Renewable Energy : Why the Definition Needs to be Revised

This article by Almuth Ernsting, European Focal Point of the Global Forest Coalition and Co-director of Biofuelwatch is part of the Wikiprogress Environment Series.

Climate change mitigation and sustainability are the key rationales for increasing the share of renewable energy.  Yet definitions of renewable energy used by policy-makers are so broad that subsidy regimes and other policies to promote renewable energy are able to result in highly negative climate, environmental and human impacts. 
According to the International Energy Agency, renewable energy is “derived from natural processes…that are replenished at a faster rate than they are consumed”.  In reality, North America’s and Europe’s renewable energy policies are heavily focused on large-scale wood combustion for electricity and heat – which depends on increased logging and the expansion of monoculture tree plantations – and on greater use of transport biofuels. 
The fact that soils, freshwater, and ecosystems are being destroyed rather than replenished in this process is ignored. Also overlooked is the growing volume of evidence that industrial bioenergy – both biomass combustion and transport biofuels – commonly cause more greenhouse gas emissions than the fossil fuels they might replace. A growing volume of peer-reviewed studies documents the scale of those emissions, which result from indirect land-use change, increased fertiliser use and other causes.
In the US, bioenergy accounts for 44% of all energy classed as renewable – more than any other technology.  The US Energy Information Administration expects its share to grow much faster than that of the renewables sector overall until 2040.  In Canada, the share of bioenergy amongst ‘renewables’ is surpassed only by that of large-scale hydropower.
In the EU, according to Member States’ 2010 renewable energy plans, bioenergy would have a 54.5% share of the 2020 renewable energy target. Most of this would come from burning 80-100 million tonnes of wood a year.  This is likely to be an underestimate:  in the UK alone, companies have announced power station plans which would require around 90 million tonnes of wood annually – nine times as much as the country produces.
The result of these ‘renewable energy policies’ is a massively increased demand for wood, vegetable oil, cereals and, crucially, for land.  Biofuels still only account for 3% of global transport fuel, yet, according to a report by the International Land Coalition, they were responsible for 59% of all land-grabs between 2000 and 2010.  By pushing up the price of cereals and vegetable oils, they have led both to greater hunger and malnutrition, and to the increased destruction of forests and other ecosystems – including peatlands – for palm oil, soy and other plantations. 
Those impacts are being intensified with the rush towards industrial wood-based bioenergy. In the longer term, industry and governments expect much of the wood for EU power stations to come from new tree plantations in South America and Africa, threatening yet more land-grabs and ecosystem destruction. The demand for land for tree monocultures also exacerbates shortages of land for food production and causes rural depopulation further compromising national food sovereignty (see: Women, Indigenous Peoples, pastoralists and small farmers – particularly those without formal land titles – suffer most from these land grabs and from the resulting food shortages, as well as from associated water depletion and ‘water grabs’.
In response to growing awareness of the harms resulting from bioenergy, industry and governments are developing ‘sustainability standards’.  However, these ignore the fact that deforestation and forest degradation, as well as other impacts, are primarily driven by excessive demand for wood and agricultural products.  A study published in Science projected that climate change mitigation policies, which tackle only fossil fuels and ignore the wider land-impacts of bioenergy, could lead to the destruction of all remaining forests, grasslands and most other ecosystems worldwide by 2065. Another study has shown that, even if bioenergy sustainability standards were enforced worldwide and bioenergy expansion relied on agricultural intensification, sub-Saharan Africa would lose 38% of its forests and wooded savannah and large amounts of grassland, while Latin America would lose 20% of its forests and savannah.
Given the volume of evidence of the serious negative impacts that industrial biofuels and large-scale biomass have on climate, forests, biodiversity, soil, water, and people, including them in the ‘renewable energy’ definition can no longer be justified.
Almuth Ernsting,
Almuth Ernsting is European Focal Point of the Global Forest Coalition and Co-director of Biofuelwatch.

This article first appeared in the Outreach Magazine 

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