International controversy on whether or not woody biomass should be classified as a renewable energy source is raging. On December 15, Australia reversed woody biomass’s renewable classification, the first major economy to do so.

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Biomass refers to any kind of organic animal or plant material. Woody biomass is a subset comprised of residues and leftovers of the wood processing industry and of forest management. This includes damaged trees, low-value trees, insect-infested or diseased branches and small-diameter woody material. All this waste sounds promising. Might as well burn it for energy, right?

Related: The potential of microalgae biomass as a renewable resource

The problem is that burning biomass releases more carbon dioxide emissions per energy unit produced than coal. And it takes decades for that CO2 to be reabsorbed by new replacement trees.

Most countries are still ignoring this inconvenient research. But now that Australia has decided that woody biomass burned to produce energy can’t be classified as a renewable energy source, it’s a little awkward that other countries consider it renewable.

Chris Bowen, Australia’s minister of climate change and energy, acknowledged that burning native forest biomass can’t help Australia meet its renewable energy target, and the electricity it generates can’t be used to create tradable large-scale generation certificates.

“We have listened to the community and acted to address their concerns,” Bowen said in a statement.

Meanwhile, forested nations like Canada, Vietnam, the U.S. and parts of Eastern Europe are planning a harvest followed by a giant effort to make wood pellets. They’ll supply as a renewable  energy source to biomass-fired power plants in Japan, South Korea, the U.K. and the EU, among other places. In the EU, forest advocates are still fighting for a reversal on the renewable classification for woody biomass, and to end government subsidies to the multi-billion dollar wood pellet industry.

It will be interesting to see what happens next. As the world’s 13th largest economy, Australia is a major player.

“This is a big win for the community, who want the electricity sector decarbonized as quickly as possible and do not want to see native forests logged to enable coal-fired generators to switch to burning forests instead of coal,” said Bob Debus, chairman of Wilderness Australia, in a statement.

Via Mongabay, University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources

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