Why biomass is not a sustainable fuel

This title that I wrote is pretty controversial, because it needs some nuance. And I’ll give that in a minute, I promise. But overall, I dare to say that my personal opinion on biomass is that it’s not a sustainable fuel. In my ideal world we’d need very little to no fuel created by biomass. Today I want to tell you how I came to that conclusion. Here’s why biomass is not a sustainable fuel.

What is Biomass

The definition of biomass is: a collective name for all material that has a plant-based or animal-based origin. Shit, that’s almost anything on this planet. From trees and leaves, to corn and wool. And that is true, biomass is a very broad term. However, today I’m talking about using biomass as a fuel. The most commonly used materials for biomass are wood or any type of grains. This biomass fuel is made by either burning, vaporizing or fermenting biomass.

Net Zero

Most people would probably think that I do not find biomass a sustainable fuel, because it creates greenhouse gases like CO2 and methane. But this is actually not the argument I’m making today, since using biomass as a fuel creates net zero emissions. Why? Well, let’s say we use wood (or any plant material) for production. In the lifetime of the tree, when it grows, it takes up CO2. That’s the reason why we need trees to combat climate change!

However, we then need to leave those trees be to actually do something about climate change. Because if we burn the trees, the tree releases the CO2 again, creating net zero emissions. The tree takes up CO2 first, but then releases this same amount again when it’s burnt. Net zero.

Animal-Based

Also, there’s also animal products, like manure, wool, etc. However, as a vegan I don’t support using animals for our own use. Even if that animal-based biomass is a rest product. And if it’s not a rest product, that would mean we’d breed animals to take their wool and shit, in the end. As I said, I am against using animals in general, but I also think this would create a messed up system like the factory farming we have today for their flesh.

Anyway, back to the first conclusion: using biomass a a fuel can be net zero. And that’s only the case if the biomass fuel producer also regrows the plant material. Still, the net zero argument does not mean using biomass as a fuel is a good idea. Here’s why biomass is not a sustainable fuel.

Pollution from burning

Lets first assume we’d create fuel from burning biomass directly. This emits CO2. But that is not one of the problems I have with using biomass as a fuel. I’ll explain that below. The first problem I have with burning biomass is the pollution. Next to the greenhouse gases, there are also other things which are emitted. Unhealthy material like root, smoke and particulate matter. We don’t want these things in the air.

But let’s assume we’d vaporize or ferment to make biomass fuel. The argument of pollution then still stands, as the proces of vaporizing or fermenting makes biogas. This biogas would then be burned to get the fuel and the same harmful substances will be released. Other renewable resources do not have this pollution, as the production proces can be made clean. This can’t be done when it comes to using biomass as a fuel.

space

The next point is the space we’d need to create fuel made from biomass. Let’s say the pollution argument is not valid, just hypothetically. Then the biomass is a net zero fuel, right? And it’s renewable, because you can always regrow trees. Yes, but we’d need an immense amount of space to grow this biomass. If you install solar panels, you can do that on a roof, space that is not used anyway. However, when we use biomass, we need massive fields of agricultural land for that.

I guess you have not missed this, but there are a lot of people who are starving. One in four people globally are moderately or severely food insecure. I know this issues has to do with power structures and capitalism, but still. Isn’t it messed up to grow food on a massive scale and then burn it, while millions of people are starving? And it’s not even a necessity, we have many alternatives to using biomass as a fuel. We do not need to burn biomass to create fuel. I would argue it’s cruel to do this, we should use the land otherwise.

Ideals

I want to take it a step further, because I just said something about hunger. We can even go past that argument. Even if nobody on the planet would suffer from hunger, I’d still argue we should use the land differently. The massive amount of land we’d need for fuel made from biomass (since a country like the Netherland uses a lot of energy), we could also use for nature. Just leaving the land alone and letting nature and animals thrive. That would be highly beneficial for biodiversity. And even if the biodiversity was not an issue (I wish!), we should still value nature in itself. As a human species, it’s time to realize that the earth is not only ours.

Rest product

I believe most people think that fuel made from biomass is only made from rest material. Rest products from the wood industry, from the animal industry, from the food industry, etc. That argument is simply not true. We grow biomass just for to burn it. And yes, there’s also a part that’s produced from rest products. But that’s just a tiny part of the whole.

Haha, but there I am again. Even if we’d only make fuel out of biomass that is a rest product, I’d still argue that we should use these rest products differently. From the organic waste from households we could make compost to feed the land. Then we wouldn’t need all this polluting manure we have from animals. This goes for the organic waste from all commercial sectors as well. But we could also use it for other purposes. We could make furniture from the rest products from wood production. We could make isolation material from leftover cotton. Etc. The list goes on.

Alternatives

With all the arguments I listed above, I honestly don’t see why we still consider using biomass for fuel. In the Netherlands, biomass is actually the biggest share of renewable energy. I don’t understand. We have so many great, sustainable other options. Solar panels, wind mills, geothermal plants or hydropower. Some of these alternatives are also very cheap, like solar panels. If I envision my ideal society of 2050, using biomass as a fuel is not in there. I hope more people envision this same future.

Yours sincerely,
Romee

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