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Greenpeace says burning trees for energy a bad idea

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Issue date: 
Nov. 2, 2011
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Timber Procurement


A Greenpeace report says government policies that encourage burning more trees to create energy threaten Canada's forests and climate.

The report says that biomass energy is no longer limited to burning waste products such as sawdust and log chips. It says provincial governments have created a "green gold rush" by allowing industry to burn whole trees, as well as branches and other debris that used to be left to help enrich forest soils.

"Forest bioenergy once referred to a sensible, small-scale and local solution to produce heat and power by using mill and pulp residues at the plant," says the report released Wednesday. "This is no longer the case.

"Now the sector is rapidly developing into large-scale, industrial use of natural forests for energy."

A spokesman for the forestry industry acknowledged that forests are increasingly being seen as energy resources. Mark Hubert of the Forest Products Association of Canada, which represents about two-thirds of the industry, said there may be a need for government to consider the issue.

"It's one of the things that we think it would be useful for governments to take a look at."

He added that industry wants to be able to integrate bioenergy with traditional forest practices.

Greenpeace compiled government statistics showing that changes in forest use policies in at least five provinces have radically increased the volume of wood that may be taken.

Ontario's new rules, says Greenpeace, allow up to 89 per cent more wood to be removed. The figure for British Columbia is 85 per cent and it's 49 per cent in Alberta.

No province is yet harvesting at those levels.

The extra volume would come from currently non-commercial species or the branches and tops of trees that are left on the forest floor. It could also come from diseased trees or trees damaged by fire. In Ontario and Quebec, whole trees are being cut for energy use, says the report.

Industry is already responding.

The report says exports to Europe of fuel pellets from wood -- often used to fire power plants -- have increased 700 per cent in the last eight years. In Nova Scotia, logging specifically for bioenergy is underway.

"We call it Stone Age energy," said author Nicholas Mainville. "That's where we were centuries ago."

The report adds that burning wood, often in the form of fuel pellets, also increases climate-warming carbon dioxide emissions.

Governments say such energy is carbon-neutral, because new trees replace the old ones and absorb the same amount of carbon. But the report points out it takes decades to replace a tree that can burn in a matter of minutes.

"This is a huge accounting error," said Mainville. Wood-fired power plants, he said, can emit more carbon equivalent than coal-fired plants.

Hubert said most in the industry agree that bioenergy should remain "waste-based." The question, however, is what constitutes waste.

"One thing that it would be useful to have further discussion with Greenpeace about is the degree to which residual waste material from production actually does exist."

Hubert said the industry is still largely focused on using wood waste without having to increase the amount of material taken from forests.

But Mainville said one man's waste is another man's evolving forest.

"That word 'waste' being used by government and industry is actually standing trees, healthy forest, burned area, diseased areas and logging debris."

Even areas damaged by fire or insects such as the mountain pine beetle shouldn't necessarily be levelled, Mainville suggested.

"It's much more complex than just wiping out the whole pine beetle areas."

His report recommends that biomass approvals should end and that whole trees should no longer be harvested for that purpose. It also suggests Canadians should be consulted before forests start being used as energy resources instead of sources of lumber and pulp.

"This is a radical change in the way we use our forests. The government has to consult the population."


Extpub | by Dr. Radut