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Gobal emissions and biofuels

Thursday, October 09, 2014, Dean Satchell's blog

Global emissions of carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels and cement production grew 2.3 percent to a record high of 36 billion tonnes CO2 in 2013. CSIRO's Dr Pep Canadell, Executive-Director of the Global Carbon Project (GCP) and co-author of a 2014 report said the carbon dioxide level was "unprecedented in human history". Even more concerning, global CO2 emissions from fossil fuel carbon dioxide emissions are projected to increase a further 2.5 per cent this year. Just to put this in context, it was agreed 25 years ago at the first Earth Summit at Rio, Brazil, that a global effort was required to control our carbon emissions.

Meanwhile Indonesia’s deforestation rate has become the world’s highest. The Nature Climate Change journal reported that Indonesia lost 840,000 hectares of natural forest in 2012, compared with 460,000 hectares in Brazil, even though Indonesia’s forest is a quarter of the size of the Amazon rainforest.

Potentially making matters worse, the rate of forest loss in Indonesia is twice the rate reported by the Indonesian government. According to Greenpeace, the destruction of forests is being driven by the unrestrained expansion of the palm oil and pulp and paper industries. The study warned that developers are increasingly turning to Indonesia’s carbon-rich wetlands. “Tropical rainforests are one of the world’s richest carbon sinks, and peatlands are many times more powerful carbon sinks,” Tropical forest advocate Glenn Hurowitz told Scientific American. “It’s the height of insanity, desperation or greed to destroy a peatland rainforest.”

And then I read that Russia is running out of forest because nobody wants to invest in the future of the resource - it's effectively being mined.

No doubt in my mind that it's all about greed. However, it's also about consumption, and demand. As our population incessantly grows, the productive land surface available per human declines. We need energy, and we need raw materials and we need food. Rainforest simply isn't as productive as palm oil or pulpwood plantations. The real "cost" of our fossil energy doesn't come into the equation.

So how does deforestation relate with fossil fuel consumption and how does this all fit in with growing trees? Deforestation implies wastage of the biomass byproduct from forests. Slash and burn - take the cream off the top, burn the rest and then change land use, just like what we did here in New Zealand 100 years ago. For me the relationship is simple, as is the solution. I'll give you a hint. The key question to ask is "When we can expect biofuels to become competitive with fossil fuels?"

Sandra Velarde, an economist at Scion, is studying growing trees for bioenergy. Her studies show that at present this doesn't make economic sense. However, under scenarios that increase the price of oil by more than 20%, bioenergy may be economically viable. I viewed a presentation she held recently where she was saying that we need to plan for it because although bioenergy will become competitive, the opportunity will be mostly lost if we just wait for something to happen. However, I'd suggest that planning for such a plantation resource and industry is far more dependent on policies than market forces. Having sound government policies in place is what is required to give the right market signals that would drive planning a resource with an industry behind it.

Bioenergy has much to offer the world. CSIRO research describes bioenergy as potentially contributing 20% of Australia's electricity generation and 30-40% of its liquid fuel needs by 2020. The MPI funded Stump to Pump programme here in New Zealand has just released its report which has vastly improved our technical understanding around producing biofuels from forestry waste. However, applying these findings requires stronger market signals than provided in the current "do nothing and leave it to the market" scenario offered by our National government.

Seems to me that with so much at stake it really shouldn't be political suicide to take on the required transformation of NZ to a biological economy where forestry biomass is competitive with oil, coal and gas. All that is required is lumping a 20% tax on fossil fuels. Such a simple measure, yet this would transform the forest industry without any of the complications and inefficiencies of our emissions trading scheme, which accounts for all sources and sinks, biological and fossil together. The impact on our economy would be negligible and most likely positive because we wouldn't be importing as much of the black stuff. And everybody would understand it.

Globally this simple measure would go a long way towards dealing with deforestation by creating sufficient value out of forests to incentivise sustainable management . It would also transform the renewable energy industry, which could then stake its claim for a real market share of the energy industry, directly reducing fossil emissions - the ones that really count. Unfortunatly the renewable energy solution to fossil emissions is lost in "measures" that mix fossil emissions up with deforestation and belching cows, creating a confusing and complicated nightmare that nobody wants to buy into.

Back to deforestation. Its obvious to me that land-use intensification, deforestation, land use change, resource depletion and all the problems associated with these are actually population issues and need to be dealt on that basis, not lumped together with energy and fossil carbon emissions. So why is it not obvious to the policy makers that it's actually population control that is the most important issue facing mankind?

My last question is political. Would you support an increase in fossil fuel prices to the level required for renewable energy (such as bioenergy from wood) to be competitive with fossil fuels? I ask you, would the pain really be too much to bear?

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Disclaimer: Personal views expressed in this blog are those of the writers and do not necessarily represent those of the NZ Farm Forestry Association.

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