Beware the Biomass Economy Beware the Biomass Economy


When proponents talk of a “green economy” much of the ‘green’ they have in mind is quite literally green. The leaves, shoots, branches, seaweeds, algae, grasses and other living matter that the planet puts forth in seeming abundance is now prime target for commercial exploitation in a rapidly emerging industrial vision of a so-called bio-based economy. For the new bioindustrialists of the green economy all that living stuff that used to be called “biodiversity” has a new name – these days it’s being called “biomass”. The earth produces 230 billion tons of biomass every year and in the coming decades we can expect land grabs, legal fights and wars to break out as industries and nations struggle to control access to every last part of that green bounty.


Welcome to the biomass economy – an emerging economic order based on a simple switch in chemistry: the world economy currently runs on hydrocarbon feedstocks extracted from deep underground – primarily coal, oil and gas. As those ‘black carbon’ sources become more costly, the ‘green carbon’ of biomass stored above ground in forests, farmers fields and oceans begin to look much more attractive for companies to exploit.


In molecular terms this above ground carbon is mostly carbohydrates (sugars) such as cellulose. Carbohydrates are like hydrocarbons but with a few extra oxygen atoms. It is perfectly possible to run industrial economies on carbohydrates however it is also possible to use chemistry and biotechnology to transform carbohydrates into hydrocarbons – to turn trees, crops or grasses into the oil and plastics our economy is already addicted to. That technological switch enables a switch in strategy for oil companies who are turning to biomass to produce the same products they already make and to liquidate forests and croplands in place of drilling in the deep oceans.


The switch to biomass could prove immensely profitable. Growing, harvesting, trading and transforming biomass into commercial products and services is already generating billions of dollars. The World Economic Forum estimates the biomass economy will be worth about 300 billion dollars by 2020 but the real figure may be as high as half a trillion dollars. The industries now adopting the biomass model of production range from chemical companies, oil majors, biotech, forestry and agribusiness giants to producers of fragrances, textiles, the building trade and the carbon trade – industries with a total net worth of over 17 trillion dollars. A global trade in biomass (woodchips, sawdust and pellets) is now emerging very fast and could be shipping at least 19 million tons of biomass by 2015. Here are the three areas of industry that are growing quickest in the new biomass economy:-


Bio-electricity: The cheapest and simplest way to extract value from biomass is to burn it. There is now a massive drive across the electricity sector to replace or supplement the burning of coal, gas and oil in electricity generation with burning biomass. Biomass power plants supply over 54 GW of electricity worldwide in over 50 countries consuming vast quantities of wood and other feedstock. Aside from gobbling up large areas of forest and plantation land to meet these demands, biomass burning also poses significant health risks for communities situated close to power plants. Wood smoke for example contains many toxic compounds, worsens respiratory illnesses and releases dangerous particulate pollution. Already between 2.7 and 3 million people die annually from inhaling woodsmoke. Nor does burning biomass reduce carbon dioxide emissions – but instead produces more CO2 at the smokestack per unit of energy than the coal it supposed to be replacing. That is before assessing the release of carbon from cutting forests, farming biomass crops and transporting plant material. Given the carbon emission costs of production and harvesting of biomass feedstocks, claims that biomass energy is carbon neutral or even carbon negative are simply myth.


Biofuels : The production of liquid fuels (so called Biofuels or agrofuels) from biomass is the poster child of the new bio-based economy and also the most controversial part. World Bank figures reveal that up to 75% of the global rise in food prices in 2008 that led to massive hunger and unrest worldwide was due to the biofuels policies of the US and Europe that were directing corn, soy and other foodstuffs towards fuel production.


Today the biofuels bandwagon is again picking up steam with investment going towards so-called ‘next generation’ biofuels. These include biofuels made of non-food feedstocks such as sugar cane and jatropha (a weedy nutbush), advanced biofuels that are hydrocarbons and behave very similar to petroleum as well as new fuels that are made from trees, grasses and the woody parts of plants (called cellulosic biofuels) or from pond algae (algal biofuels). At least 200 companies are now working on developing these ‘next generation’ biofuels and the hottest biofuel companies are now owned or partnered with major oil companies such as Shell, BP, Chevron, Total and Exxon. Many also are employing a high risk form of extreme genetic engineering known as synthetic biology where artificial microbes are used to ferment biomass into fuels.


Bio-based chemicals and plastics: If it’s unethical to turn food into fuels it should be doubly of concern to turn them into plastic bags and shampoo bottles but that is exactly the strategy being pursued by the chemical industry. The World Economic forum predicts that 9% of all chemicals will be made from biomass instead of petroleum by 2020 with the bioplastic sector leading the way. About 3.2 million metric tonnes of plastics are expected to be bio-based by 2015. ADM, Cargill, Coca cola, Proctor and Gamble and others are driving forward the bioplastics market, selling them as a ‘green’ option for consumers even though many bioplastics cannot be recycled or biodegrade and in some cases carry the same toxicity threats as oil based plastics.


A threat to ecosystems


In the context of the green economy, it’s important to recognize that what looks like a well meaning switch away from fossil feedstocks is really a grab – on lands, livelihoods and ecosystems. Sourcing the biomass for such a major switch in the global economy is going to require turning large areas of land over to biomass feedstock production – particularly expansion of sugar cane and cellulose monocultures – a shift of farming priorities from foods to new fast growing grassy crops such as miscanthus and bamboo and a large increase in farming of seaweeds and algae in deserts and coastal regions. Biomass is not evenly distributed around the globe. 86% of all annual biomass production is to be found in the tropics and so it is to the tropics –Latin America, Sub Saharan Africa and South East Asia that the new masters of biomass are turning their attention. The World Bank calculates that 21% of the global land grabs in the past few years are driven by the need for land to grow biomass feedstocks. Meanwhile, forest communities are reporting a rise in forest destruction to produce woodchips for the new biomass trade. As traditional communities are moved off their land, sometimes with force and violence, the new industrial biomass economy is evicting older, truly sustainable biomass based livelihoods.


The new biomass industry of course likes to present itself as “sustainable” and drawing only on abundant renewable resources; however human civilization already appropriates 24% of all global biomass and the rest is not enough to meet the task of cleaning the air, cycling water, sequestering carbon and providing the essential ecological functions needed to maintain ecological integrity. According to one measure (The Global Footprint) we are already taking one and a half times the amount of biomass we can sustainably remove from the planet’s ecosystems. By 2050 we will likely be taking twice the amount of biomass than is sustainable to remove. This is an untenable proposition, building up an ecological debt that nature has no way of being bailed out from. Far from saving the planet, the central championing of biomass in the vision of the green economy may catastrophically deepen our environmental crises while dispossessing those communities who actual have a useful bio-based model of living to offer.


* Jim Thomas is a member of the ETC Group, Canada.

For a deeper look at the threat of the biomass economy see “Los nuevos amos de la biomasa. Biología sintética y el próximo asalto a la biodiversidad.”

This article was first published in Spanish in América Latina en Movimiento, ALAI, No 468-469, El cuento de la economía verde, septiembre-octubre 2011,

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