FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
Get the facts fast
What is bioenergy?
Bioenergy describes the use of organic matter for energy generation.
One form of bioenergy that is being increasingly utilised around the world is wood sourced from forests. This wood is pulverized into pellets or briquettes which are then burnt to produce electricity.
Forest-based bioenergy, as this practice is known, is particularly well established in the UK and the EU and is quickly gaining a foothold in Asian countries including Japan and South Korea. Over the next decade, global production of forest biomass energy is predicted to increase nearly 300 percent, having already doubled in the last ten years.
Why are claims of ‘renewability’ and carbon neutrality so misleading?
Forest carbon accounting rules allow emissions from logging to be offset by re-growth in the much larger area of the entire production forest estate. The result is we never see the blindingly obvious that carbon lost in logged areas takes decades to recover. Any forest logged that is older than 30 years cannot recover carbon lost before 2050. Other peculiarities of forest carbon rules include ‘forward looking baselines’ devised to create space for policy change that would result in increases in emissions. Emissions from logging need only be accounted when they exceed that baseline.
Not accounting for emissions from wood at the point of combustion means it counts as zero emissions at the Stack…a truly perverse market signal given that generating energy from native forest biomass results in more GHG emissions per unit of energy than coal. Allowing coal fired power stations to substitute wood would be a get out of gaol free card to energy generators – falsely making emissions look 10, 50 or 100% lower than they actually are depending on the % of wood substituted for coal. The cost of trying to constrain this industry in after the fact doesn’t bear thinking about.
We never see the opportunity cost to carbon sequestration and storage from continuing to log native forests - an important consideration given that we know the average carbon stock in a logged forest is about 50% below that in an old growth forest.
Is there a bioenergy industry in Australia?
In recent years there has been a strong push to significantly scale up the industry in Australia.
In 2015, the Tony Abbott-led Federal government amended the Renewable Energy Act, to recognise native forest bioenergy as renewable energy.
Four years later, the federal Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment allocated $1 million towards forest-based bioenergy research.
The energy generator, Delta Electricity, is already using wood from forestry operations to co-fire the Vales Point coal power station on the shores of Lake Macquarie.
There is also a proposal to reopen the Redbank Power Station near the NSW town of Singleton and fuel it with more than one million tonnes of wood from forests per year instead of coal.
What have we learned from countries that have welcomed this industry?
Since this industry was introduced in Europe and North America about a decade ago, logging has increased including of rare and irrecoverable ancient forests in Romania and other parts of Eastern Europe, the USA and Canada. In Europe logging rotations have been reduced to supply demand – turning forests into a net source rather than a net sink for CO2 - just this year Finland joined this growing list.
And of course scientists are becoming increasingly concerned about what the atmosphere sees, particularly as demand for wood pellets is expected to grow by more than 250% over the next decade…a market fuelled by forest carbon accounting rules that leave emissions variably accounted for in the forests where they are logged and accounted as zero emissions at the point of combustion in energy generators burned - giving the entirely false perception that emission have been reduced!
The industry is a creation of deeply flawed carbon accounting rules sending incorrect market signals…It is noteworthy that the US State of Massachusses recently ruled against burning wood being considered renewable or clean.
What does the public think about native forest logging?
Research conducted for the timber industry published by Canberra University in 2018 found that “Native forest logging was considered unacceptable by 65% of rural/regional and 70% of urban residents across Australia, and acceptable by only 17% of rural and 10% of urban residents."
Why is it urgent to rule out native forest biomass for power?
Co-firing wood with coal is already occurring at Vales Point Power station and Cape Byron Power. Three other major coal fired power stations are now well advanced in their planning to substitute wood for coal – two run by Stanwell in Queensland and Loy Yang B operated by Alinta in Victoria. Work is also well underway to resubmit a proposal to reopen the decommissioned Redbank coal fired power station near Singleton in NSW that would burn almost 1 million tonnes of native forest wood per year – more than twice the volume of woodchips ever exported from the forests of northern NSW.
How do we know markets for high volume/ low cost wood products will change which forests are classified as waste and where and how forests are logged?
Woodchips were introduced to Australia in the early 1970’s in the name of utilising waste arising from sawlog production. The resulting changes to logging practices and volumes of trees logged are well documented in Forestry Professor John Dargavels’ book, “Fashioning Australia’s Forests” 1995 – describing the impacts of markets in shaping the way in which forests are logged. Wood chipping paved the way for clear-fell logging and resulted in a near 40% increase in wood volumes from logging to satisfy demand for woodchips “doubtless leading to more trees being cut …(and) radically refashioned the structure (age) of stands and the landscape of … forests.”. At the same time employment fell by 36% “.
In the logging industry ‘waste’ is commonly defined as any tree for which there is no higher value. It is common in Tasmania for 90% of the trees cut in a logging coupe to be classified as pulp logs or waste – and in southern NSW and East Gippsland 80%. With the decline in export woodchipping a new market is needed for ‘pulp logs to provide the economic underpinning to produce an ever decreasing volume of sawn timber,
In 1990-91, 350,000 tonnes of woodchips were exported from Newcastle with a similar volume of sawlogs produced. By 2017 pulp log production had fallen to 21,397 tonnes p.a. and sawlogs to 187,835 tonnes p.a. In 2019 the entire volume of all native forest wood production in NSW, including pulp logs, was 1 million tonnes per annum - the same amount of wood needed to supply the Redbank Power Station. Yet proponents say they have an assured wood supply from within a 300 km radius around the power plant.
There is no product produced from native forests that cannot be produced from our existing plantation estate.
Is bioenergy clean, green and renewable?
Forest-based bioenergy is widely – but falsely – seen as a form of “clean” and “renewable” energy. Why?
The forest bioenergy industry exploits loopholes in global carbon accounting rules to hide the real emissions caused by burning wood.
The industry also claims that emissions caused by burning wood are recaptured by replanted forests. They are ignoring the fact that the time it takes to capture carbon by regrowing forests is time we don’t have, if we hope to avoid catastrophic climate change.
Even worse, burning wood to generate electricity will offer a lifeline to the environmentally destructive, economically unsustainable native forest logging industry in Australia – the source of around 38 million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year.
How does protecting forests counter climate change
Did you know that there is more carbon stored in the Earth’s terrestrial ecosystems (plants and soil) than in the oceans and atmosphere combined? Forests suck carbon out of the atmosphere like a giant vacuum cleaner during the process of photosynthesis, when converting carbon dioxide into biomass (such as branches, trunks, roots and soil carbon) and the oxygen that we breathe.
Australia’s forests store a huge amount of carbon that would otherwise be in the atmosphere as a greenhouse gas. The forests of south eastern Australia, for example, have been found to contain 640 tonnes of carbon per hectare - and some Mountain Ash forests can contain 2,000 tonnes per hectare.
Logging releases much of this carbon back into the atmosphere. A dangerous new logging industry is under development in Australia, which aims to cut down and burn our forests to produce electricity - called ‘biomass burning.’ This would be a disaster for our climate as well as for biodiversity.
How does preventing logging counter biodiversity loss?
Australia’s forests are some of the most biodiverse in the world and are home to more than 18,000 plant species and more than 2,000 animals species.
Logging destroys the habitat of our forest fauna, including removing food sources and nesting sites like the naturally-formed hollows that are abundant in old trees. The science shows that logging reduces biodiversity and threatens some species with extinction.
If we want to prevent the Sixth Mass Extinction from occurring in Australia, forest protection must be a priority.