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Forest Biofuels Unsustainable, Could Boost Greenhouse Gases

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An analysis by researchers in Europe and the U.S. indicate that large-scale biofuel production from forest biomass is unsustainable and will increase greenhouse gas emissions. The findings appear online in the journal Global Change Biology/Bioenergy.

The report, an invited analysis by the journal, was led by the Max-Planck Institute for Biogeochemistry in Germany, Oregon State University in the U.S., and other universities in Switzerland, Austria, and France. The work was supported by grants from the European Research Council, U.S. Department of Energy, and funding agencies in Germany and Austria.

The study compiled data from previous research, and notes that biofuel production from woody biomass is already underway. The authors looked at the impact of ramping up this activity on a large scale, and found large-scale bioenergy production from forest biomass is unsustainable.

The analysis was based on a theoretical, significant increase in energy from forest biomass, as has been proposed, to 20 percent or more of current global primary energy supply. About 20 percent of all European Union energy consumption, for example, is supposed to come from all renewable sources by 2020, with bioenergy as one of those sources.

A major increase in forest-based biofuels, the authors concluded, would also result in shorter tree rotations, younger forests, depleted soil nutrients, increased risk of erosion, loss of forest biodiversity and function, higher costs for bioenergy than are now being anticipated, and increased use of fertilizers, also a source of greenhouse emissions.

The findings also cast doubt on forest-based biofuels being carbon neutral. The researchers found the reduction of biomass and lost carbon sequestration by forests could take decades to centuries to be offset by fossil fuel substitution, if at all. Negative impacts on vegetation, soil fertility, water and ecosystem diversity are all possible as well.

The researchers recommend former forested land areas as a better alternative for biofuels, although that runs the risk of competing with food production and animal forage. “Society should fully quantify direct and indirect greenhouse gas emissions associated with energy alternatives, and associated consequences,” say the authors, “prior to making policy commitments that have long-term effects on global forests.”

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