An international debate over the relative pros and cons of bioenergy has intensified between environmental organizations, governments and climate change leaders in recent years. This lively discussion has been dragging out by the delayed release of the European Union’s sustainability requirements for solid biofuels (originally expected in early 2012). And just as the industry is ramping up and North America is becoming a major biomass supplier to several countries overseas, organizations like Greenpeace continue to release reports like Fueling a Biomess and Dirtier than Coal.
Hot topics under the microscope right now include: the “correct” greenhouse gas accounting methods for bioenergy; the carbon debt of woody biomass (how long is too long before the positive benefits of forest biomass use are realized?); the industry’s potential impact on biodiversity; and, undoubtedly the crowd favorite, indirect land use changes (iLUC) arising from increased biomass use.
Don’t get me wrong. These are all valid concerns, and policy makers, academics and industry leaders are doing important work to understand these issues and come to a consensus about what is acceptable (see Bioenergy and Wildlife and Bioenergy and Land Use Change). We need to be stringent in our sustainability requirements for bioenergy, rigorous in our development of the scientific body of knowledge surrounding this industry, and constantly striving to improve our policies and integrate new understanding as it becomes available.
But we can’t forget about the other renewable energy (RE) technologies that are less controversial and more environmentally benign, yet are falling by the wayside as the international bioenergy gold rush churns on. In recent years, several prominent organizations such as World Wildlife Fund and the International Panel on Climate Change have released comprehensive technical reports such as the Energy Report and the Special Report on Renewable Energy Sources and Climate Change Mitigation (SRREN), which outline the path toward a diverse, locally adapted energy portfolio that makes use of ALL the available RE resources.
These reports demonstrate that we can only effectively combat climate change, address energy poverty and achieve true energy independence and security by diversifying regional energy portfolios and developing alternative energy systems. Most importantly, these reports stress the complications inherent in bioenergy development and recommend that bioenergy should only serve to “make up the rest” of the supply that other types of RE can’t – namely, in freight transport, aviation and shipping (see WWF’s Energy Report, Part 1).
Yet it seems the international conversation has moved away from building an integrated renewable energy strategy and refocused on bioenergy as the be-all, end-all of RE technologies. This is most likely due to the fact that it is the easiest form of RE to substitute for coal-powered generation plants and transportation fuels. These are valid reasons. But this is not the time to be lazy or take the easiest route forward. A major overhaul to our energy systems is needed and it is absolutely urgent.
Another recent report from the International Renewable Energy Agency shows that the levelized cost of many RE technologies has come way down, and in some cases they are now on par with traditional forms of energy. There are literally no excuses left. Several great roadmaps have already been developed to help us get there – see TIDES Canada’s report, the IPCC Special Report on Renewables, and WWF's Energy Report).
We need to pull up our bootstraps, commit to diversifying our energy portfolio and use our creativity to find innovative strategies that work in Canada and beyond. A 100 per cent renewable energy future is not only technologically possible, but starting to take shape in many parts of the world, particularly in the developing world. Canada’s future depends on how quickly it can catch up.
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