GUEST: Hansen’s Proposal to Replace Coal with Wood Is Ecologically Misguided

Is there really enough wood to power the world?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.

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9 Responses

  1. Anonymous says:

    Nice piece! I sure hope to see more of your writings here.

  2. Rita says:

    I found an interesting article on global warming caused by Kangoroos. Australia is urging people to eat Kangaroos to reduce global warming. Check this out:-

  3. David Moore says:

    I would lie to see a real description of what Hansen proposed. I agree that wood is better than coal. Wood has neglible sulfur emissions. Wood production does not scour the earth or send miners underground. Wood is available in more locations saving transportation.
    I would start burining waste construction wood, broken pallet materials from materials transportation and waste mixed paper. Also thinnings and tops from existing commercial logging and diseased wood and blowdowns after hurricanes. Start where supplies of suitable fuels are large and cheap and close to point of use. Bring back more water transportation of wood and less low efficiency log trucking.
    Convert some farmland to mixed use forest to simultaneously store carbon, produce limtied fuel supplies, purify water and provide recreation and wildlife habitat. Reclaim the American dreamtime where a squirrel could jump from treetop to treetop from the Atlantic to the Missippi river.

  4. Chris says:

    The National Wildlife Federation recently finished a send-a-letter-to-the-EPA widget and Facebook application that sends an official message to the Environmental Protection Agency urging them to recognize the impact greenhouse gases are having on our planet. We're trying to drum-up up some support for their cause. Add the app and send a message to the EPA!! Thanks so much!
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  5. Greenomite says:

    Do we have to be burning something? I mean, can we just try to take burning out of the equation?
    Change the way you live. Begin a phased withdrawal on catastrophic climate change.

  6. Patrick Troup says:

    Bravo, a wonderfully written piece.
    Resolving the issues at hand and creating a future that is prosperous for all life will require us all ultimately partakgin in very large scale changes in our personal and socitetal lives.
    Let this great movement rise and benefit all.
    Thanks for the wonderful articles. I check the site everyday to see if new essays have been posted.
    Thanks and take care

  7. Iip says:

    I agree that globally wood is not enough to generate power. But we may consider some exceptions for remote areas where only wood are available for power.

  8. phill Parsons says:

    Industrial wood burning for energy was replaced by coal because the demands for wood were putting pressure on supply.
    Coal fuelled other expansions too as the available water became insufficient to run the early industrial mills of England, home of the industrial revolution.
    Exploiting water power has its limits with the sites for mega dams conflicting with natue conservation and now their ability to fill falling due to cliamte change, although they are far from met.
    Many low head power stations could be installed on rivers complete with small fish ladders, harvesting water whilst it flows by.
    The developments in solar are huge and wide ranging. They include baseload through daytime storage.
    Wind has hardly been scratched and wave is just coming into use.
    There are no doubt many issues with scale and siting of these alternatives.
    The least impacting from that perspective appears to be solar as it can reduce transmission losses by co-locating with use points.
    Trigeneration from combined heat and power in London shows how with a will the demands on coal fired energy can be reduced by the scales needed in the near term to avoid further dangerous climate instability.
    Wood may provide a small contribution such as powring wood processing, something from the steam age for those who remember the world of belts at sawmill.
    But wood, for all its benefits inluding as a renewable fuel cannot meet global demand or even meet the demands of an industiralized country.
    And why would you bother to put a carbon capture and storage system [CCS] on a wood fired mill instead of bolting it onto a coal fired one.
    Tree plantations may pay a role in soaking up carbon from the atmosphere , a biological CCS.
    Forests already do that and a cessation in their degradation and destruction would see a huge rise in CCS without much investment.
    Currently the rules governing carbon trading prohibit the forests in Austrlaia forom being traded as carbon stores.
    The forestry lobby, including the multinational consulting fim Jaacko Poyry were heavily involved in ensuring this particular abomination.
    Instead you can only trade the carbon from a post 1990 planting thus causing the compete foolery of carbon release through forest destruction being supposedly replaced by plantations that cannot do the volume of work forests do in BioCCS.
    It makes the current rules governing bioCCs under Kyoto a sad joke.
    If they continue into the second round and forests are destroyed and degrade you can be sure that catastrophe will be the ultimate reult as for all their good words the signatories do not understand the inevitability of the laws of physics and chemistry and remain in a politico-ecomnomic denial of the outcome.

  9. Baby Earth says:

    We need technologies that get us releasing energy from wood in more efficient ways, taking heat from the chimney etc etc

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