We were happily enjoying a pre-Christmas coffee and surfing the Internet for some nice, planet-friendly Christmas presents when suddenly a new report on EU climate goals by not-particularly-green consultancy company McKinsey landed on our desks like an unwelcome slab of pannetone. Who in the St. Nick ordered this?
The report describes how the EU could achieve its net-zero emissions target at the lowest cost, concluding climate targets are feasible and won’t break the bank.
But while there may indeed be low-cost pathways, this report doesn’t actually provide one, because it relies on so many false or unjustified assumptions, many of which look wearyingly familiar.
Primus Inter Pares, Magical Zero-Carbon Biomass
Apparently if one invokes the word “sustainable” in conjunction with biomass often enough, this alleviates the gross scientific misconduct of counting biomass as having zero emissions. Sure, they pay a little lip service to needing to be careful about carbon, but mostly invoke “sustainability” a whole lot (without defining it), and accordingly conclude that “Increasing the use of sustainable bioenergy is critical to reaching net-zero GHG emissions in the European Union, particularly in hard-to-abate sectors, significantly reducing the cost of delivering a climate-neutral Europe” and, “From 2030, bioenergy is significantly less expensive than the next best option in power, steel and transportation.”
They emphasize that the EU should source biomass within its borders, but still go on to suggest that an alternative is “importing sustainable biomass from places like Canada.” We guess they’re unaware that the Canadian biomass industry, despite frequent claims of using mill residues, are currently mowing through old-growth forests to make wood pellets for export.
Reports like McKinsey’s are pernicious because they’re cited by the biomass industry and unscrupulous or uninformed policymakers as evidence that biomass is needed to reach climate goals – without reading or acknowledging the fine print (and in this case, there really isn’t much fine print). The report’s rather lazy assumptions about bioenergy are exactly why bioenergy plays such an important role in their modeling. Once this flaw is exposed, how can we take the report’s conclusions seriously? They are ignoring basic science.
The stakes are very high, and reports like this have an obligation to try harder. Globally, exploitation of forests for fuel is on the rise and EU policy is a significant driver. European forests are in poor shape. The wholesale harvest of Estonia since 2015 is just one of the sad outcomes of EU demand. This will not change under RED II – in fact, the EU’s new “sustainability” rules are expressly designed with industry input to ensure continued business-as-usual. The coming rules changes include no prohibition of logging old-growth or biodiversity-rich forests, and will do nothing to reduce CO2 emissions from bioenergy. But the report does not acknowledge any of this. Nor do its problems stop there.
Energy bloat and toxic emissions
The McKinsey study modeled multiple pathways to determine the “least cost” pathway for achieving net zero emissions, but the modeling did not constrain economic growth or consumption, nor did it “account for the value of the non-monetary benefits from reducing emissions, such as reduced air pollution and associated health benefits or reduced physical climate risks.” Thus, their “need” for biomass is based on projections of unconstrained growth – basically a recipe for ecosystem wipe-out – and the exclusion of pollution impacts means that in addition to ignoring the CO2 impacts of biomass, the health impacts are ignored, too. So convenient!
Let’s pretend there’s a magical technology…
Wading in further, and leaving a trail of pannetone crumbs behind to lead us back to reality, the report envisions significant use of carbon capture and storage (CCS), both with fossil fuels and with biomass (i.e., BECCS) as a means to achieve “negative emissions.” Never mind that this speculative and spectacularly expensive technological approach may not even work. If biomass isn’t carbon neutral, then biomass paired with CCS isn’t going to produce negative emissions, and it may not even produce net storage at all, depending the lifecycle emissions. The McKinsey authors don’t discuss any of this however.
Use of “residues” for fuels and new biomass grown on “marginal lands”
The report invokes other old chestnuts: that there are lots of agricultural and forestry residues that can be used for fuel (ignoring the carbon costs to soils when these are removed, and the fact that even use of residues entails a carbon cost); and that there are millions of hectares of “marginal lands” lying around that can be repurposed for growing biomass – 12 M ha for afforestation, and 30 M ha for energy crops.
They also don’t seem aware that biomass, and particularly agricultural residues, are not high quality fuels and thus can’t produce the high-quality heat required by many industries. Thus their scenario that “in Central Europe, local industry sectors could use the abundant supply of crop residues to fuel its high-temperature furnaces and boilers” is unrealistic.
Forest carbon concessions
The report does get some things right. We know, and the report endorses this, that storing carbon in trees and soils is one of the best and cheapest ways to keep CO2 from being released into the atmosphere. There are some light allusions to reducing forest management intensity to allow forests to sequester more carbon – a capitol idea! Yet, the report estimates the potential for a carbon sink as very low (350 Mt per year, mainly through reforesting 12 Mha of land freed up by greater efficiency in the agriculture sector), which is lower even than the European Commission estimates. European Commission research (p.186) shows that by 2050, the land sector could remove 500 Mt CO2e each year, and other studies show that it could be up to 1,000 or even 1,200 Mt CO2e (EUCalc scenario with ambitious land use trajectories and https://www.nature.com/articles/s41558-019-0591-9).
McKinsey is a huge firm that spent a year writing a glossy study likely to be cited by many, yet like so much “grey literature,” it is full of assumptions. We’re wondering when the authors of such studies will start taking climate change seriously enough to stop ignoring the science on bioenergy emissions and ecosystem impacts.