In previous posts I discussed the size of the challenge and messed up cost comparisons WGIII provides. Here I provide few observations on how WGIII deals with bioenergy. The 2007 assessment report as well as the 2011 renewables report were largely uncritical of bioenergy/biofuels, but now some warnings have been added to 5th assessment report. But still… These warnings are largely to be found only in the actual report while the summary for policy makers creates, in my opinion, more positive image.
“Bioenergy can play a critical role for mitigation, but there are issues to consider, such as the sustainability of practices and the efficiency of bioenergy systems (robust evidence, medium agreement) [11.4.4, Box 11.5, 11.13.6, 11.13.7]. Barriers to large‐scale deployment of bioenergy include concerns about GHG emissions from land, food security, water resources, biodiversity conservation and livelihoods. The scientific debate about the overall climate impact related to landuse competition effects of specific bioenergy pathways remains unresolved (robust evidence, high agreement)” WGIII Summary for policy makers
Notice how this is phrased. It starts by saying bioenergy can play a critical role (robust evidence, medium agreement) and then ends by saying that we do not actually know what climate impacts are (robust evidence, high agreement). In my opinion, caution should be emphasized here since were are dealing with issues with very large ecological and social consequences. Summary for policy makers also seems to discuss, in practice non-existent, bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) as some independent technology while in the real report it is quite clearly mentioned in the context of geoengineering (quite rightly of course).
Here and there the report seems very confused about bioenergy and especially serious ecological or social damage assessment is largely missing. For example, in chapter 6 (table 6.7) only water use is mentioned as an adverse effect of bioenergy! Sometimes existence some risks are mentioned, but not in such a way as to identify what action in particular is risky and how it relates to current bioenergy practices. This gives me a feeling of CMA (cover my ass) type of activity. Without actually saying clearly what types of bioenergy schemes are counterproductive, what use is this? WGIII doesn’t say that US corn ethanol scheme would be stupid, or that maybe German biodiesel production is not the brightest of ideas, or that perhaps forestry practices in Scandinavia might leave something to be desired from climate and biodiversity perspective.
Or what do you think about this?
“Bioenergy can be deployed as solid, liquid and gaseous fuels to provide transport, electricity, and heat for a wide range of uses, including cooking, and depending on how and where implemented, can lead to either beneficial or undesirable consequences for climate change mitigation (robust evidence, high agreement)…Scientific debate about the marginal emissions of most bioenergy pathways, in particular around land‐mediated equilibrium effects (such as indirect landuse change), remains unresolved (robust evidence, high agreement)” WGIII Chapter 11
So basically they say that either bioenergy is a good idea or a bad idea and are happy to announce robust agreement on this. Then later on page 27 of Chapter 11 they say ” This assessment agrees on a technical bioenergy potential of around 100 EJ, and possibly 300 EJ and higher.” What am I supposed to learn from this? If IPCC is seriously proposing 300EJ they are irresponsibly deluded. In fact, the Figure 11.20 seems to suggest that there is high agreement only about the roughly 100EJ amount (technical potential). So why are those higher numbers so casually thrown around elsewhere in the report?
Between the lines you might perhaps be able to read something. WGIII mentions several times how bioenergy schemes on degraded lands could have multiple positive impacts, but what fraction of current bioenergy schemes fall into this category? If I guess that approximately 0%, am I wrong? WGIII doesn’t tell. Reading the report I get a feeling that unsustainable bioenergy practices would only be some speculative risks in the future rather than standard operating practice of most bioenergy schemes today. Since no bad practices are identified, everyone can declare unsustainable practices are things done by others. The effect can be de facto promotion of those unsustainable practices today by creating a narrative for sustainable practices in the future. Furthermore, the bioenergy scenarios WGIII presents as mitigation tools seem to be on such a massive scale that I do not believe degraded lands, waste streams etc. can ever provide more than than a very small fraction of the required biomass. See for example Fig 6.20 (below) from Chapter 6.
In scenarios roughly consistent with 2℃ goal (blue dots) we are supposed to get around 300 EJ of primary energy from bioenergy and most of it equipped with carbon capture and storage (BECCS). What does this mean? Well first of all, it might mean no climate benefits, since WGIII had an agreement that this is not understood. Only ecological and social damage seems guaranteed. Second, the primary productivity of terrestrial biosphere is apparently around 56.4 Gt C/yr which means that 300EJ would amount to around 20% of all primary productivity of the continents. This is not just geoengineering. It is geoengineering on steroids. Given that one of the main drivers of extinctions is the ever increasing share of primary productivity appropriated by Homo Sapiens the idea that this extra diversion might even have some biodiversity benefits (speculated about in Chapter 6) is preposterous. In chapter 6 WGIII also gives results with different amounts of negative emissions — either more than 20Gt CO2/year or less. That 20Gt is roughly consistent with the ridiculously large bioenergy production equipped with CCS. Having presented such idiocy as a possible solution WGIII says later in Chapter 11:
“Full GHG impacts, including those from feedbacks (e.g., iLUC) or leakage, are often difficult to determine (Searchinger et al., 2008). Feedbacks between GHG reduction and other important objectives such as provision of livelihoods and sufficient food or the maintenance of ecosystem services and biodiversity are not completely understood.”
Again, where is the precautionary principle when you actually need it? But let us get crazy and start thinking where we could produce that 300EJ. It amount to perhaps 10 Gt/year of carbon from the biosphere. Given that in most places where people live, they already appropriate outrageously large amount of primary productivity (see figure), we should head somewhere where our footprint isn’t quite so large.
If I have a look at the world map with primary productivity shown as well (see figure), it seems that most obvious choices are either northern wastelands, Amazon, or central Africa. Since things don’t grow that well in Siberia and there is hardly anyone there to do the work, we would be left with the unenviable task of terraforming rainforests into energy plantations. How much area would we need? With around 1kg C/m2 combined area of the Amazon rainforest and Congolian rainforest would not be quite enough. With synthetic fertilizers, irrigation etc. we could boost this, but how much energy does it take and where does the water come from? If you want to use degraded land, we will need more space since that land is presumably called degraded for a reason.
Many bioenergy schemes have a low energy return on energy invested (EROEI). In other words we spend a lot of energy in producing bioenergy compared to the amount of useful energy when the fuel is consumed. I was not entirely surprised to notice that the term EROEI did not seem to appear in the report. It is usually brushed aside since dealing seriously with it might rock the boat.
When it comes to bioenergy it must be kept in mind that large financial interests are at stake. Fossil fuel producers have not been too happy with climate science and we can rest assured that countries relying heavily on bioenergy and related schemes will not be happy if impacts of bioenergy are seriously evaluated. When WGIII report was released a high official from Finnish Ministry of employment and the economy declared that Finland can only reach 80-95% emissions reduction goal if bioenergy is counted as climate neutral. Notice that it is not a question if it really IS climate neutral, just that on paper it must be counted as such. I am certain that similar political pressures exist in many other countries on this issue. Also among environists (“enviromentalist without the mental part” Tom Blees) there has been a proliferation of renewables only energy “plans”. Most of them rely heavily on bioenergy and on assuming its beneficial climate impacts. These groups are unlikely to acknowledge easily that they got it wrong. If they do so they might have to rethink the role of nuclear power. However, opposing nuclear power is an identity issue for many environist and they will find it easier to live in denial about environmental and social impacts of bioenergy.