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Earth Power Science

Why Small-Scale Biomass Energy Projects Aren't a Solution To Climate Change 178

Posted by samzenpus
from the try-something-else dept.
Lasrick writes "Roberto Bissio has an excellent piece in a roundtable on biomass energy, pointing out that small scale biomass energy projects designed for people in poor countries aren't really a solution to climate change. After pointing out that patent protections could impede wide-spread adoption, Bissio adds that the people in these countries aren't really contributing to climate change in the first place: 'Why? Because poor people, whose carbon emissions these technologies would reduce, produce very little carbon in the first place. As I mentioned in Round One, the planet's poorest 1 billion people are responsible for only 3 percent of global carbon emissions. The 1.26 billion people whose countries belong to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development account for 42 percent of emissions. The rich, if they reduced their emissions by just 8 percent, could achieve more climate mitigation than the poor could achieve by reducing their emissions to zero. The rich could manage this 8 percent reduction by altering their lifestyles in barely noticeable ways. For the poor, a reduction of 100 percent would imply permanent misery.'"
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Why Small-Scale Biomass Energy Projects Aren't a Solution To Climate Change

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  • Madagascar (Score:5, Insightful)

    by OglinTatas (710589) on Monday October 14, 2013 @03:32PM (#45125511)

    Poor people may not have much of a carbon footprint, but if there is no alternative to deforesting your island home, then the impact on the environment would be larger than just how much CO2 you produce.

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward
      • by fritsd (924429)
        Is that the border between Haïti and the Dominican Republic, by any chance? I read about that in one of Jared Diamond's books.
        • by mythosaz (572040)

          I'm not the OP, but yup - that's it.

          Wikipedia has a macro-scale image.
          http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deforestation_in_Haiti [wikipedia.org]

        • Is that the border between Haïti and the Dominican Republic, by any chance? I read about that in one of Jared Diamond's books.

          The policy of having a brutal dictator who considers the country his fiefdom and applies a shoot-to-kill anti-deforestation policy has few virtues; but the contrast along that particular border does illustrate one of them...

    • Contrary to what seems to be your belief, deforestation is a choice and it's not made exclusively by the poor. Nor are the poor resposible for the vast majority of habitat destruction such as deforestation. But it is universally the institutionalized quest for wealth in the hands of the ecologically ignorant that leads educated people to sacrifice the natural world without consideration for the concern for the consequences. In the words of Michio Kali, "Classical economics (in the absence of valuation of
      • Poor people do do a lot of the grunt work of habitat destruction, though, whether it be slash 'n burn agriculture or illegal logging.

        It isn't the guy who earns less in a year than a teak shower seat costs (and at Lowes, we aren't talking the luxury stuff here) who is 'responsible' for the illegal timber market in any serious way, he couldn't afford to drive the destruction of much of anything.

        However, if he were incrementally less poor and powerless, he'd probably be a much more useful ally for protec
    • And the main post also assumes that CO2 is the only driver in global warming. I have seen studies that suggest that soot from poor people's cooking stoves are just as much to blame. (Soot is very dark so is absorbs a lot of the sun's rays. Glaciers are shinny so they tend to reflect heat back into space. When soot lands on glaciers it darkens the glacier, causing them to shrink. A good example of a positive feedback loop. )

      • by kraut (2788)

        Positive in the negative sense ;)

        Having better cooking facilities can improve the lot of people in poor countries in lots of other ways. More efficiency => less time spent gathering fuel. Less smoke and soot => fewer health problems. Etc. etc.

      • Re:Madagascar (Score:4, Informative)

        by TapeCutter (624760) on Monday October 14, 2013 @06:33PM (#45127301) Journal
        The contribution of soot to climate change is dwarfed by our GHG and aerosols emissions [wikipedia.org], however it would have been much higher in the mid 20th century before clean air laws were instituted throughout the western world. Some soot lands on ice and speeds up the melt as you describe but most of the soot falls directly into the ocean which absorbs the extra heat it is carrying. The ocean is a gigantic heat sink, it is steadily warming due to our efforts, it's temperature defines the type of climate we have. Due to it's sheer size it has an immense thermal inertia, even without humans it will continue to warm for at least another 50yrs just to reach thermal equilibrium with the current +/-ve climate forcing from humans. The rise in ocean temps over the next 50yrs will represent the human induced climate forcings of the last half of the 20th century.

        The economic equation is fairly simple, spend the next 50yrs replacing the vast bulk of the dirty energy infrastructure built over the last 50yrs with clean infrastructure solar/wind/nuke/tidal/geothermal/did I leave someone's pet project out?). By mid-century we are no longer changing the climate, by the end of the century the climate has reached a new stable thermal equilibrium, which, all things being equal will slowly cool down to pre-industrial temps in a millennia or two by absorbing the extra carbon into the Earth's crust.

        The ability of the Earth's crust to absorb the extra carbon would be severely curtailed if the oceans became too acidic for shellfish to grows shells, but at that point the Earth's surface will look like an overworked goat farm and it will make little difference to the goat herders who survive the rapidly accelerating "sixth great extinction" we are experiencing today.

        Sure it will cost a gazillion dollars to replace that infrastructure but we've already spent that building the current infrastructure, and since coal plants don't last forever we will be doing it all over again in the next 50yrs anyway. Civilization has outgrown coal like we outgrew the horse and cart, it's time to push the luddites, vested interests and useful idiots back into the political wilderness where they belong. It's time to put engineers in the driver's seat, preferably arrogant showmen like Edison, Jobs, Gates, who can assemble other people's inventions into a viable industry.

        My personal favourite is hydrogen fuel cells for most portable energy needs such as cars, you could also use you car to supply several homes with electricity, or just build a fuel cell generator into the home, we can get rid of a lot of the fragile wiring that blocks out the modern sky, no more wide area blackouts every time the wind changes direction. But there's not much point doing that unless you can produce bulk hydrogen cleanly cheaper than you can produce it the dirty way. Doing it with sunlight or wind is a great example of a closed loop. H2O + energy => H2 + O2 => H20, the troposphere is more or less chemically saturated with H2O so it simply falls back into the ocean within a week or two. So if we are really lucky the 22nd century will be warm and damp and the mass migrations inland will have ceased.
      • I have seen studies that suggest that soot from poor people's cooking stoves are just as much to blame.

        Soot in general has non-negligible impact, yes. Food from poor people's cooking stoves, on the other hand, has not. First, it's a small amount, compared to industrial and other sources. And secondly, since it comes from small fires without much updraft and without high chimneys, it mostly settles locally. Not too many poor people live close to large glaciers.

    • Poor people may not have much of a carbon footprint, but if there is no alternative to deforesting your island home, then the impact on the environment would be larger than just how much CO2 you produce.

      You are allowed to complain about them deforesting when we move everyone out of the suburbs and reforest our own country to what it was.

      • Considering that there is now more forest in North America today than when Europeans first arrived, I am not sure what your point is.

        Suburbs are great for trees. Every house has 2 or 3. Owners actively planting them. Most cities have a urban forestry division, If you want a obvious example just look at any great plain city with satellite imagery. There should be no trees there yet that is all that you see. We can debate about old growth, the biodiversity, and habitat but the number of trees has grown.

        • Prior to the arrival of European-Americans about one half of the United States land area was forest, about 4,000,000 square kilometres (990,000,000 acres) in 1600, yet today it is only about 3,000,000 square kilometres (740,000,000 acres). Nearly all of this deforestation took place prior to 1910, and the forest resources of the United States have remained relatively constant through the entire 20th century.

          http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deforestation_in_the_United_States [wikipedia.org]

          You're just flat out wrong.
          And this doesn't even take into account the heavy deforestation caused by Native Americans prior to Europe's arrival. There is significant evidence of terrible ecological problems caused by large populations of Native Americans and their changes to the environment.

        • Coming into the San Fernando Valley, especially through the Sepulveda Pass, it looks like you're driving into a forest. Most of the valley is filled with single-story homes and most of them have, as you point out, one or more trees that are taller than the homes. Mostly what you see is trees, with occasional tall buildings sticking up. And, considering that the area would be semi-desert without water being brought in from hundreds of miles away, those trees couldn't survive without human intervention.
          • And, considering that the area would be semi-desert without water being brought in from hundreds of miles away, those trees couldn't survive without human intervention.

            Ah, so pumping millions of gallons of water out of rapidly diminishing aquifers is now good for the environment, is it?

        • by kraut (2788)

          If you think 2 or 3 trees on an American-sized plot of land makes a forest? Have you ever seen a forest?

    • Poor people may not have much of a carbon footprint, but if there is no alternative to deforesting your island home, then the impact on the environment would be larger than just how much CO2 you produce.

      That's what confused me about this piece: I don't think that I've ever heard anybody sell one of the various 'new, improved, not-dreadful, biomass heat/power device' ideas as being about CO2 emission. It's (1) generally the case that biomass is treated as 'carbon neutral' for accounting purposes, since its fuels all pulled their carbon out of the air, mostly within a few decades or less (indeed, some first-world burning of sawdust and other low-quality woody stuff in otherwise fairly conventional power plan

    • And there is also the issue of dependence from imports.

  • The Rich (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Anon-Admin (443764) on Monday October 14, 2013 @03:36PM (#45125561) Homepage Journal

    Right, the rich. That is EVERYONE reading this.

    The poorest 1 billion people on this planet do not have computers to read slash dot. As such they will not be taking part in the following discussion.

    • by Nrrqshrr (1879148)
      i don't think that the richest 1 billion people on the planet read /., either...
      • by raymorris (2726007) on Monday October 14, 2013 @03:59PM (#45125807)

        Do you live in India or China? If not, you're probably in that top 20%. I see you have a computer or mobile device , so that almost guarantees you're in the richest few hundred million.

        I make at least $50K, so I'm in the top 0.5% and I'm on Slashdot.

        • Do you live in India or China? If not, you're probably in that top 20%. I see you have a computer or mobile device , so that almost guarantees you're in the richest few hundred million.

          I make at least $50K, so I'm in the top 0.5% and I'm on Slashdot.

          So basically what you're saying here is that measuring personal wealth as a percentage of global finances is pointlessly asinine.

          I recall that industrial operations are responsible for somewhere between 60-80% of global greenhouse gas emissions; let's start there.

          • by raymorris (2726007) on Monday October 14, 2013 @04:29PM (#45126155)

            The EPA says industry accounts for 14% .
            Electricity is 38% and automobiles are 31%.

            You can reduce the emissions by cars primarily by increasing the production of electricity, while at the same time increasing other pollutants, so there's not much benefit working with cars until you have clean electricity.

            You can get about 8% of your electricity cleanly through hydro and wind. That does mean you'll have to put up with windmills in your backyard.
            Massachusetts had a big problem there - they wanted wind power, but refused to have windmills.

            So where are you going to get the other 92% of your energy? Natural gas is cleanER.
            Nuclear is really scary to the uninformed, but by FAR the cleanest. It produces an incredibly tiny amount of really nasty stuff and small amount of safe stuff that's scary because like our own bodies, it's "radioactive". Sun light is a billion times more radioactive, but for decades the "green" PR was so anti-nuclear that they are having a hell of time turning that around.

            • by kesuki (321456)

              the real problem with nuclear is the spent fuel needs to be cooled to store it.that place in japan has 12,000 rods being cooled in holding tanks. it needs to be reprocessed into new fuel rods by breeding while the rest is stored as slag with other metals creating a stable alloy that doesn't need cooled storage.

              • Nuclear:
                Requires a 8X5 meter pool of water to store the used fuel for a few years.

                Coal / biomass / ethanol:
                Belches millions of pounds of noxious fumes into the air.

                A hard choice?

                • Nuclear: Requires a 8X5 meter pool of water to store the used fuel for a few years.

                  Coal / biomass / ethanol: Belches millions of pounds of noxious fumes into the air.

                  A hard choice?

                  That's assuming you do it right.

                  Chernobyl irradiated half of Europe, and generation after generation will suffer higher incidence of birth defects and cancer because of it. Fukushima has proven that we didn't learn our lesson. Even if the doomsayers are wrong about the material leaking out into the Pacific, that would mean they're only wrong this time.

                  I'm not afraid of nuclear power -- I'm afraid of middle managers and accountants.

            • by rahvin112 (446269)

              Electricity is easy to clean up. It's fuel neutral, ie you can produce it any of a hundred different ways. Centrally run it's efficiency can approach theoretical limits. Because of it's massive point source it's easier to install scrubbing to clean the emissions and dramatically reduce the pollution. And it doesn't even have to be carbon based.

              Cars on the other hand are hugely inefficient, you have a fuel stock that's being used primary to generate waste heat with very little kinetic energy output (as a per

              • We're actually using more gasoline today than we were ten years ago, when it cost half as much. That's even though so many of us are unemployed.

                We're using alot more fuel than we were ten years ago - 10-15% of that fuel used to be food, that's the only change. We're burning a lot of ethanol and slightly more gasoline. Overall fuel usage is right about on trend. It's just more expensive fuel is all.

              • Cars on the other hand are hugely inefficient, you have a fuel stock that's being used primary to generate waste heat with very little kinetic energy output (as a percentage of stored chemical energy in the gasoline). If we switched all our cars to electric and used the gasoline to generate electricity we would need about half as much.

                {{Citation needed}}.

                As far as I've been told, chemical batteries are massively inefficient and generate heat in use, particularly during the recharge cycle. Then there's transmission losses within the electricity grid. Unless you use microgeneration, but that introduces new inefficiencies in terms of spin-up and spin-down cycles. The spin-up/down is less of an issue in gas turbines, but the overall efficiency of a gas turbine is lower than that of a traditional steam turbine, which is why steam turbines sti

                • by Alioth (221270)

                  Lithium batteries generate no heat during charging (unless there's a problem with them). NiCd and NiMH did, but no one uses those for motive power any more.

                  Diesel submarines use diesel because of the tremendous energy density of the diesel. This is compounded by most diesel submarines being built when lead acid batteries were the best batteries we had for motive power. Lead-acid is cheap but it's not at all energy dense, therefore to carry enough fuel to operate for the duration of the mission they need the

        • by kesuki (321456)

          yeah yeah but obama gave free cell phones to food stamp recipients. so that doesn't fly. also rich enough to afford a computer or a phone could reflect previous work prior to being sacked and unable to find work.
          i know a few hobos and at least one of them also loved video games especially grand theft auto. also the internet boom is global now.
          http://www.internetworldstats.com/top20.htm [internetworldstats.com]

      • by fatphil (181876)
        Pretty sure I'm in the top 100 million. Knowing what wages are like in the US compared to over here, I'd be surprised if more than a handful of those with technical IT-related jobs there aren't also in that top 100 million. Slashdot readers that aren't in the top billion would probably be in the minority.
    • We won't be taking part in the discussion either. That gets decided by lobby groups and politicians, all of whom are playing hot potato with the future. No one wants to be in office or be leading the fossil fuel industry when carbon can no longer be written off as externalized costs. That's why you hear only discussions of non-binding resolutions to limit carbon on the next guy's term.

      The voters and consumers themselves are also trying to convince themselves it's not real, so lobbyists and politicia
  • by raymorris (2726007) on Monday October 14, 2013 @03:39PM (#45125585)

    It should be noted that TFS uses "rich" in the global context. Here, "the rich" very much includes US beneficiaries of taxpayer subsidies such as aid to families and dependant children. If you're reading this on your phone, you are the 1%.

  • by LF11 (18760) on Monday October 14, 2013 @03:50PM (#45125711) Homepage

    I do not think there is a single answer to global energy needs. We need many answers, not just one magic answer. If this technology helps some people, then it is absolutely worthwhile. We need every bit of help we can get. If it's only a small fraction of a percent, that is fine; the technology is helping people and helping the earth. The least you could do is support it.

    Dismissing ideas because they won't replace fossil fuels is foolish. Replacing fossil fuels is going to take a combination of ideas, probably in combination with production decentralization.

  • by minstrelmike (1602771) on Monday October 14, 2013 @03:51PM (#45125719)
    Most people have ideological blinders on. In politics, it is easy to see. The conservatives rail against the high cost of government (perhaps true although talking only about cost without considering benefit seems stoopid) yet spend their time complaining about the NIH or some silly program that is .000001% of the budget.

    Same with energy solutions and climate change. Some folks think batteries are going to save us because apparently their thinking about energy generation stops at the electric plug.

    One reason the cost of solar has yet to catch up to the cost of oil is because every time the price of oil goes up, there is more oil available. When the cost goes up, it is profitable to drill deeper and to keep marginal wells and refineries open longer. Basic economics.

    We need affordable energy today. I think giving the poor people who need energy today a cheap and hopefully sustainable solution is addressing the issue (instead of increasing it by giving them oil wells and SUVs) but it doesn't address the big sunk costs of dams which are silting up or transmission wires which are growing old or energy generating plants which last for 40 or 60 years.

    Same old same old. Most of the folks who present solutions can't even accurately describe the problem and the current situation.
    • by dave420 (699308)
      Or maybe we could use your seemingly-limitless supply of straw men as fuel. Problem solved!
  • The reason gas prices are so high isn't because of low supply, it's because of high demand, from emerging markets (China and India in particular). While the amount of greenhouse gas used now by low-income countries isn't high, improving their electric grid and using renewable resources will not only decrease the rate of growth in CO2, but it will also be a good test bed for building a new grid. Eventually these new areas will ramp up demand and there will need to be something there.

    • by Obfuscant (592200)

      While the amount of greenhouse gas used now by low-income countries isn't high, improving their electric grid and using renewable resources will not only decrease the rate of growth in CO2, but it will also be a good test bed for building a new grid. Eventually these new areas will ramp up demand and there will need to be something there.

      This. The issue is not how little they produce today, but how can we tell them "no" when they want to produce more tomorrow? They won't want to wait for the zero-carbon final solution in a decade, they want to join the developed world today. Any attempt to tell them how bad it will be for the globe if they do would be viewed with the same disdain population control discussions are.

    • by kraut (2788)

      Dude, if you call it "gas", the cost of it is ludicrously low where you live. Move somewhere where they call it "petrol" for a while, and wince at what high prices really mean.

      • by Enry (630)

        That high cost in other countries is primarily due to taxes. Maybe I should have said oil rather than gas.

  • It's not a solution to climate change and never was or will be. It's a solution to getting at least some energy infrastructure in the poor parts of the world. One thing we have to worry about is scaling this technology, since it creates an easy path deforestation (as others have pointed out). Biomass energy production should ideally use only waste biomass from agriculture and such.
  • by TheCarp (96830) <sjc@nospAm.carpanet.net> on Monday October 14, 2013 @04:02PM (#45125853) Homepage

    > 'Why? Because poor people, whose carbon emissions these technologies would reduce, produce
    > very little carbon in the first place. "

    So far, haven't poor, third world countries, which were ramping up their industrial capacity, been among some of the larger sources of Carbon? I mean, its clear that we wealthy nations produce the lions share but.... isn't looking for ways to decentralize and get the poor of today thinking about green development.... isn't that part of getting ahead of easily predicted future compounding of the problem?

    I mean, is it really fair to say to them "hey you know what...we need to cut our emissions so much that you....you can't have new technology"? Is it realistic to assume that those who have no carbon footprint today, will be happy continuing that way tomorow?

    Is this a solution? No likely not, but, I don't think there is going to be A solution aside from embracing the power of "AND".

  • What ways are that? The article gives no details, just a statement. I'm sure if the suggestions were 'barely noticeable' more people would do them.

  • "[S]mall-scale projects -- because of their potential to mitigate climate change and support sustainable rural development, without undermining food security or incurring unmanageable expense -- deserve a great deal of attention."

    Sorry, poor people, that tech potentially mitigates climate change. No sustainable rural development for you. Buy our industrial ethanol. Or perhaps you'd like a nice molten salt solar reactor.

    "Bioenergy, the agency argues, can play a significant role in achieving global access

  • Carbon? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by nospam007 (722110) * on Monday October 14, 2013 @04:40PM (#45126299)

    Getting free Biogas for cooking, lighting or produce electricity plus a better fertilizer is nothing to sneeze at.

  • by Daetrin (576516) on Monday October 14, 2013 @04:47PM (#45126357)
    He's right that, on average, the people in poor countries aren't the immediate problem. He's also right that we should be doing something about the immediate problem.

    However focusing _solely_ on quick fixes to the immediate problem is exactly how we got into this problem in the first place. If we focus only on reducing the carbon output of the rich, then by the time we've got that under control we'll find that those poorer nations have developed the same kind of ecologically unfriendly economies that the rich nations have now, and we'll have to go through the whole fight against the same entrenched interests all over again.

    Unless of course he's proposing that the poor nations should not or can not become economically developed, which i just don't believe to be the case. (If we want any kind of long term peace and stability on this planet we're going to have to bring everyone up to about the same economic level, but that's an argument for another post.)

    He's making the same mistake that many a slashdotter does when a story comes up about someone spending time and money on the "wrong" thing. (Most frequently "on space" rather than "fixing stuff here on Earth.") We are not in some giant 4x game where we have to focus all our research and all our industry on a single project at a time. We can invest on improving the efficiency of developed nations while at the same time improving the capacity of poor nations in an ecologically friendly way.
    • by kraut (2788)

      Of course, the most effective short tern effort would be to slap a 200% tax on gas in the US, and add a huge carbon levy on electricity and natural gas.

      You could make it budget neutral by subsidising fuel-efficient cars, public transport, and home insulation.

      Sadly, that's never going to happen.

  • by Solandri (704621) on Monday October 14, 2013 @04:53PM (#45126421)

    Bissio adds that the people in these countries aren't really contributing to climate change in the first place: 'Why? Because poor people, whose carbon emissions these technologies would reduce, produce very little carbon in the first place.

    That's an incredibly short-sighted and static viewpoint. Which two countries increased their greenhouse gas emissions the most in the past few years? China and India - both developing countries. Unless you intend to keep these poor countries poor for the foreseeable future, they're going to modernize at some point. The logical way to proceed is to get them hooked on clean energy from the onset is to prevent growth in carbon emissions in the future. If you just say they don't pollute enough to matter, you're eventually going to arrive at a state where the rich nations drop their carbon emissions to near zero but global emissions are still increasing because those formerly-poor nations are now burning coal.

    There's a tremendous opportunity here in developing nations. Like many of them skipped landline phone networks and jumped straight to cellular, they can skip the coal and oil plants and jump straight to hydro, nuclear, wind, and eventually solar.

  • ...Why Small-Scale Biomass Energy Projects Don't Need To Be a Solution To Climate Change

    ...because that was not the intent, nor is a deliverable, of biomass projects in third world countries.

    ...or in any country, really. Biomass doesn't have the capacity to be a significant, centralized part of an industrial country's energy usage. But biomass solutions are a good fit to generate power in the third world, and the technology deserves to be pursued for this purpose. (It's also a good solution for small

  • by Tokolosh (1256448) on Monday October 14, 2013 @07:11PM (#45127623)

    Why are we even discussing this before we have sufficient evidence that reducing carbon emissions is the optimal strategy?

  • In fact, the fertility rates in the developed world are much less than in poor regions. The fertility rates in sub-Saharan Africa are more than twice that of the developed world. Therefore a poor person's carbon footprint is much higher. http://www.econ.yale.edu/~pschultz/cdp925.pdf [yale.edu]

  • Because climate change doesn't require a solution.

    That is, until we know enough to define at least what is actually bad about the climate change that will occur over the next 100 years.

    You should try to solve a problem that you truly understand virtually nothing about. It just leads to bad and worse solutions, piled on top of each other as your understanding shifts.

  • There's evidence for this at last? Really?

    [citation required]

    Biiig problem since the last ice age. Seems to have slowed down now. When was the last time YOU actually checked?

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