’s beleaguered natural old-growth and regenerating forest ecosystems need, another potentially limitless draw upon their growth, diversity and regeneration.
Once the infrastructure is in place to toss wood into vast choppers and have energy come out the other end, how long until meager switch grass harvests are supplemented with natural forest clearance? Let’s skip the step of clearing rainforests to plant crops and just toss the chopped up liquefied rainforests directly into our gas tank instead. The use of wood biomass from natural forests is already occurring on a limited scale and will be ramped up. Such is the promise of cellulosic ethanol.
Natural forests and other habitats provide a thin layer of biological life that shields and acts in concert with other aspects of the Earth System to make advanced life possible. This human habitat is endangered, devastated in short order by the human locust. All major environmental crises are entwined, but my observation is that clearing of terrestrial ecosystems — that is dismantling human habitats as resources to allow unsustainable growth — is the crux of the human dilemma.
As if the world’s forests, land base, ecosystems and habitats do not have enough demands upon them already, let us try to use them to power seven billion consumers in their drive to each have it all. Think this a needlessly harsh appraisal? Name one time the global economic system has demonstrated self-control in matching growth to underlying resources. Biofuels based upon wood must be rejected now, before it begins, to avoid the next ecological catastrophe. Given the scale of human energy demands and dismal state of global ecosystems, this one may prove fatal.
Time only for ambitious, sufficient global ecological responses
The Earth system is perilously close to failure and cannot stand more environmental solutions based upon greater and more intensive resource use for current, much less increased, human population and consumption. Most want an energy panacea that allows endless procreation and economic growth. None are to be had. There is a finite amount of energy that can be taken from, and waste put into, the global biosphere before it becomes uninhabitable. And we are reaching or have passed that point.
It is imperative that we embrace an environmental agenda based upon what is actually needed to maintain and restore ecological systems upon which all life depends. It is too late to put our efforts into anything else than the full package of societal and personal change necessary to maintain the biosphere. There are no solutions worth pursuing at this late date other than those that are ecologically sufficient. Anything less is more of the same disease that is assuredly destroying being.
Regular readers will know I have identified several major societal changes that could be implemented now at considerable but affordable cost and would make major headway in saving creation. These include immediately ending the use of coal that emits waste in the atmosphere; ceasing industrial clearance of natural habitats including ancient forests; investing major sums in renewable energy, energy conservation and efficiency; and providing incentives to reduce global population and sum consumption (more at http://www.ecoearth.info/ssi/ ).
These and other rigorous and sufficient measures will be pursued, or global ecological collapse is unavoidable. If part of your shtick is we can cut our forests, burn our fossil fuels, and continue to grow endlessly; you are the disease eating the Earth. Change sides and become part of the cure by rejecting reformist quick fixes such as biofuel from food and trees in favor of an environmental sufficiency agenda. Or we can all die looking for an easy way to have it all at the Earth’s expense.