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How the Biofuel Industry Hinges on Deforestation

Biofuel use has long been a subject of debate —it’s renewable, cheap, and widely accessible, but it emits carbon and possibly reduces the food supply while hunger is still a prominent issue across the globe. And that’s just the beginning. The biofuel industry has had a profound impact on southeastern states, such as Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, and Virginia. These states have faced massive deforestation as a result of the global demand for biofuels which, among other impacts, further exacerbates the climate crisis.

According to National Geographic, biofuels are made from broken-down starches, sugars, and other plant molecules that are later refined to make fuel. They are cleaner than fossil fuels. As a result, several countries, including the U.S., have classified them (perhaps wrongly) as carbon neutral energy sources, which are thought to combat climate change. This classification gives credence to the idea that biofuels are just as clean as other renewable energy sources such as wind or solar, but this is far from true.

One of the most common forms of biofuel is ethanol, which is used to power vehicles and is produced by burning corn or sugarcane. However, biofuels can also be made out of a number of other things, such as wood, grass, algae, wastewater sludge, animal waste, and cooking grease. Biofuels produced from wood present a contradiction: in order to shift towards a supposedly climate-friendly energy source, trees are being cut down—and rapidly so. 

Typically, biofuels made from wood are only supposed to be made from wood pellets, not entire trees. But according to a Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) report, this is not the case in practice. Entire trees have been found on their way to biofuel processing facilities. While the planet is facing an unprecedented anthropogenic climate crisis, this solution depends on deforestation and further contributes to the crisis by creating more anthropogenic carbon emissions.

Large quantities of wood from the southeastern U.S. get shipped to Europe to be burned in power plants such as Drax Power Station in Britain. There are major issues in the regulation and reporting systems of these power stations, which allow companies to find loopholes to maximize their profits. This system is supported by the fact that the cut-down trees are not reported as a change to the forests’ ability to store carbon, even though they do have a negative effect.

The southeast is home to Enviva, the world’s largest producer of wood pellets for biofuel. The company’s website claims bioenergy is necessary to “keep forests as forests.” But according to the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC), in order to meet Enviva’s production capacity in North Carolina and Southeast Virginia, 47,000 acres of forest will be cut down each year. Moreover, as of September 2020, the company has been actively requesting an expansion of its production capabilities. Enviva claims it exists to “displace coal, grow more trees, and fight climate change.” However, an SELC study found that in the southeastern U.S., the act of generating biofuel by cutting down hardwood forests and consequently releasing the carbon stored in the forest is not only significantly more carbon-emitting than burning wood pellets or other mill residue, but also that  the net lifecycle emissions over 100 years would be 3.4 times greater than using coal. Of course, reverting to coal would certainly not help the climate, but this research shows the profound impact of generating biofuel via deforestation.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, biofuel production in the U.S. is projected to increase through 2050. Despite its demonstrated destructiveness, the production process is perpetuated by the high demand for wood biofuel in Europe. According to a USDA Foreign Agricultural Service GAIN Report, the European Union is the world’s largest market for wood biofuels. There, biofuels are subsidized both on a residential and a commercial level, increasing demand and incentivizing producers of raw materials to export them to the E.U.  Based on economic incentives, biofuels remain an attractive choice for consumers in the E.U. and producers in the U.S., so it is unlikely that their production and use will be halted any time soon without policy intervention or shifted attitudes.

Deforestation in the Southeastern United States as a result of biofuel production is just one factor to be considered in this complicated global issue. Biofuels are enmeshed in a web of economic, environmental, and diplomatic decisions. Yet to consumers, biofuels are marketed as a solution to some of the very problems they contribute to, including deforestation and carbon emissions. Economic incentives lead to irresponsible and unsustainable production practices in the biofuel industry, of which the forests of the Southeastern U.S. have already felt the impact.

 

Sources:

Biomass Energy in the South. (n.d.). Retrieved October 31, 2020, from https://www.southernenvironment.org/cases-and-projects/biomass-energy-in-the-south

Buchholz, T., & Gunn, J. (2015, May 27). Carbon Emission Estimates for Drax biomass powerplants in the UK sourcing from Enviva Pellet Mills in U.S. Southeastern Hardwoods using the BEAC model. Retrieved October 30, 2020, from https://www.southernenvironment.org/uploads/audio/2015-05-27_BEAC_calculations_SE_hardwoods.pdf

Flach, B., Lieberz, S., & Bolla, S. (2019). EU Biofuels Annual 2019. Retrieved October 30, 2020, from https://apps.fas.usda.gov/newgainapi/api/report/downloadreportbyfilename?filename=Biofuels%20Annual_The%20Hague_EU-28_7-15-2019.pdf

Hockenos, P., Standaert, M., & Fleming, P. (2019, June 18). U.S. Forests Are Being Clear-Cut to Supply Biomass Energy Industry, Report Finds. Retrieved October 30, 2020, from https://e360.yale.edu/digest/u-s-forests-are-being-devastated-to-supply-biomass-energy-industry-report-finds

Hockenos, P., Standaert, M., & Fleming, P. (n.d.). Carbon Loophole: Why Is Wood Burning Counted as Green Energy? Retrieved October 31, 2020, from https://e360.yale.edu/features/carbon-loophole-why-is-wood-burning-counted-as-green-energy

Home. (2020, October 28). Retrieved October 31, 2020, from https://www.envivabiomass.com/

June 18, 2. (2019, June 18). Investigation Shows Forests Destroyed to Supply Biomass. Retrieved October 31, 2020, from https://www.nrdc.org/media/2019/190618

Nunez, C. (2019, July 15). Biofuels, explained. Retrieved October 30, 2020, from https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/global-warming/biofuel/

Shi, E., & Hanson, S. (2020, March 9). U.S. Energy Information Administration – EIA – Independent Statistics and Analysis. Retrieved October 31, 2020, from https://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.php?id=43096

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