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COP23 SERIES – HOW CAN BIOMASS COMBAT CLIMATE CHANGE?

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Considering the finite and polluting effect of fossil fuels together with a boundless energy demand, the world has started the shift towards alternative and cleaner resources of energy. Several countries in Europe have already achieved amazing results. However, the global shift towards cleaner energy is still an issue. Even though new markets for renewable energy are emerging in all regions, many would still argue the situation is far behind the optimal scenario on a global level.

Unfortunately, alternatives face tough challenges such as integration of rising shares of renewable generation, policy and political instability, regulatory barriers and fiscal constraints (REN21, 2016). However, this is probably the most challenging equation that the human species needs to balance although a viable solution may have been found…in the form of biomass energy generation.

Hawken (2017) states, “It is a “bridge” solution from the status quo to desired state – imperfect, riddled with cave-arts, and probably necessary. Necessary because biomass energy can produce electricity on demand, helping the grid meet predictable changes in load and complementing variable sources of power, like wind and solar (p.16).

According to Hawken (2017), biomass with its potential can be that needed stop sign for carbon emissions in order to gain the momentum for the wind and solar to become fully engaged. Sounds perfect? It almost does, but there is a big “however”. Even though biomass is often times labeled as a green fuel, this statement may be a wishful thinking, especially when the energy demanding crops are being used for production. The carbon savings are usually gained only after blending with gasoline resulting into cca 0.89 kg of CO2 per gallon (HCS, 2014). Biomass, if not produced sustainably, faces controversial issues such as deforestation, groundwater depletion, and soil erosion. Optimally, the feedstock for biomass should be:

1) short-rotation woody crops that can be harvested for a longer period of time before replanting is needed (Hawken, 2017)

2) following sustainable forestry system – invasive species extraction from the forests as a source of biomass (Hawken, 2017).

Developing world versus developed world:
According to IEA, in 2016 biomass energy generation in Africa (North Africa + Sub-Saharan Africa) covered 69 % of the population, 33 % in China, and 63 % in India.

The use of biomass in developing and developed world, obviously, serves a different purpose. While biomass is big in developing world mainly for powering the households, the developed countries focus on biofuels production and turbines powered systems.
The top five producers of biodiesel:

1) USA,
2) Brazil,
3) Germany,
4) Argentina,
5) France (REN21, 2016).

The top five producers of fuel ethanol production:

1) USA,
2) Brazil,
3) China,
4) Canada,
5) Thailand (REN21, 2016).

Bio-power generation:

1) USA,
2) China,
3) Germany,
4) Brazil,
5) Japan (REN21, 2016).

The trend in the developed and developing world seems to be steadily increasing with a remarkable growth in the use of heating in the Baltic and Eastern European regions (REN21, 2016). The use of bio-power has increased even more rapidly – 8% annually – where the fast growth in generation is well observable especially in China, Japan, Germany, and the United Kingdom (REN21, 2016).

While many reports and studies focus strictly on numbers and predictions, the potential character of biomass as a missing piece in the complex puzzle is getting lost. However, as mentioned earlier, Paul Hawken comes with very interesting perspective. As Hawken (2017) smartly summarized, biomass, if sustainably regulated and managed, serves only as a bridge to the clean energy shift, it is not the destination. A bridge that could carry 7.5 gigatons of carbon dioxide emissions before we fully engage the alternatives (Hawken, 2017).

References:

Hawken, P. (2017). Drawdown the most comprehensive plan ever proposed to reverse global warming. Penguin Books.
HSC (2014). A cost and benefit, case study analysis of biofuels systems. Retrieved from: http://www.hcs.harvard.edu/~res/2014/05/a-cost-and-benefit-case-study-analysis-of-biofuels-systems/
IEA. World Energy Outlook (2016). Retrieved from: http://www.worldenergyoutlook.org/resources/energydevelopment/energyaccessdatabase/
Image 1 credits: Inhabitat.com (2017). Retrieved from: http://inhabitat.com/cambridge-scientists-use-light-and-plants-to-make-cheap-clean-hydrogen/
Renewable Energy Policy Network for the 21st Century (2016). Retrieved from: www.ren21.net/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/GSR_2016_Full_Report.pdf

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