At the last global climate conference (UNFCCC-COP 23, Bonn 2017), tropical forest countries and others, including Indonesia and Brazil, jointly declared goals “to increase the use of wood … to generate energy as part of efforts to limit climate change”.
A whole deforestation industry has developed around a loophole in the Kyoto Agreement which allowed the burning of Biomass, (wood), to be classified as a “renewable” energy. ie – an emissions free source of energy.
According to the IPCC, a tree emits the same amount of carbon that it sequesters from the atmosphere when growing. A very easy calculation in Land Use Management when assessing deforestation, these amounts are NOT included in global carbon emissions totals as they are rated to have zero emissions, they are ‘accounted for’ under Land Use Emissions in the European Union Emissions Trading Scheme.
The European Union now openly states that 60% of it’s renewable energy comes from burning wood, countries who have “advanced” renewable energy reductions are those that have invested in Biomass energy production. U.K. Sweden, France Germany, Denmark and Finland, Norway and the U.S.A.
A study found that the annual smokestack emissions from biomass in the EU emission trading system (ETS) – where they are given a zero-rating – are between 90 and 150 million tonnes of CO2 (1)
Over 1 billion tonnes of CO2 emitted over the last 10 years completely unaccounted for. The scientific opinion though is quite clear, as expressed by 800 scientists and researchers in Biomass energy.
“overall, replacing fossil fuels with wood will likely result in 2-3x more carbon in the atmosphere in 2050 per gigajoule of final energy. Because the likely renewable alternative would be truly low carbon solar or wind, the plausible, net effect of the biomass provisions could be to turn a ~5% decrease in energy emissions by 2050 into increases of ~5–10% or even more”. (2)
Bioenergy is not carbon-neutral and can have seriously negative climate impacts. The combustion of forest biomass generally releases more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere than fossil fuels, because of the lower energy density and conversion efficiency of biomass (more has to be burnt relative to fossil fuels) (3)
Large-scale forest harvests have a climate warming effect for at least 20 to 35 years, said University of Helsinki climate and forest scientist Jaana Bäck, who noted that scores of evidence-based studies all say basically the same thing. “And if we look at the Paris targets, we are in critical times at the moment. We need to reduce emissions now, not in 50 or 100 years,” she said. (4)
A 2012 study by Synapse Energy Economics estimated that the average smokestack of a US biomass plant emitted about 1.67 tons of CO2 per megawatt-hour of electricity generated, or 50 to 85 percent greater than emissions from a coal-fired plant.
CO2 emissions from a biomass plant are more than triple the CO2 emissions from a natural gas facility.
The E.U. is more concerned with the “lobby” from Scandinavian countries who all support Biomass as “renewable energy”, which is IPCC approved. This “fraud” allows countries such as the U.K. to change from coal energy generation using existing facilities to a less potent, more polluting source (wood), and completely hides the emissions associated with economic growth.
This blatant fraud is nowhere better demonstrated than in the European “gem of Carbon Nuetrality”, Copenhagen lauding it’s anti climate strategy in their report to the C40’s Cities report recently.
“Most savings were achieved through increasing the share of green energy from biomass used in the city’s combined heat and power plants, and wind energy. Furthermore, the conversion of a power plant unit from coal to sustainable biomass is underway and is expected to be completed by the end of 2020”; (5)
Oslo, Norway’s “star” climate performer – 99% of the energy sources now consists of heat from the sewer system, recovered heat from waste, bioenergy (pellets and bio-oil) and electricity from hydro power. (5)
This gives countries the ability to prove “decoupling” is actually happening.
Decoupling economic growth from energy emissions
Decoupling economic growth from emissions generation is now the direction of all United Nations departments, and policies, including U.N.F.C.C.C. and I.P.C.C. “Green Growth” is locked into political strategy.
The European Union “fraud” of Biomass, whereby 60% of E.U. carbon emissions are simply ignored allows the advancement of the Myth of Decoupling.
The inclusion of consumption based carbon footprints rather than “territorial footprints”, (emissions produced within a City or country boundary), provided a shock, and a much truer picture of individual consumption habits was shown. This meant a doubling down on “circular economies”, zero waste, and of course more efficiency.
Green Growth is the nadir, and we can keep things exactly as they are under the illusion that emissions are reducing and “green” economic activity (GDP) continues at 2 – 3% p.a.
A study by the UN’s Department of Economic and Social Affairs points towards a 1.4 percent increase of energy-related carbon dioxide emissions in 2017 due to a combination of accelerated economic growth, relatively cheap fossil fuels and weak energy efficiency efforts.
“While recent evidence points to progress in decoupling emissions growth from GDP growth in some developed economies, it is still manifestly insufficient. The rate of global energy efficiency gains has been slowing since 2015, reaching 1.7 percent in 2017—half the rate required to remain on track with the Paris Agreement”, say the authors of the report ‘World Economic Situation and Prospects as of mid-2018.’ (6)
The authors of the report have no doubt realised this fallacy even more in 2018 when emissions increased to the previous “highs”, providing a 2.7% increase in emitted greenhouse gases from GDP “growth” to record levels.
Ever since the global total of emissions generation either side of the Paris 2015 conference “slowed” to 0.5% there has been over exaggerated optimism about “Decoupling” and how a technological basis to the “service” economy is the “key” to energy efficiency.
Even articles published in 2018 lauding Decoupling as fact, it is mainly based on territorial limits. The countries used as examples all “hide” emissions with Biomass, to a massive extent, AND do not include consumption based emissions, when included, the results are disastrous for Decoupling advocates, but that does not stop the headline.
Decoupling of emissions and incomes: It’s happening .
To account for the effects of globalisation, we make a distinction between production-based and consumption-based emissions, . . This does make some difference to our results and in the expected direction. The evidence for decoupling for the richer nations gets weaker, including for many European countries (France, Germany, Italy, and the UK). (7)
This is not a new debate but as Prof Tim Jackson points out, it is a MYTH.
“It’s vital here to distinguish between ‘relative’ and ‘absolute’ decoupling. Relative decoupling refers to a decline in the ecological intensity per unit of economic output.
Put very simply, relative decoupling is about doing more with less: more economic activity with less environmental damage; more goods and services with few resource inputs and fewer emissions.
Decoupling is about doing things more efficiently.
The global carbon intensity declined by almost a quarter from just over 1 kilogram of carbon dioxide per US dollar (kgCO2/$) in 1980 to 770 grams of carbon dioxide per US dollar (gCO2/$) in 2006
The situation in which resource impacts decline in absolute terms is called ‘absolute decoupling’. Needless to say, this latter situation is essential if economic activity is to remain within ecological limits.
Despite declining energy and carbon intensities carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels have increased by 80% since 1970. Emissions today are almost 40% higher than they were in 1990 and since the year 2000 they have been growing at over 3% per year.” (8).
This book was written in 2009, 10 years of worsening emissions and impacts the annual reductions are greatly amplified. It has taken a refining of emissions data, whereby “offshored emissions” from imported goods have finally been accredited to the country of use.
“An apparent reduction in emissions of 6% between 1990 and 2004, as reported under UNFCCC guidelines is turned into an 11% increase in emissions, once emissions embedded in trade are taken into account.
The message here is not that decoupling is unnecessary. On the contrary, absolute reductions in throughput are essential. The question is, how much is achievable? How much decoupling is technologically and economically viable?
The intractability of addressing both population and income has tended to reinforce the idea that only technology can save us. Knowing that efficiency is key to economic progress, it is tempting to place our faith in the possibility that we can push relative decoupling fast enough that it leads in the end to absolute decoupling. But just how feasible is this?
There is a convenient ‘rule of thumb’ to figure out when relative decoupling will lead to absolute decoupling. In a growing population with an increasing average income, absolute decoupling will occur when the rate of relative decoupling is greater than the rates of increase in population and income combined.
The IPCC’s Fourth Assessment report suggests that achieving a 450 ppm stabilisation target means getting global carbon dioxide emissions down to below 4 billion tonnes per annum by 2050 or soon after. This would be equivalent to reducing annual emissions at an average rate of 4.9% per year between now (2008) and 2050.
At an average population growth of 0.7% each year under business as usual conditions,
the decline in carbon intensity just about balances the growth in population and carbon emissions will end up growing at about the same rate as the average income – 1.4% a year. It might not sound much, but by 2050, under these assumptions, carbon emissions are 80% higher than they are today.
To achieve an average year-on-year reduction in emissions of 4.9% with 0.7% population growth and 1.4% income growth, – T (emissions intensity), has to improve by approximately 4.9 + 0.7 + 1.4 = 7% each year – almost ten times faster than it is doing right now.
By 2050 the average carbon content of economic output would need to be less than 40 gCO2/$, a 21-fold improvement on the current global average
Simple arithmetic hides stark choices. Are we really committed to eradicating poverty? Are we serious about reducing carbon emissions? Do we genuinely care about resource scarcity, deforestation, biodiversity loss?26 Or are we so blinded by conventional wisdom that we daren’t do the sums for fear of revealing the truth? (8)
Recent opinion again challenges the notion of “green growth” at a fundamental level,
The notion of green growth has emerged as a dominant policy response to climate change and ecological breakdown. Green growth theory asserts that continued economic expansion is compatible with our planet’s ecology, as technological change and substitution will allow us to absolutely decouple GDP growth from resource use and carbon emissions. This claim is now assumed in national and international policy, including in the Sustainable Development Goals. But empirical evidence on resource use and carbon emissions does not support green growth theory. Examining relevant studies on historical trends and model-based projections, we find that:
(1) there is no empirical evidence that absolute decoupling from resource use can be achieved on a global scale against a background of continued economic growth, and
(2) absolute decoupling from carbon emissions is highly unlikely to be achieved at a rate rapid enough to prevent global warming over 1.5°C or 2°C, even under optimistic policy conditions.
We conclude that green growth is likely to be a misguided objective, and that policymakers need to look toward alternative strategies.(9)
The truth of Biomass, the truth of decoupling, the truth of carbon offsets, “green growth” are fantasies. Having already been sold a fantasy with “Negative emissions technology” and the resulting pushback, the IPCC and E.U. needed “good news” stories. So these fantasies are pushed all the way down the “administrative chain of command” through national and regional governments, down to local government level where they are often a “trusted voice”.
(1) Reasons to change the zero-rated criteria for biomass in the EU ETS March 2015
(3) Open Letter to E.U. from 800 scientists and researchers. £Scientific Basis of E.U. Climate Policy on Forests” Sept 2017.
(8) Prof Tim Jackson, “Prosperity Without Growth” 2009.
(9) Abstract, “Is Green Growth Possible?” – Jason Hickel, Giorgos Kallis April 2019.