Biomass is an increasingly important energy source, but the biomass boom also poses a threat to the environment as well as to food security.
Along with solar, wind and hydropower, biomass is considered to be among the world’s most important eco-friendly sources of energy. Plant and corn scraps can be turned into biodiesel, and wood is converted into heat and electricity. But biomass is nevertheless a controversial alternative. Fields once home to food crops or to thick, dense forests, are now being razed to make way for cultivating biomass plants. We spoke with Volker Lanz from the German Biomass Research Center in Leipzig about the biomass boom.
Global Ideas: Is generating energy from biomass good or bad?
Volker Lenz: In Germany, nearly 75 percent of all renewable energy can be traced back to biomass. Wood waste makes up a large share of the biomass mix with biogas and biofuels also playing a role. The question is not if biomass is used, but how. The topic has become increasingly controversial, as it should. Scientific research on the issue has also made significant progress. For example, we know corn bleaches the soil, so it is important to make sure it is cultivated appropriately – namely, by planting other crops between corn harvests to preserve the soil quality.
Another relevant point concerns wealthy countries like Germany. If they increasingly shift their renewable energy production to biomass, they should also be aware of the burden that puts on developing countries who export biomass. If sustainability criteria aren’t heeded, then those export nations can face a squeeze on their food supplies. Finally, that can become a battle of food-versus-fuel. That means biomass plant cultivation can take over fields that are needed to grow food crops.
According to the Spanish NGO Grain, around 50 percent of all global greenhouse gas emissions are caused by food production. Up to 15 percent of those harmful greenhouse gases are produced during planting and harvesting. What’s more, food crop cultivation is encroaching on precious forest land, and those arable fields are responsible for 15 to 18 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. The remaining emissions are generated through transporting, processing, packaging, storing and cooling foodstuffs.
In Germany, energy giant Vattenfall is planning to run biomass plants that will need more wood than the region can supply, and the company is planning to import timber from Liberia. Doesn’t that cancel out any environmental advantage you may gain from biomass?
Transporting the wood via ship is not that costly for the environment. So the journey from Liberia to Germany is manageable. But – looking at Germany’s own wood potential - if Germany wants to massively ramp up its biomass production, it will only be able to do so through imports. But it’s important to make sure the countries exporting biomass are abiding by sustainability standards.
How do you define those 'sustainability standards?'
Depleting our rainforests for biomass is not the answer. Soil quality can’t be exhausted, and our water resources shouldn’t be overtaxed. And you have to take social factors into account too – that you don’t support low-wage or child labor in places where biomass plants are produced, and that you don’t strip the people of their only source of wood.
The head of Friends of the Earth Liberia, Silas Siakor, has criticized that his country will run out of wood if it’s exported to heat homes in Europe. What do you make of that?
It’s essentially a problem that faces most developing countries. Instead of using industrially produced charcoal for cooking, they use the kind that is produced by very inefficient charcoal burners that are very damaging to the environment.
Would it make sense to find alternative sources of energy for Liberians, like solar cookers?
We can’t just provide every person there with a solar cooker. It’s important to show people how to make the cookers and maintain them. That in turn would free up more wood without destroying or depleting the natural environment. And if you have fair prices that create a sense of value in the exporting countries on top of that, wood trade would become like any other import – such as exotic fruits - at fair prices.
According to Oliver De Schutter, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, defining what is cultivable land is a problem in itself. "According to estimates by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), there are four hundred million hectares of cultivable land, and approximately two hundred million of that land is found in Sub-Saharan Africa," said De Schutter. "But the problem is, land is designated as cultivable when there are less than 25 residents per square kilometer. So in reality, that land is actually used by small farmers or herdsmen who often don’t have a title to ownership, even though they depend on it to survive. So the term ‘cultivable land’ is misleading."
Is it possible to set such high standards that you can prevent exploitation of cheap labor, loss of domestic resources and the threat to food supplies?
In an ideal world, yes. In our world, we can only try to come close to that. It’s difficult to make it mandatory for companies and to implement and regulate the rule. It would be a very long and arduous process. But that is no reason to brush it aside.
It’s impossible to nail down exactly how and where the process of displacement to other lands takes place. It would only become possible through a global certification system, but we are a long way away from that. The only thing we can do at present is what’s possible: to look at each case and each location to see if sustainable practices are followed.
Interview: Johanna Treblin
Editor: Sonia Phalnikar