s/r home  | issues  | authors  | 44 contents

Synthesis/Regeneration 44   (Fall 2007)

Clean Coal, Forest Biofuel and Other Fairy Tales

by Dr. Glen Barry

Two of the biggest, most dangerous lies being promoted in response to global warming are that clean coal exists and the world’s forests are adequate to provide biofuel. Dirty coal and industrial forest harvest for energy only accelerate the root causes of looming Doomsday for the Earth — that is destruction of the biosphere’s atmospheric and terrestrial ecosystems.

Coal burning and forest loss have been the leading culprits in climate change to date, and should their continued use at any scale be pursued as the solution to climate change and energy security, it will prove the death-knell for the planet. We need less fossil fuel use and more forest regeneration, not the reverse.

The myth of “Clean Coal” is pernicious nonsense, as promised carbon sequestration technologies remain unproven, are not likely to be pursued at any scale anytime soon and are primarily used to put off limits on burning coal. Coal is cheap, plentiful and dirty.

Carbon emissions from burning coal have been the leading cause of global warming. The world’s coal reserves hold some 3500 gigatonnes of carbon, compared to the atmosphere currently holding around 800 gigatonnes (600 gigatonnes before the industrial revolution). If this coal is burnt and carbon vented into the atmosphere the planet will be several times past the concentration of carbon dioxide considered able to be adapted to safely.

Carbon emissions from burning coal have been the leading cause of global warming.

China is opening another coal plant every 7 to 10 days. The US coal industry is rushing to build some 150 new plants before mandatory carbon caps, carbon taxes or carbon sequestration are put in place. Each of these new dirty coal plants uses the oldest of technologies, locking the world’s two greatest polluters into dirty coal for at least 50 more years. I know of no plans to make carbon sequestration mandatory any time soon for new coal plants. It will be at least 10 years before we know if geosequestration even works. Carbon capture and storage is expensive, increasing the costs of power generation by 40–80%. Despite all the promises of coal gasification and carbon sequestration, it may never be possible to produce energy from coal without atmospheric carbon emissions.

Could it be that carbon sequestration like the hydrogen automobile is a red herring to allow the fossil fuel industries to squeeze every last drop of profit from the planet before being forced to stop? In the world of 9 billion consumers to come, with the condition of the atmosphere in such tatters, the majority of the world’s filthy coal reserves must be left in the ground as we transition exclusively to clean, renewable energy alternatives.

Many herald the promise of converting woody biomass — primarily forest “waste” such as sawdust, forest thinning, and agriculture residues such as straw — into cellulosic ethanol as a source of biofuel. Cellulosic ethanol technology uses enzymes to break down the woody bits of plant cellulose. The fact that woody materials may provide more energy than corn- or soy-based ethanol does not in itself justify large-scale establishment of such an industry. Just as hasty efforts to promote corn ethanol have led to sharp price increases for corn worldwide, production of biofuel from forest and agricultural “waste” will have grave unintended consequences.

The world’s forests have been hammered for millennia, and are barely able to continue providing ecosystem services of cycling nutrients, energy and water while providing for traditional wood products. Removal of forest biomass and agricultural residues from natural ecosystems and human agro-ecosystems at the industrial scale envisioned will be yet one more massive drain upon the Earth’s net primary productivity. The woody forest “waste” materials to be used, including forest slash, thinning, bark and sawdust, are the nutrient materials that new forests depend upon.

The woody forest “waste” materials… are the nutrient materials that new forests depend upon.

Surely woody biomass requirements will be met by vast plantations of genetically modified fiber-bearing plants and/or by encroaching into regenerating forests and land used to grow food. A large biofuel industry based upon ethanol from cellulose will lead to greater deforestation, forest diminishment and degradation of agricultural lands.

Ancient forests will be replaced to grow genetically modified crops in plantations, regenerating secondary forests will be logged into further decline, and land use will shift from food to fiber even as soils become more degraded. One must only look at oil palm in Asia, sugar cane and soy in Brazil and corn in the US to see this is true. To presume that the massive energy needs of the world can be met by already overworked and still diminishing forest and agricultural ecosystems is true folly.

Al Gore, self-appointed alpha Earth savior, and most of the environmental mainstream are on record talking about the future promise of clean coal and forest biofuel technologies; just another reminder of the extent to which the mainstream environmental movement has neither diagnosed the seriousness of the global biosphere’s condition nor presented solutions adequate to sufficiently address ecocide in a timely manner without making things worse. Energy and climate solutions that increase pressures upon the biosphere are no help at all.

Humanity has shown little inclination or ability to properly scale their activities to not undermine and destroy natural capital. Perhaps limited coal could be burnt and its carbon buried to tool the necessary renewable energy capital including solar and wind equipment.

… the mainstream environmental movement has neither diagnosed the seriousness of the global biosphere’s condition nor presented solutions…

And perhaps communities can take the increment from forests and farmlands of woody biomass that does not reduce natural and agro-ecosystem productivity. But this is not what is being proposed. Clean coal and cellulosic ethanol technologies are being envisioned at industrial scales adequate to meet the world’s current and surging energy needs, in order that more fundamental changes in energy efficiency, energy conservation and sustainable lifestyles are averted.

Will humanity accept no limits upon its actions — particularly limiting its population, consumption and energy use — in order to ensure the biosphere continues functioning? The way forward in renewable energy is to harvest wind and sunlight. The way forward on climate change policy is to also stress energy conservation and efficiency, and end deforestation and selective logging in ancient forests. Coal and forest based climate solutions enlarge the scale of the human enterprise when it needs to be shrunk. To think otherwise is to believe in ghosts, monsters and other fairy tales.

Dr. Glen Barry is the President and Founder of Ecological Internet (EI). He is a conservation biologist and political ecologist, a writer of essays and blogs, and a computer specialist and technology researcher. See http://earthmeanders.blogspot.com/

[2 jan 08]

Synthesis/Regeneration home page | s/r 44 Contents