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Doha, Forests and the Production Tax Credit: On Track to Burn, Baby, Burn

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Last Saturday, the annual UN Climate Talks, held in Doha, concluded, once more without any meaningful achievements. The U.S. government was amongst those that ensured that there would be no new climate treaty until at least 2020 and that they would thus not be bound by any restrictions on carbon emissions. A major focus of the negotiations was on forests, specifically on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation in developing countries (REDD+). Those talks also stalled as rich countries scaled back financial commitments which they had already made while trying to force Southern countries to divert vast sums of funds towards creating a new carbon market in forests. This would in future allow for example the U.S. or EU to class lower deforestation rates or even new monoculture tree plantations in the global South as Northern emissions reductions.

The actual causes of deforestation -- above all, the already unsustainable demand for wood and agricultural products in the North -- were considered a far lower priority than carbon market-related accounting. Nonetheless, some governments, especially those of the UK and Norway, paid at least lip service to them. A Synthesis Report financed by those two governments was released at Doha; it acknowledged that forests were under increasing pressure from "renewable energy" supports for biofuels, large hydro-dams and wood-based bioenergy (although, curiously, the authors blamed growing demand for fuel wood in poor countries rather than the rapidly growing biomass demand in North America and Europe for the latter). According to the lead author of the report: "This means demand for natural resources -- agricultural products, wood, minerals, biofuels -- will occur on a scale different than we have seen in the past, with demand coming from different markets than those dominant in the past."

Although the UN climate talks are stalled, actions government and corporate actions taken in the name of "climate change mitigation" will indeed put the world's remaining forests and other ecosystems under unprecedented pressure, this during a century when climate change is already seen to cause a first wave of forest die-back. In the U.S., the government's Energy Information Authority has just released new predictions according to which energy from biomass will grow at a rate of nearly 8 percent a year between now and 2040, four times as fast as all types of energy classed as renewable combined. Most of this growth is to come from biomass co-firing in coal generating plants -- a particularly cheap, convenient and polluting way of meeting Renewable Portfolio Standards. In Europe, bioenergy is to account for the largest share of the mandatory 20 percent renewable energy target by 2020. During the Doha talks, forest campaigners from the Global Forest Coalition, Biofuelwatch and Global Justice Ecology Project highlighted in particular the UK's role in developing a massive new market in woodchips and pellets for power stations. In response to generous subsidies, energy firms in the UK are planning to burn around nine times as much wood a year as the country produces annually. Most UK biomass is currently imported from the southern U.S., Canada, Russia and other European countries although pellets from large new industrial tree plantations particularly in Brazil, West and Central Africa are widely seen as an important future source.

So far, the southern U.S. is the biggest pellet producer worldwide. Biodiverse and carbon rich forests in the region have long been destroyed for monoculture pine plantations for the paper industry and now this trend is accelerating to meet U.S. and EU demand for biomass electricity -- while GE eucalyptus trials are underway and could eventually lead to wood pellets being produced from large GE eucalyptus plantations in the region. Climate scientists increasingly recognize biomass electricity as having a disastrous carbon balance, too, particularly if it is produced from whole trees, as it inevitably is when energy companies rely on constant supplies of millions of tonnes of wood for their power stations. Generating a unit of electricity from biomass releases around 50 percent more CO2 than generating that unit from burning coal. Although in theory future trees will regrow and re-absorb that carbon again, in practice it will take those trees decades to do so -- that's if they will ever be able to do so in the face of escalating climate change and massively increased logging for bioenergy. Even then, biomass electricity will still increase CO2 levels for at least a generation -- i.e., during the short period of time when we must rapidly reduce CO2 levels if we are to have any hope of avoiding the worst impacts of climate change.

A 2009 study published in Science illustrates the scale of the bioenergy impacts which we can expect if Governments continue to falsely promote it as "carbon neutral." It suggests that such policies will result in the complete destruction of all forests, natural grasslands and nearly all other ecosystems worldwide by around 2065.

Re-defining "renewable energy" is vital for protecting forests, communities and climate. Currently in the U.S. there is a push to renew the Production Tax Credit, a major source of support for renewable energy. While the discussion in the media, and even a letter from leading big environmental organizations like NRDC, Sierra and National Wildlife Federation is entirely about supporting wind, hidden from view is the fact that this tax credit also would subsidize more biomass and also garbage (municipal solid waste) incinerators -- dirty energy that should never be subsidized as "clean" or "renewable."

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