Why The IPCC Is Wrong About Bio-Energy

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So, the IPCC has released their report on climate change mitigation. Naturally various people are in spin-mode. Greenpeace’s “journalism” wing have “15 key findings from the IPCC mitigation report.” Unsurprisingly the findings that do not suit Greenpeace’s agenda are not key.

And some journalists are doing a woeful job in doing their job. Damian Carrington of the Guardian tells us that the IPCC have concluded that mitigating climate change is “eminently affordable.” Meanwhile in a separate story the Guardian reports the IPCC telling Mr. Carrington that they are not allowed to make such conclusions.

But instead of hectoring journalists and complaining about the inevitable platitudes doled out in response to this report, I will instead suggest that the IPCC needs a good kick up the arse.

Consider what they say about bio-energy in the summary for policy-makers.

The table on page 18 informs us that if we only use a “limited” amount of “modern” bio-energy then the costs of keeping things to 450 ppm CO2-equivalent will increase by 64%. This 64% is a median figure, the range is from 44-78%.

So, they are expressing reasonably high confidence that restricting ourselves to “limited” bio-energy will make things much more expensive.

However their definition of “limited” bio-energy is rather absurd, hence my suggestion that they need a kick up the arse.

What is limited? 100 EJ of “modern” bio-energy per year. For context we consume around 450 EJ of fossil fuels each year. So “limited” bio-energy means that we will get the equivalent of 20% of current global primary energy consumption from “modern” bio-energy.

This is not “limited” in any sense, and it is easy to see why.

100 EJ per year corresponds to an average power of around 3.2 TW, that is 3.2 trillion watts. How much land would we need for this to come from bio-energy? Well, a lot.

Typical bio-energy plantations provide a power density of less than 0.5 watts per square metre, and this is after significant fossil fuel inputs through nitrogen based fertilizers etc.

So to get 3.2 TW from bio-energy we will need something like 6 million square kilometres of land to be converted to bio-energy plantation. This is roughly two times larger than India. Of course with a bit of genetic engineering and good luck perhaps we could shove this down to 3 million square kilometres. But a land mass the size of India is not “limited” by any definition.

According to the FAO total global arable land is 14 million square kilometres, just over two times bigger than the land we might need to get “limited” amounts of energy from bio-energy. It already appears to be the case that existing biofuels have put vast pressures on land use, and are resulting in significant increases in food prices. Just imagine what a few million square kilometres of arable land being converted over to biofuel plantation might do.

Of course some of this bio-energy could come from forest plantations. The IPCC maybe have bio-coke in mind, so that we can continue making over a billion tonnes of primary steel each year without needing over half a billion tonnes of coal.

How much forest plantation do we currently have? In 2005 it was just over 1.4 million square kilometres. Converting all of this over to biomass plantation would provide us with around a quarter of this “limited” bio-energy. Perhaps we could just convert the whole of the Amazon rainforest over to biomass plantation, it is only 5.5 million square kilometres.

So if we want “cheaper” mitigation we will need to convert perhaps well in excess of 6 million square kilometres of land over to bio-energy plantation. Does the IPCC really believe this is credible?



19 thoughts on “Why The IPCC Is Wrong About Bio-Energy

    Proteos said:
    April 13, 2014 at 4:44 pm

    For the last series of the IPCC report there were issues with WG2’s work such as glaciers that would melt at an impossible pace. I think that this time, such errors may be revealed in WG3’s work. This will once again damage the reputation of IPCC.

    It must be said that WG3’s work is very close to policy recommandations. As such it is much more prone to be hijacked by lobbies and to make ludicrous claims.


      Robert Wilson said:
      April 13, 2014 at 6:28 pm

      Politics comes into the mitigation report far more than the others. So my suspicion is that there is far less rigour in comparison. However it is also receives very little scrutiny.

      I don’t quite see the value of the report anyway. Energy policy really needs to be looked at at the national level. Compare the UK and China. One that is seeing the final death of coal, while the other is dominated by coal. One has flat, or perhaps declining, per capita energy consumption. The other has rapidly increasing per capita energy consumption.

      The IPCC should abolish these global reports and write thing aiming at regions. Then they might be worth reading.


        Proteos said:
        April 13, 2014 at 10:26 pm

        True enough. The situations of different groups of countries (or sometimes of a single country like China) warrant a study of their situation and of the specific options that should be on the table given this very situation. There’s little in common between the situation of India, China, Western Europe and the US.


    stewgreen said:
    April 14, 2014 at 10:54 am

    Do they mention getting biofuels from the sea ?
    that way they’d need less extra land than 6/14 or 43% quoted above


      Daniel Scheven said:
      April 14, 2014 at 6:39 pm

      Re land use: the revenue generated for bio energy are no where near high enough for the farmers to change their land use from food to bio energy production. The farmers have over the last three years experienced a bonanza in profits from food crop sales never seen before since World War 2, so no way they give that up for energy generation. The key word is crop rotation which even the most farm illiterate – such as the author of this article appears to be – ought to have heard of: crop rotation is about rotating food crop for non food crop to maintain the health of the soil, a practice in farming pretty much ever since mankind existed. To date the non food crop has been a nuisance to farmers, they grow it feed livestock such as cows, pigs and horses or for insulation materials for cars (such as hemp). With the arrival of modern bio energy technologies these crops can now be put to very full use! So coming back to the land argument in the article most of that land can indeed be used for bio energy use as much as it can be used for food production! In fact it makes farming so much more efficient and allows the farmer to become both the provider for food as well as energy!


        Robert Wilson said:
        April 14, 2014 at 6:45 pm

        If you have a financial interest in bio-energy, which you do given your website, then please state it. It might make you calling me illiterate more palatable.


        crf said:
        April 15, 2014 at 12:48 am

        If cover crops which had been used for animal feed and insulation material for cars instead are burned for bio-energy, then new land will have to be put into production to make up the deficit of animal feed, and new sources of material for car insulation will have to be found.


    Vieras said:
    April 15, 2014 at 3:33 am

    Crop rotation is used in farming, but it is by far not a nuisance. You just switch between different grains now and then. At no point are farmers forced to grow something they don’t want to grow. Unless the government forces them to, of course.


    Donough Shanahan said:
    April 15, 2014 at 7:49 am

    It is not the only issue I have with the IPCC. They are essentially claiming that living standards will not be affected. That is certainly debatable.

    A good breakdown of carbon footprints from the energy collective is below. My own emissions came out around the 4.2 tCO2 mark (+ 3 tCO2 for the government services) which is around the world average and half the UK average. Some sources suggest that if we wanted to keep to the 2C limit, we would need to be around 2 tCO2.

    The main point is even with my significantly different energy use to most in the UK (electricity 1/3 of UK average, don’t drive), I still cannot make the grade. I do not see most people even attempting to get where I am. The IPCC is suggesting that personal actions are not important but clearly we can see that that is rubbish due to the long time scales of renewable deployment and the high amount of CO2 emissions inherently emitted IMO.



    […] Hickman.  The Mail picks up on the surprising IPCC endorsement of gas and fracking. Robert Wilson criticises the report, saying that “the IPCC needs a good kick up the arse”, in regard to what it says about […]


    Dustin Benton said:
    April 15, 2014 at 4:02 pm

    Just a thought: to what extent would the 100 EJ of ‘modern bioenergy’ replace traditional biomass energy use? Ecofys reckoned that about 35 EJ is used as traditional biomass today: http://assets.panda.org/downloads/the_energy_report_lowres_111110.pdf (p111 for the underlying Ecofys analysis). Of course, that’s still more than one India of biomass to find…


      Robert Wilson said:
      April 15, 2014 at 5:22 pm

      Thanks Dustin. A good question.

      Your question could be read in a couple of different ways. So I’ll make some comments on both.

      In terms of energy services “modern” bio-energy largely will not replace traditional biomass. Mostly traditional biomass is used for heating and cooking which you could do without “modern” bio-energy. My presumption is that the IPCC imagine “modern” bio-energy replacing fossil fuels where high energy dense fuels are required, i.e. shipping, aviation and many industrial applications.

      I guess it could be possible that the land currently used for traditional bio-energy could be switched over to “modern” bio-energy. However how much help this is is unclear. Estimates of traditional biomass vary a lot, i.e. plus/minus 55%. See the paper below.


      Another problem of course is whether these things are carbon neutral in the first place. There is reasonable evidence indicating that they are not. Then there is the issue of land use. Why not just let cropland become forest, and burn natural gas, instead of using it for bio-energy?

      And certainly the IPCC’s bio-energy ideas could prove disastrous if we end up cutting down literally continent sized forest to make way for these plantations.

      So, it really seems to be very difficult to see how the IPCC’s carbon accounting on this is sound.


        Donough shanahan said:
        April 15, 2014 at 10:43 pm

        Why not just let cropland become forest, and burn natural gas, instead of using it for bio-energy?

        This reminds me of the bioethanol versus methonap debate on r squared some years ago. What is the shortest energy path?


    CJ Orach - peopleneedpower said:
    April 16, 2014 at 5:39 pm

    Reblogged this on Power To The People and commented:
    wind Turbines emitt more CO, kill birds & bats, produce a fraction of the energy fossil fuel does and are weather dependent and unreliable sources of energy. Ditto Solar. Biofuel,Solar and wind turbine require enormous amount of land which destroy natural habitats and land for food crops. Even the IPCC admits they will skyrocket energy costs which will harm the poor the most. So why is government promoting them with the use of tax payer dollars? See @greencorruptionfiles


    Mark Pawelek said:
    April 16, 2014 at 10:49 pm

    Bioenergy is pointless destruction of the environment. If we need liquid fuels we can make ammonia using high-temperature molten salt reactors. Not the LFTR, but those we can build today using uranium/plutonium. Automobiles could run on fuel cells driven by ammonia (which is a lot easier to store than hydrogen). Here’s a suitable MSR, to make electricity cheaper than coal: [ video: http://bit.ly/1ihishs , white paper: http://bit.ly/1eDmZpz ]
    Environmentalists are holding back nuclear power too. We have 4 to 10 year approval processes costing hundreds of millions for each new design. This is the major hurdle holding back Gen IV nuclear power. It’s the major reason why you’ll be getting the renewables you might not want.


    Blowout week 16 – Easter Weekend | Energy Matters said:
    April 20, 2014 at 5:12 pm



    oldbrew said:
    April 21, 2014 at 5:14 pm

    Reblogged this on Tallbloke's Talkshop and commented:
    Being wrong about things seems to be a way of life at the IPCC.

    A UK committee of MPs demanded the brakes be put on biofuel crops last year, but the IPCC is obviously not listening to that. They seem oblivious to reason sometimes – or was it most times?


    Brian H said:
    April 27, 2014 at 5:57 am

    Only the EU is stupid enough to try to subsist on biofuel.


    Blowout week 17 | Energy Matters said:
    April 27, 2014 at 5:50 pm



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