Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Biomass in Copenhagen

Thermal biomass is a small piece of a big puzzle in Copenhagen this week, but one of the hottest topics is forestry – and deforestation - including for energy crops. At the center of this debate is how to incentivize maintaining existing forests and preventing land conversion, the same issues we grapple with in North America? One intersection of thermal biomass and climate talks in Copenhagen is the growing demand for “renewable” biomass energy crops by the developed world.

Reducing carbon emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD) is one of the big expected substantive outcomes from Copenhagen. Tropical deforestation accounts for 20% of global greenhouse gases. No one disputes that slowing the pace of tropical deforestation is key to slowing climate change, but what causes tropical deforestation?
The leading cause today is commercial agriculture and demand for timber, pulp and paper. And demand from developed countries is a huge part of that. In fact, EU and US policy mandates crop-based biofuels is creating unintended consequences for tropical forests where rapid rise of oil palm plantations appear to be driven by international demand for biofuels. Could thermal energy biomass crops also begin to be a player in unsustainable forestry practices in developing countries?

Often, poor, indigenous peoples are blamed for deforestation and their role is key to solutions. Traditional livelihood practices such as cyclical cultivation and fuelwood production are not always unsustainable. Pro-poor development strategies for biomass harvesting and utilization are key in both developing and developed countries. In the US, low-income communities are often blamed for wood smoke emissions, even though government funding overwhelming goes to development of solar and wind and has largely ignored modernizing biomass renewable energy systems relied upon by the poor. Similarly, in developing countries, it is often larger institutional and political conditions that drive land use, energy use and land conversion.
The thrust of REDD is being torn between environmental groups that want conservation of old growth and others pushing fro “sustainable forest management.” As of December 15, key safeguards to protect indigenous people and biodiversity and limit forest conversion to plantations have been moved from the operative section of the REDD agreement to a non-binding preamble.

The REDD framework may have ramifications for trade in thermal biomass energy crops but it is key for the EU and others to police their own biomass imports. The 2003 EU Forest Law Enforcement Governance and Trade regulation was a major step forward for demand-side policy. But it was the US Lacey Act, passed in 2008, that may be the best model for simply prohibiting the import or export of illegally sourced timber and wood products. This landmark bill is sending shockwaves through the global timber industry by rewriting companies equation of risk and benefit in importing wood fiber. The thermal biomass industry needs to watch this closely and ensure that incentives to limit greenhouse gases in developed countries are not at the expense of deforestation and more greenhouse gases in developing countries.

Further Resources:
The REDD road to Copenhagen: Readiness for what? By Oversees Development Institute, December 2008, p. 2.

“Copenhagen: The Curse of REDD,” by Terra Lawson-Remer, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/terra-lawsonremer/copenhagen-the-curse-of-r_b_391812.html.

Putting the Breaks on Drivers of Forest Destruction: A Shared Responsibility by the Environmental Investigation Agency, Dec. 2009, p. 4.


  1. In tropical regions, there are other sources of biomass other than trees. In Mexico, we have Agave. Annually, one hectare of agave can produce 500+ tonnes of biomass per hectare, yielding 3X more sugars than sugarcane, 4X more cellulose than the fastest growing eucalytus and 5X more bone-dry biomass (75 tonnes) than the GMO poplar tree.

    Agave needs not watering (190mm of rain a year will sufice), nor agrochemicals. Thrivces on marginal land, even on salty or acidic soils and steep hills. Stands tempertaures from -9°C to 50°C+). Is very prolific (up to one million new pups per individual) and very easy to cultivate. Agricultural/forestry machinery can be used to harvest it, allowing for massive production. The cost of production is very low.
    Tens of biofuels and bioproducts can be derived from agave. Large projects are being developed in Mexico and South Africa, but agave can be cultivated in 2/3 of the Earth's inhabitable land. agave will play an important role in the future of biofuels.

  2. Dear Bahvna,

    Deforestation in Latin America is a BIG problem (Brazil #1 and Mexico #2). We need sustainable timber laws enforced. Just in MX, illegal logging is worth around ten billion dollars every year! and forestry products account for nearly 50% of our imported products (mainly pulp and paper, but wood and boards, too).

    But trees are not the only source of biomass in tropical climates. On average, one hectare of agave annually yields 500+ tonnes of biomass (~90 tonnes of bone-dry biomass), yielding 3X more sugars than sugarcane, 4X more cellulose than the fastest growing eucalyptus and 5X more dry biomass than the GMO poplar tree or the most productive natural ecosystem.

    Agave thrives on marginal lands -in temperate and semiarid climates-, even on acidic or salty soils and steep hills. Needs no watering nor agrochemicals. The cost of production of one tonne of agave biomass can be as low as five US dollars.

    Each agave-plant individual can produce up to one million new pups, in 6 to 12 years, allowing massive, large-scale production of biomass.

    Agave can be harvested all year long. 75% of the Earth's inhabitable land is suitable for establishing agave plantations.

    We are developing Agave Project, for biofuels production, in over ten countries. Our main concern is climate change.

    All biofuels and tens of value added bioproducts and biomaterials can be derived from agave. Over five billion tonnes of agave biomass can be produced in marginal lands in Mexico alone.

    In MX, we currently we have over twenty million tonnes of agave biomass ready to harvest. In South Africa, over 10 million tonnes are ready to be commercialized.

    Agave will play an important role in the biofuels production of the XXI Century.

    Best regards,