E.U. Agroenergy Policy: A Foreseeable Disaster

E.U. Agroenergy Policy: A Foreseeable Disaster

[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"109","attributes":{"alt":"","class":"media-image","height":"480","style":"height: 499px; margin-left: 7px; margin-right: 7px; float: left; width: 275px;","width":"353"}}]]In a misguided attempt to allegedly tackle runaway climate change, the European Union (E.U.) is implementing policy that would increase carbon dioxide emissions, displace native peoples, threaten public health, and degrade forests and watersheds.

A new report, A Foreseeable Disaster: The European Union’s agroenergy policies and the global land and water grab, demonstrates that schemes to convert plants and trees into electricity, liquid fuels, and heat, a.k.a. agroenergy or agromass, will do more harm than good.

The report, written by Helena Paul and published in July 2013 by Transnational Institute, Centre for Research and Documentation Chile-Latin America (FDCL), and Econexus for Hands off the Land Alliance, challenges an expansion of European agroenergy by “critically analysing the origins, claims, and effects of the European Union’s (EU) transition to a new bioeconomy.”

Agromass, a subset of biomass, consists of “so-called wastes and residues from agriculture and forestry (for example, waste products from oil palm plantations: oil palm shells, empty fruit bunches, palm fronds, trunks, palm kernel shells and mesocarp fibres).” Major components of agromass are wood chips and pellets—which utilize whole trees, treetops and limbs—grasses, agricultural crops and agricultural residues. Agromass can also include municipal solid waste and sewage.

An increasing number of European biomass facilities use agroliquids, “which are derived from many of the same crops as agrofuels for transport.” These agroliquids are used for co-firing with coal, or where “stations are designed to burn liquid fuel in diesel engines.”

Palm oil is currently the cheapest agroliquid available, which doesn’t account for the fact that palm oil extraction “causes grave damage to ecosystems and local communities.”

The E.U.’s push for burning more agromass and biomass was launched around the beginning of the new millennium, where “numerous mandates, targets, incentives, and other instruments [were] deployed across Member States’ transport, heating, electricity, and energy sectors to promote agrofuels and agromass agroenergy.”

A Foreseeable Disaster seeks to “dismantle the policy framework” for E.U. biomass by calling for an “immediate moratorium” on imports of agrofuels and agromass to Europe and on agromass plantations inside the EU.

The report also demands that bioenergy be disqualified as “renewable,” recommending an “overhaul” of the E.U.’s Renewable Energy and Fuel Quality directives. The Renewable Energy Directive (RED) mandates 20% “renewable” energy for the E.U. and 10% for member states by 2020, while the Fuel Quality Directive (FQD) allows biofuels to “count towards the greenhouse gas reduction target” and would increase blending of agrofuels with fossil fuels from 5% to 10%.

Report author Helena Paul also cautions that the E.U. government “look critically” at an expansion of domestic heating using a carbon-intensive, dwindling, and polluting resource such as agromass.

Instead of moving towards a powered-down, truly clean and sustainable renewable energy future, the bioeconomy proposed by the E.U. would instead plunder the natural world “to facilitate a market-based, technocentric response to unsustainable energy patterns.”

“The bioeconomy path also does not mean less reliance on fossil fuels, but is set to develop alongside their continuing use,” Paul argues, “with negative implications for the global South and for planetary resources of biomass overall.”

In place of promoting truly clean, renewable energy, “the EU is closing the door to genuine alternatives and much bolder policy decisions to reduce energy consumption and prioritise the exploration of a less energy dense development path for Europe.”

The report posits that the bioeconomy is “not really about replacing fossil resources, especially now in light of so much promotion of the potential contribution of unconventional fossil fuels (e.g., tar sands and fracking gas), but rather more concerned with supplementing fossil fuels.”

“The biorefinery does not signal the end of the oil refinery,” explains Paul, “but simply a diversification of the refinery concept.”

A Foreseeable Disaster makes short work of the supposed climate benefits of agroenergy, demonstrating that “most of the claims initially made for agroenergy as a truly renewable alternative to fossil fuels are flawed.” To the contrary, burning agromass for energy “actually causes an up-front spike in carbon emissions at exactly the time when we should be reducing them sharply.” Instead of helping to stave off runaway climate change, “agroenergy from agrofuel and agromass constitutes a dangerous diversion.”

If the goal is to reduce greenhouse gases, an expansion of agroenergy is counterproductive, the report concludes. Life cycle assessments that include the climate impacts of indirect land use show that burning agromass for energy is “generally worse than the fossil fuels they replace.” The Scientific Committee of the European Environment has stated that previous E.U. assumptions about biomass carbon neutrality are “based on a serious accounting error” and that replacing fossil fuels with bioenergy may “result in increased carbon emissions—thereby accelerating global warming.”

Further ignored in the carbon accounting are emissions from destroying and degrading “plants, mosses and related biomass including soils, that would otherwise have continued to absorb and sequester carbon,” with soils second only to oceans as global carbon sinks. The report offers the reminder that “forest clearance, plantation establishment, residue collection and harvesting all have a major impact on soils, non-wood agromass and forest biodiversity.”

The European Union only plans to obtain a portion of its agroenergy from member states. The rest is to be extracted and shipped from other countries, particularly North America, Russia and the global South, a throwback to the bad old days of European resource colonialism. “High levels of dependency on imported agrofuels” are slated to be in place by 2020, with Denmark expecting 100% dependency on imports, UK at 87.7%, Ireland at 70%, Greece at 67%, the Netherlands at 61.8% and Germany at 58.7%  

The European agroenergy expansion won’t only damage the climate and forests, but also human communities. The report explains that “the impacts of land grabbing for agrofuels on local communities are severe and difficult to reverse.” Lands that are leased or sold for agroenergy extraction are “often cleared of people immediately. Once divided from their land, people lose local varieties adapted to local conditions and related knowledge.”

Land grabbing has tremendous negative impacts on “agricultural biodiversity and related knowledge and practices as people are displaced.”

As a major driver of land grabbing, EU agroenergy policy is “contributing to both the escalation of old and generation of new violent conflicts over access to and control of land and water.”

Many agrofuels crops are considered invasive species, a 2011 report “highlighting the risks from a number of popular agrofuel crops, including reed canary grass, Napier grass and giant reed.” Many of the traits of desirable agrofuels crops, including needing little water or nutrients, are the same traits that constitute invasive species. Invasive plants cost the U.S. economy $34.5 billion annually.  

A Foreseeable Disaster touches on health impacts from biomass incineration, stating that “air pollution from agromass reduces air quality/life expectancy.”

Further, “spontaneous combustion and noxious fumes,” along with fires can result from storing biomass wood pellets, which has happened numerous times across the world.  

The report concludes that an “extremely power industrial lobby that includes the motor industry, the oil industry and the various energy industries” is the reason for the European Union’s agroenergy expansion, which explains why “so many sound arguments against agrofuels and agromass are being ignored, in spite of the mounting evidence.”