A HOLISTIC VIEW ON BIOMASS FOR ENERGY APPLICATIONS
On a global CO2 budgetary scale, biomass for energy applications appears unable to contribute to global CO2 reduction. This is regardless of how we organize the planting, growing and burning of biomass, since this neither decreases the manmade CO2 emission nor increases the Global Photosynthetic Capacity.
All green biomass on earth (algae, plants, trees) absorbs CO2, converting it among others things into wood, carbohydrates (sugar, starch, cellulose), fats and oils, and oxygen. This conversion requires a lot of energy, derived from sunlight through the process of photosynthesis. The global photosynthetic capacity (GPC) of all biomass on earth is limited by the amount of square kilometers of water and land that host green biomass. Since a century or so, man apparently exceeds this GPC by burning too much fuel, thereby emitting CO2 faster than the global green biomass can absorb and convert. This leads to increased CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere. Next to photosynthesis and burning fuel, there are other global factors that influence CO2 absorption and emission (e.g. oceans, glaciers, peat and marshlands). These operate on their own, and are not relevant in the context of this article.
As humans, we cannot materially increase the GPC except by increasing the available square kilometers of land hosting green biomass. The total water surface (oceans, seas and lakes hosting algae and plant life) is a given for us. Assuming a certain (desired) global average biodiversity and habitat diversity (forest, savannah, tundra, bushland, marshland, farmland, etc.), the kind of vegetation on any particular piece of biomass hosting land (different kinds of trees, bushes, crops) will not have a significant effect on the GPC. It is the number of available square kilometers that counts.
Manmade CO2 emission
The atmospheric CO2 concentration apparently increases by manmade CO2 emission, but is independent of the origin of this manmade CO2 emission. CO2 is just CO2, it is a simple and natural chemical substance, and there is only one kind of it. Therefore, the extent to which man exceeds the GPC by burning too much fuel is independent of the origin and age of our fuels. In other words, it makes no difference whether we burn a certain amount of fossil rather than present day biomass. The amount and excess of CO2 emitted is not affected by the origin and age of the biomass as such, be it one year or a million years old.
It is a serious fallacy to assume that all present day biomass will eventually decay and liberate as much CO2 as we do by burning it. Part of naturally decaying biomass serves as essential nutrients for other biomass, and part is covered and buried in the ground, where it is removed from the biosphere and will eventually fossilize. That is after all how fossil fuels were created. Burning present day biomass therefore robs the circular biosphere of essential nutrients, and prevents the continuous natural removal and fossilization of carbon. Burning present day biomass is in fact burning future fossil fuel.
We obviously cannot replace a large part or all of today’s fossil fuel consumption with present day biomass, since we would then still exceed the GPC. Nature is after all unable to grow biomass as fast as we are burning fuel, any fuel. If it were otherwise, the atmospheric CO2 concentration would not be rising.
Biomass CO2 absorption
The GPC too is independent of the origin and age of our fuels. Planting, growing and burning present day biomass, rather than digging up and burning fossil biomass, does not increase the GPC. Put differently, if we would not grow biomass for fuel but leave the square kilometers involved freely available to nature, the GPC would not decrease. Nature is quite capable in exploiting available land space to create diverse green biomass and so absorb CO2. All major forests and vegetations on earth were and are created by nature, not by man. In other words, for any given global amount of available green square kilometers of land, planting and growing biomass for fuel does not increase the GPC. It is certainly true that we can locally apply sustainable forestry and agriculture which does not exhaust nature, but this does not address manmade CO2 emission being bigger than all of nature can absorb.
We have seen that the excess CO2 emission man causes by burning any kind of fuel, is independent of the origin and age of our fuels. We have also seen that planting and growing biomass does not increase the GPC. On a global CO2 budgetary scale, the conclusion therefore appears to be that biomass for energy applications cannot contribute to global CO2 reduction. This is regardless of how we organize the planting, growing and burning of biomass, since this neither decreases the manmade CO2 emission nor increases the Global Photosynthetic Capacity.
• CO2 accounting methods for certain demarcated chains of biomass cultivation-transportation-combustion may appear beneficial for CO2 reduction on a small scale, but do not take into account the global budgets of manmade CO2 emission and GPC.
• For any given energy output in megajoules or kilowatt-hours, burning present day biomass produces more CO2 than burning coal (and therefore more CO2 than burning any fossil fuel)
• Planting and growing biomass for fuel is in direct competition with natural land space and food production, in a world in which natural habitats and rain forests shrink and millions of people die of hunger.
• All biomass is part of the circular ecosystem. Living as well as dying and decaying animals, plants and trees contain essential nutrients and minerals that feed other animals, plants and trees. Burning present day biomass removes these essential nutrients and minerals from the biosphere, reducing the vitality and diversity of nature. In other words, living as well as dying and decaying animals, plants and trees belong to nature. For nature, there is no such thing as ‘waste streams’ of biomass. Waste is only a linear manmade concept.