A coalition of environmental organizations has warned that bioenergy is far from being carbon neutral and that related carbon accounting systems currently in place are deceptive.

According to  Ecosystems Climate Alliance, an alliance of NGOs committed to “keeping natural terrestrial ecosystems intact and their carbon out of the atmosphere”, zero-emission bioenergy is a myth. It blames the loopholes in LULUCF’s (Land Use, Land Use Change and Forestry) accounting rules for the misconception. The organization made an announcement on the subject on the occasion of the Tianjin Climate Change Negotiations, which took place between 4 and 9 October 2010.

ECA says the LULUCF is ‘arcane’ and cryptic. It adds that developed countries at the Tianjin meeting, led by the EU, tried to manipulate the way emission targets are projected and reported to spur biofuel growth and hide its environmental cost. Countries with renewable energy targets allow biomass burners to stay out of emissions accounting, backed by the “deceptive assumption that prior sequestration is sufficient to neutralize the problem”, and give them generous financial incentives for generating “green energy”. This way they act as serious competition for real renewables like wind and solar, which have much higher unit cost of production.

The fact that emissions from logging and burning of biomass are left out of Kyoto Protocol accounting systems, ECA says, creates an “attractive but misleading way for industrialized countries to appear to be achieving their national emissions reduction targets under the Protocol through substituting bioenergy for fossil fuels. In reality, such substitution results in higher emissions than those from fossil fuel for the same amount of useable energy.”

“One of problems we face in trying to get the broader public, climate change and energy decision-makers to appreciate just how perverse it is to burn biofuels. Firstly, it's counter-intuitive - most people just tend to think about growing an agricultural crop and then processing and burning it where all those familiar notions of the renewability of growing vegetables on a patch of ground make it seem 'mostly harmless'” says Alistair Graham, of the Humane Society International, one of ECA’s partners.

CO2 is emitted when natural gas is extracted and wood is extracted from forests because a substantial proportion of the wood is unrecoverable (such as branches, roots and rot). This problem is worse in wet old growth and pristine forest where logging is followed by burning.

“The debate rarely dwells upon the almost inevitable fact that that patch of ground would have grown vegetation anyway - whether as agriculture, forestry or a natural ecosystem - that's just what naturally happens”, Alistair says. “So the growing of biomass is not 'additional' - the vegetation growth would have happened anyway. This argument does seem to be getting some traction in the guise of concern over the displacement of cropland away from growing food - especially food security issues in developing countries, subsistence communities.”

Besides emissions, ECA also highlights transport and storage problems associated with biomass, which requires massive infrastructure. This is one of the reasons wood is favoured over agricultural crops for pulp and paper production. The wood is stored ‘on the hoof’ in the forest and cut when needed. It also explains why agricultural crops are more commonly converted into liquid fuels, as these require less storage space.

“People do not appreciate how effective natural ecosystems are at storing carbon” says Alistair. “Some critics - usually those with vested interests in alternatives - are wont to assert that soil/peat carbon is less securely stored out of the atmosphere than fossil carbon. If left alone or managed carefully, natural vegetation is very good at maintaining itself and its soils for millennia, where climate change itself is the only thing that perturbs things - especially ice ages.”