GUEST: Hansen’s Proposal to Replace Coal with Wood Is Ecologically Misguided
Amongst scientists, James Hansen [search] has long been one of the clearest voices for strong action against climate change including ending the use of coal [ark | search]. Yet now he advocates replacing coal with wood from vast tree plantations [ark | moreark], burning the wood and capturing and sequestering the carbon dioxide. It is saddening that such an ecologically short-sighted proposal comes from the man who rightly warns that we are already 'beyond safe levels' of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere. It is understandable that he and other scientists are looking at ways of reducing the fast increasing carbon dioxide (CO2) concentrations. Unfortunately, most of the proposals put forward for 'cooling the planet' involve either using vast amounts of energy for still unproven technologies (air capture of CO2) or, even more worryingly, sacrificing biodiversity and ecosystems.
Scientists who have developed the idea of using biomass power plants with carbon capture and storage in order to reduce atmospheric CO2 levels have made it clear that at least 500 million hectares of plantations would be required, which is over one and a half times the size of India. Replacing all coal burnt today with wood would require far more land and would almost certainly be impossible, although that may go beyond Hansen's proposal.
This month's unprecedented plantation forest fires across South Africa [ark] provide a glimpse of a possible future where vast industrial tree plantations combine with global warming: whilst monoculture plantations dry up the land and are prone to fires, climate change fans the flames by exacerbating droughts and heatwaves. This appears to be yet another instance where biofuel proposals are hastily being made that “reshape the Earth's landscape in a significant way” without reference to long-term unintended consequences [ark].
Hansen's proposals would increase the scale of today's monocultures for biofuels 20-25 fold. Small farmers, indigenous peoples and forest communities, who are already suffering most from the impacts of climate change, would undoubtedly be the first to pay the price for 'carbon negative' bioenergy through the loss of their land and livelihoods. Ironically the experience with biofuels should already have taught us that expanding monocultures is one of the quickest ways of making climate change worse.
Industrial monocultures [search] (crops and trees) are the main cause of tropical deforestation and emit further vast amounts of greenhouse gases through agro-chemical use and soil erosion. Already, there are 100 million hectares of industrial tree plantations, largely serving the pulp and paper industry, which have replaced natural ecosystems, including old growth forests as well as fertile farmland and pastures. They have decimated biodiversity, depleted groundwater, polluted large areas of land through agrichemical use, and eroded soil and destroyed the livelihoods of large numbers of people.
Clearly there is not enough wood globally to power the world, and further expansion of tree monocultures will ensure there is both no stable climate and no habitable planet. Rural communities in many parts of the world have found ways of growing, harvesting and using biomass sustainably to meet their own energy needs, but if we try to replace a significant proportion of fossil fuel use with biomass we risk greatly accelerating climate change and triggering ecosystem collapse. Large-scale bioenergy plantations are therefore not an alternative to coal burning and will not remove excess atmospheric CO2.
What we need is massive demand reduction by the wealthy together with truly sustainable wind and solar and other types of renewable energy. Throughout the planet's history, biodiverse ecosystems have stabilised the planet's climate. Rather than sacrificing them for bioenergy, truly effective protection and regeneration of ecosystems offers our only hope of survival.
Almuth Ernsting works with Biofuel Watch in the UK. EcoInternet is actively seeking writers of blogs, essays, releases and alerts; who are committed to knowing the depth of global ecological crises and working for implementation of ecologically sufficient solutions.