NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Biomass: Destructive or Beneficial?

May 24, 2013

Environmentalism has become a popular view in modern America. Most Americans are familiar with the idea of recycling and have a general concern for keeping the environment clean. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Department of Energy have been attempting for the last few years to decrease fossil fuel emissions and increase the use of alternative energy fuels that don't emit as much carbon emissions. One of the ideas being considered is biomass energy (wood, twigs, dung, etc.). However, modern scientists believe this would do more harm than good to the environment because it could diminish biodiversity, over-extract water, make food more expensive and potentially increase carbon emissions to a larger extent, says Bjørn Lomborg, director of the Copenhagen Consensus Center.

Biomass energy advocates are proposing an immense global campaign to cut down and burn trees to reduce fossil fuel. This idea could be easily dismissed as an ironic proposal to the problem if it weren't for the astronomical problems it could create monetarily and environmentally.

  • This cost would include massive destruction of biodiversity, because of the destruction of vegetation and plant material.
  • It would increase water usage, which decreases the water available for human consumption and crop growth.
  • It would reduce global food production, which would hike the price of food for Americans.
  • It may even increase global carbon emissions, which would be increasing the problem that environmentalists are trying to solve.

Germany alone spends over $3 billion annually for the production of biomass fuels, meaning they spend $167 per ton of avoided carbon emissions, which is more than 37 times the cost of carbon reductions in the European Union Emissions Trading System. This estimate neglects indirect land-use changes, which makes the cost at least eight times higher.

The United States embraced biofuels 10 years ago with the start of ethanol production. As a result, the United States uses 40 percent of its maize to put into ethanol car fuel, which is costing more than $17 billion in subsidies and has increased food prices. In addition, U.S. production of ethanol creates deforestation elsewhere, and this excess deforestation creates more carbon emission than the carbon emission ethanol is trying to prevent.

The United States should embrace the idea of turning waste into energy and be smart about agricultural leftovers, but not to the point where it causes more disadvantages than advantages at the end of the day.

Source: Bjørn Lomborg, "Hugging a Burning Tree," Project Syndicate, May 15, 2013.


Browse more articles on Environment Issues