Forest Bioenergy Sustainability Questioned

New studies raise atmospheric, ecological and economic questions about forest bioenergy raising doubts.

Published on: Apr 30, 2012

A global move to produce more energy from forest biomass may be possible and already is beginning in some places, but scientists – including Oregon State University researchers -- say in a new analysis that such large-scale bioenergy production from forest biomass is unsustainable and will increase greenhouse gas emissions

Early suggestions that such a forest biomass industry would be greenhouse “neutral” or even reduce greenhouse emissions “are based on erroneous assumptions a group of international researchers  say in an analysis in “Global Biology/Bioenergy,” a professional journal.

Compared to business as usual (BAU), all of these forest management scenarios increase carbon emissions to the atmosphere according to new research.
Compared to business as usual (BAU), all of these forest management scenarios increase carbon emissions to the atmosphere according to new research.

A major increase in this industry, they conclude, would result in shorter tree rotations, younger forests, depleted soil nutrients, increased risk of erosion, loss of forest biodiversity and function, and higher costs for bioenergy than are now being anticipated, as well as increased use of fertilizers, also a source of greenhouse emissions.

“The main objective of bioenergy production from forest harvest is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but the strategy is likely to miss the mark,” says Beverly Law, an OSU forest scientist, and one of the co-authors of the analysis.

The report was led by the Max-Planck Institute for Biogeochemistry in Germany, OSU, and other universities in Switzerland, Austria and France. The work was supported by several agencies in Europe and the U.S. Department of Energy.

This analysis is based on a theoretical, significant increase in energy from forest biomass, as some researchers propose, to 20% or more of the current global primary energy supply.

For instance, about 20% of all European Union energy consumption is supposed to come from renewable resources by  2020, with bioenergy as a focal point.

Advocates of such approaches, which would use forest biomass either for direct combustion or by conversion to biofuels, say that this could significantly decrease global dependence on fossil fuels without competing with food production, and in many cases create local jobs.