Carbon Emissions from Trees Missed: A Biomass Power Boom in East Asia

The European Union and the United Kingdom are increasing the controversial burning of wood fuels for electricity and heat, as they comply with legal mandates to phase out the use of coal fuels. But because of this practice, the carbon dioxide that comes out of the chimneys doesn’t count as emissions and is arguably polluting the air.

At present, two large industrial nations on the other side of the globe are following in Europe’s footsteps. However, these are rarely reported in the media.

Japan and South Korea are the world’s third and tenth-largest industrial countries, respectively. Both countries have taken advantage of loopholes in UN resolutions, just as the EU and the UK have considered biomass power generation to be renewable energy on the same level as solar and wind power, making greenhouse gases emitted from biomass power generation carbon-neutral. From 2021, we have significantly increased the use of wood fuel for power generation.

The result is that greenhouse gas emissions are underestimated, at least on paper, to ensure emissions meet the Paris Agreement emissions targets. Both Japan and South Korea have set goals of achieving zero carbon by 2050. This is the same target as the EU and the UK.

Growing burden on forests

Growing reliance on biomass power generation in both the East and West is driving up demand for wood pellets, putting pressure on native forests in the southeastern United States, western Canada, and eastern Europe. Experts say this demand will drive similar deforestation in Southeast Asia, particularly Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia.

Japan’s demand for wood pellets will rise from 500,000 tons in 2017 to 9 million tons annually by 2027, according to the Environmental Paper Network, an international group of activists investigating biomass use . South Korea will increase from 2.4 million tons in 2017 to 8.2 million tons per year by 2027. Combined demand in both countries will approach the projected future demand in the EU and the UK.

According to the Seoul-based NGO Solutions For Our Climate (SFOC), government subsidies for biomass power development are very generous in South Korea, reducing investment in renewable energy sources such as solar and wind power. It is said that it is about.

Meanwhile, Tim Searchinger of the World Resources Institute said in a presentation to Japanese environmental activists, “All of Virginia’s forests would need to be depleted to meet the proposed demand for wood pellets in Japan.” said in. Worse still for forests, his research found that “if we were to provide 2% of the world’s primary energy from wood, we would need twice as many trees as commercially planted on the planet.” showing. Searchinger bases the 2% forecast on current demand growth projections.

This trend is rather driven by the belief not to burden the forests of each country. At the United Nations Earth Summit in Glasgow last November, more than 100 countries agreed to globally reduce deforestation as a fundamental mitigation measure for climate change. However, the lack of legal obligations leaves much room for commercial harvesting to supply the wood pellet industry.

Commenting on the Glasgow deal, Cyril Kormos of the US NGO Wild Heritage said: “We can’t promise to protect the world’s forests while clearing millions of hectares of irreplaceable old-growth forest each year. No.”

Controversial conduct and policies

The use of wood for warmth and cooking in homes and communities has been a common practice around the world since humans learned to use fire. But for years, conservationists have argued that the use of wood for power generation on a commercial scale, which was virtually non-existent just a decade ago, would undermine the effectiveness of measures to combat climate change. It is said that there are many problems facing the environment. Examples include further deforestation, increased carbon emissions, reduced carbon storage capacity, and negative impacts on ecosystems.

However, commercial scale burning of compressed wood pellets and wood pellets is on the rise. The EU, currently the world’s largest wood pellet market, will consume 31 million tons of wood pellets in 2020 This represents a 7% increase from 2018 consumption of 29 million tonnes. A study by the Environmental Paper Network found that the EU and the UK together have more than 100 biomass power plants in operation for power generation and heat utilization.

The billionaire wood pellet industry claims to use waste wood — wood waste, branches, tree tops, and trees dead from pests and disease — to produce pellets. . But conservationists have closely monitored the industry, and international biomass companies like Enviva cut at least half of their wood pellet production by cutting whole trees from primary forests and plantations. This indicates that the area is covered by cutting down the entire area. They would also lead to a significant underestimation of greenhouse gas emissions.

However, because of forests’ ability to regenerate, policy makers see them as a source of renewable energy. In fact, the origin of wood pellet production on a commercial scale dates back to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. Based on the scientific knowledge of the time, the UN document stipulates that woody biomass is a zero-carbon “renewable energy” source similar to solar and wind power.

At the time, this theory was refuted by a number of scientific reports, but posited that the carbon emitted by burning wood was quickly offset by existing forests and plantations. By making wood burning carbon-neutral and not counting emissions from burning wood pellets in a country’s emissions, the Kyoto Protocol created what forest conservationists say is a computational loophole. It was.

Carbon neutrality is possible, but only over the long term, says John Sterman, a biomass expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He estimates that it would take 44 to 104 years for the carbon released today by burning wood pellets to be absorbed again by new trees. This is only if the trees are planted and can survive for a long time and are not destroyed by forest fires, disease or insects.

But we don’t have that kind of time left. According to the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) , the world’s industrialized nations will have to do more than they have in the past eight years to prevent the rapid worsening of the global climate crisis we foresee today. We estimate that we will need to reduce our carbon emissions by as much as possible.

In a 2009 commentary in Scuebce magazine, Searchinger pointed out the miscounting, believing that policymakers would ensure an accurate method of calculating carbon emissions. But the EU and UK have legal obligations to reduce fossil fuel use by 2030, so they stick to the Kyoto Protocol’s definition of carbon neutral, offering millions of annual subsidies to move coal out of the commercial market. We are trying to switch to using wood fuel on a large scale.

“Once a miscounting happens, you never know where the uncounted carbon goes,” Searchinger told us. “This is the truth about biomass fuels used for power generation. It is given, and that is the problem.”

To make matters worse, wood fuels have a lower energy density than coal, so they emit more carbon per unit of energy than coal, which has a higher carbon density.

“The increasing use of wood fuel as a substitute for coal is actually increasing emissions by trying to reduce chimney emissions,” said Peg Putt, director of Australia’s Environmental Paper Network. “Also, when wood fuel is produced and burned from natural forests, the forests have reduced carbon stocks, reducing their ability to store carbon during a critical period to drive emissions reductions between now and 2050. It will be a loss.”

Japan’s biomass power generation brought about by the tsunami

“Japan’s interest in biomass power generation was sparked by a single event: the 2011 Fukushima nuclear power plant accident,” says a Tokyo-based NGO. Roger Smith of Mighty Earth . The tsunami generated by the magnitude 9.1 earthquake caused a meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear power plant, spurring rolling blackouts and the consumption of fossil fuels to cover energy supplies.

At that time, the movement to subsidize biomass power generation in the EU was gaining momentum, and a method called co-firing, in which wood pellets and coal were burned at the same time, was being practiced. They said they were gradually reducing their carbon footprint. Japan followed suit and started subsidizing renewable energy, including biomass power generation, in 2012. Biomass organic sources range from agricultural waste to biofuels made from corn and soybeans. Still, woody biomass (wood pellets made primarily from felled trees) is the most troubling for foresters and climate change activists. It is something that can be done.

“The Japanese government has not considered all the steps necessary to build a biomass power plant,” Smith said. “For example, we have to refuel for a long time. We have to implement emissions policies to mitigate rather than exacerbate climate change. None of this was done in 2012. .”

Five years after the Fukushima disaster, the Japanese government began investing in solar power, but at the same time was promoting the use of existing thermal power plants that co-fire coal with imported wood pellets and palm kernel shells. Over the past few years, the Japanese government has promoted the use of wood pellets and palm kernel shells to replace or reduce carbon emissions from coal used in thermal power plants by co-firing.

According to Smith, “Once the Japanese government or Japanese companies start something, they tend to stick with it and make iterative improvements.” They’re putting a lot of capital into the status quo of using centralized baseload power plants using natural gas, oil, and that’s what makes biomass power so attractive to them.”

However, there has been a slight change in Japan’s attitude toward biomass power generation. According to Smith, Japanese policymakers feel arguably that biomass power is not the solution to climate change as they once envisioned.

Also last month, it introduced the Life Cycle Greenhouse Gas Emissions Assessment Standard, which limits future biomass power expansion. However, this does not apply to at least 34 biomass power plants over 50 MW across the country.

Perspective of the Japanese government

We interviewed the Japanese government in April to confirm that the government is looking to deepen its use of wood pellets, leaving behind the few restrictions it currently imposes.

An official of the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry’s Agency for Natural Resources and Energy, who requested anonymity, said, “Unlike solar power and wind power, biomass is a renewable resource that can provide a stable supply of electricity regardless of the weather.” Told.

The official also said, “Biomass power generation will become increasingly important in order to achieve the government’s goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 46% by 2030. We want to be sustainably supplied, so we want to increase domestic production of cedars and cypresses, which are fast-growing and can produce pellets in a 10-year cycle.”

In addition, the official said land that was previously planted for biomass should be replanted, but scientists say it takes decades for carbon to be incorporated into growing trees. Therefore, climate change will have some impact.

In April 2022, the Japanese government will apply a 70% reduction in lifecycle greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to newly approved biomass power generation by 2030, in accordance with the recommendations of the Biomass Sustainability Working Group. established a standard for

However, it will not apply to the existing 34 reactors. As a result, according to Smith, it would clearly not actually reduce the amount of biomass fuel currently in use. He added that “few new biomass power plants have been approved in recent years.” Given that Japan currently has only about three biomass power plants in the planning stages, Smith said the challenge for NGOs is to get existing biomass power plants to apply the new rules.

Not everyone has this kind of thinking that prevails in Japan. Seiji Hashimoto, a professor at Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto and a member of the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry’s (METI) Biomass Sustainability Working Group, is very skeptical about claims that biomass is carbon-neutral. Many scientific studies subscribe to the theory that the ‘repayment’ of carbon emitted from burning biomass will take decades.

Professor Hashimoto told the journal, “The reason biomass is not carbon neutral is simply because it is biomass. In order to do so, it is important not to emit the carbon stocked in biomass, and if possible, stocks should be increased.”

However, Smith believes that Hashimoto’s idea that Japan can meet demand for wood pellets while simultaneously increasing the carbon storage capacity of forests is not realistic.

South Korea’s biomass trajectory

The tsunami was not the catalyst for South Korea to adopt biomass in 2021. Industrial giants simply learned from the EU and the UK and incorporated them into their renewable energy share standard systems. Similar to Europe, there is a generous subsidy system for biomass, called Renewable Energy Supply Certificates (RECs).

According to Soojin Kim, former senior researcher at South Korean NGO Solutions For Our Climate, South Korean businesses must get 6% of their electricity from renewable sources. Since RECs can be tracked in the market, companies can choose to meet the criteria or trade.

“Biomass is getting more attention because it’s included in the renewable energy share standard system,” Kim said. As such, “especially for coal-fired power plants, existing facilities can burn biomass without investing in new renewable energy sources.”

According to the Environmental Paper Network, South Korea currently has 17 biomass power plants in operation, some of which are co-firing with coal. In addition, three are under construction and one is in the planning stage. Solutions For Our Climate reports that hourly biomass power generation in South Korea increased 61-fold from 2012 (106,000 MWh) to 2018 (6.49 million MWh). During the second half of this period, South Korea imported 3.4 million tons of wood pellets. Only the United Kingdom and Denmark import more than this.

“Biomass threatens South Korea’s renewable energy sector and undermines global efforts to reduce greenhouse gases,” the report, co-authored with Kim, says.

The South Korean government declined to comment. Government scientists say young trees can absorb more carbon than older trees. Therefore, cutting down old trees is a good climate mitigation strategy, he said.

This claim runs counter to what forest ecologists have long argued that the older and larger the trees, the greater their ability to capture and store carbon. Every time an old tree is burned, it releases into the atmosphere carbon that has been stored for decades, even centuries.

A week before the United Nations Organization Summit in Glasgow in 2021, 12 NGOs from Japan and South Korea jointly wrote a letter to the Prime Minister of Japan and the President of South Korea. They criticize the increased use of biomass and subsidies. They summarized the widely accepted but scientifically dubious scientific knowledge that burning trees is carbon neutral and criticized biomass policies that exacerbate the global climate crisis. .

They urge governments to modify policies to protect the world’s forests, reduce emissions of renewable energy in the near future, and increase transparency to ensure that the biomass burning that is already taking place is sustainable. It calls for the establishment of laws and ordinances that

They urge governments to modify policies to protect the world’s forests, reduce emissions of renewable energy in the near future, and increase transparency to ensure that the biomass burning that is already taking place is sustainable. It calls for the establishment of laws and ordinances that

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