Does renewable mean sustainable?

It has become relatively clear that the questions I raised in the project brief and initial blog are not answered directly in peer reviewed literature. A few research papers as well as the International Energy Agency (IEA) Bioenergy conclude that there is a knowledge gap identifying value systems underlying bioenergy decision-making (Johnson et al., 2013). The primary research that I will propose will have to fill this gap.

Australia’s forgotten renewable energy source

Meanwhile, my active reading has been for understanding the bioenergy industry. Bioenergy is in its infancy in Australia, so much of the rapidly evolving knowledge comes from experiences in  North America and Europe.

Modern bioenergy converts renewable organic matter or biomass (material recently derived from plants and animals) into more efficient and convenient forms to produce electricity, heat and transport fuels. Following international conventions such as the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, and various national or regional mandates such as the European Union Renewable Energy Directive (EU-RED) and the U.S. Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS2), global production of bioenergy has increased with aims to increase energy security, reduce greenhouse gases (GHGs) and stimulate regional development (The Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA))

“Bioenergy currently accounts for nearly 1% of Australia’s electricity production, and 7% of renewable electricity production. Biofuels account for approximately 1-3% of Australia’s fuel consumption” (ARENA). The Conversation (and also the Renew Economy) recently published the article Australia’s forgotten renewable energy source (so far).

“sustainable” renewable energy – ethanol from cornstarch

Conventionally, “food” crops such as sugarcane, cornstarch, oil palm or rapeseed are converted into ethanol and biodiesel (liquid transport fuels) and woody biomass from the forestry industry is converted into heat and electricity. Despite the emission of fewer GHGs than fossil fuels, this bioenergy production has negative social (eg. poor food sovereignty) and environmental (eg. deforestation and decreased biodiversity) impacts. Being “renewable” doesn’t automatically make it sustainable. Or does it?

Bioenergy sustainability governance

As a reaction to the negative impacts, sustainability governance measures have been introduced and adapted. It is a point of my discussion why measures aren’t proactively implemented before commencement of negatively impacting industries.

To count towards national renewable energy targets, the sustainability criteria of the EU-RED, require liquid transport biofuels not be produced from raw materials “grown in areas converted from land with previously high carbon stock such as wetlands or forests” or “obtained from land with high biodiversity such as primary forests or highly biodiverse grasslands”. Additionally, “biofuels must achieve greenhouse gas savings of at least 35% in comparison to fossil fuels” (this percentage increases over time). The U.S. RFS2 (2010 version) mandated specific standards for cornstarch ethanol, biomass-based diesel, non-food biomass. The total volume of renewable fuel required to be blended into transport fuel was increased, thus encouraging less overall GHG emissions.

2010 European Commission issued non-binding recommendations on sustainability criteria for woody (solid) biomass producing heat and electricity. They forbid biomass from land converted from forest, high carbon stock areas and highly biodiverse areas and GHG emissions must be at least 35% less compared to fossil fuels.

In a study by Stupak et al. (2016) 68% of 116 respondents (mostly located in Europe or North America) agreed that international initiatives “do not adequately ensure the sustainability of bioenergy” (p. 98).

The 2015 revision of Australia’s Renewable Energy Target (RET) scheme has decreased the amount of electricity that must be generated by renewable energy sources by 2020 by approximately 20% compared to the previous RET mandate. This, in contrast with foreign policies, is discouraging the reduction of GHG emissions. Additionally, the Australian government has allowed “native forest wood waste as an eligible source of renewable energy” (Australian Department of the Environment, 2015). Wood waste eligibility has changed twice since 2001 depending on the party in government. This is particularly controversial due to the contrasting views of what constitutes “sustainable”. Since 1992, Australia’s Sustainable Forest Management (SFM) framework allows native forests to be harvested for lumber, paper products or woodchip exports (Baumber, 2016).

The Australian Greens’ (2015) aims include “a prohibition on use of native forests for electricity generation” and “an end to the export of woodchips and whole logs from native forests”. They support bioenergy sourced from forest plantations (and aim to support workers’ transition from the native forest industry) and “sustainable alternative fibre industries”.

bioenergy crop_0
Wood for energy

Now a range of biomass sources

Meanwhile, forestry residues, dedicated energy crops, agricultural crop residues, algae, manure and municipal wood waste have become an additional and alternative (to food or forest) source of biomass. Additionally, technology has now developed to convert woody biomass into liquid transport fuels (traditionally it only converted to heat and electricity).

It is these woody biomass sources of energy that my research will focus on. Specifically:

  • residues from native and plantation forestry processes
  • dedicated woody energy (agricultural) crops (eg. mallee eucalyptus grown near Perth)
  • municipal wood waste
An experimental eucalyptus plantation

As these woody biomass sources can now be converted to electricity, heat and transport fuels, my research needs to uncover perceptions of the sustainability of these specific bioenergy processes.

Social construction

Social construction is the way social factors (cultural, political, historical, economic and psychological matters) influence, shape or otherwise determine processes or outcomes (Irwin, 2001).

An essential part of my social science research is to consult a variety of stakeholders in Australia to manage their varied roles and interests in this bioenergy supply chain. I have classified them as direct actors (eg. land owners, refiners, retailers, investors etc), or indirect actors (eg. rural communities), oversight officials (eg. government administrators) or interested parties (eg. associations, NGOs, academia, government regulators) based on two other comparable research projects.

Each stakeholder group has “different industrial histories, cultures, and values, as well as information flows and decision processes” (Johnson et al., 2013). An Australian leader within my partner organisation, IEA bioenergy, has recently asked permission of Australian bioenergy stakeholders to release their anonymous responses to the 2012 IEA Bioenergy global survey on sustainability certification of biomass, biofuels, and bioenergy.

The conception of bioenergy sustainability of direct actors in the supply chain and industry associations is “market stability and growth” (Johnson et al., 2013). This highlights conflicting definitions of sustainability.

My proposed primary research will ask qualitative questions of these stakeholders to reveal how they define bioenergy sustainability and their underlying, often hidden, motivations for progressing the industry. I will also invite them to suggest their preferred sustainable governance approach for the future. Perhaps answers will reveal whether Australia’s bioenergy stakeholders in fact believe that renewable means sustainable.

Baumber, A. (2016). Bioenergy crops for ecosystem health and sustainability: New York Routledge.
Irwin, A. (2001). Institutional judgements and contested decisions: The governance of environmental problems. Sociology and the environment, 113-135.
Johnson, T. L., Bielicki, J. M., Dodder, R. S., Hilliard, M. R., Ozge Kaplan, P., & Andrew Miller, C. (2013). Advancing Sustainable Bioenergy: Evolving Stakeholder Interests and the Relevance of Research. Environmental Management, 51(2), 339-353. doi:10.1016/S 1462-9011 (00)00105-2.
Stupak, I., Joudrey, J., Smith, C. T., Pelkmans, L., Chum, H., Cowie, A., . . . Junginger, M. (2016). A global survey of stakeholder views and experiences for systems needed to effectively and efficiently govern sustainability of bioenergy. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Energy and Environment, 5(1), 89-118. doi:10.1002/wene.166
Australian Greens (2015) Natural Resources: Forests, Mining and Fisheries

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