IPCC: Half of Renewable Energy is Wood, Charcoal, and Animal Dung

11 May

The IPCC recently released the Summary of a report about renewable energy. Both Pielke Jr. and Donna Laframboise have mentioned it, and once the final report comes out at the end of the month I’m sure we’ll hear more about it. However, in looking over the report I was stunned to find out what the IPCC considers as renewable energy (RE).

This story at Scientific American covers it very well. I recommend reading it.

Here’s the problem. The IPCC has different categories of renewable energy. They include solar, wind, hydro, geothermal, ocean, and biomass. Biomass is by far the largest category, it constitutes 79% of all renewable energy. Biomass is broken down into two groups: modern and traditional. Modern biomass is the smaller group at 38%. That means that the IPCC considers the largest single source of renewable energy in the world to be traditional biomass. This image from the report says it all (click to view):

Why is this a problem? Look at their definition of traditional biomass:

Traditional biomass is defined by the International Energy Agency (IEA) as biomass consumption in the residential sector in developing countries and refers to the often-unsustainable use of wood, charcoal, agricultural residues, and animal dung for cooking and heating. All other biomass use is defined as modern [Annex I].

Traditional biomass means cooking on wood stoves, it means difficult wood collection (done mostly by women), it means smoke inhalation and deforestation. Basically, traditional biomass is another way of saying abject poverty. It means no access to energy at all. Calling traditional biomass renewable energy is more than a strech.

It is bad enough that they are considering a lack of access to energy to actually be renewable energy, but what is even worse is that they consider it half of world’s total amount of renewable energy!

I mentioned this to a colleague, and he told me it was even worse yet. Burning wood and charcoal creates black carbon. This aerosol is considered to have a warming impact on the atmosphere. Isn’t one of the primary goals of renewable energy to combat climate change? After all, the report itself says (pg. 3):

As well as having a large potential to mitigate climate change, RE can provide wider benefits. RE may, if implemented properly, contribute to social and economic development, energy access, asecure energy supply, and reducing negative impacts on the environment and health [9.2, 9.3].

They claim that renewable energy can mitigate climate change and reduce negative impacts on the environment and health. However, their largest since source of renewable energy, traditional biomass, contributes to climate change by releasing black carbon, and has significantly negative impacts on both the environment, through deforestation, and on health, through smoke inhalation.

Including traditional biomass in a report on renewable energy cannot be defended. How can anyone now support renewable energy when it is defined as burning animal dung to heat your home or cook your food? Removing traditional biomass from the list of renewable energies may cut the UN’s number in half, but leaving it in place renders the report useless. As the UN defines it currently, supporting renewable energy means supporting abject poverty.


Posted by on May 11, 2011 in Uncategorized


10 responses to “IPCC: Half of Renewable Energy is Wood, Charcoal, and Animal Dung

  1. Donna Laframboise

    May 11, 2011 at 2:43 pm

    Oh my goodness. What are these people thinking?

  2. crljones

    May 18, 2011 at 2:36 pm

    Cow dung pollution. Oh, yes I have “fond memories” of this while trekking in Nepal in 1986.
    I first encountered the dark acrid smoke every winter morning from the local inhabitants “dung fires” they lit in the morning to cook and take away the chill. It was dreadful. I had to switch to a polarizing filter after that because every photo was wreathed in haze and the sky appeared a jaundiced yellow. Not only that the women and little children were often engaged in “harvesting” the dried or semi-dried cow patties deposited by sacred cows, water buffalo, donkeys and yaks on the roads and byways. Very unsavory to say the least! And this was in a major city that had (irregular) coal-fired generator power that also belched out smoke.

    While continuing thru the countryside, cow dung was the only heat/cooking source. While sleeping in guest houses the most coveted sleeping pad (oriental rugs of Yak wool over hard mud daub on rock) was not the top bunk – but the bottom. The reason was that it allowed the occupant another 30-40 minutes of delicious slumber before the choking smoke accumulated from the ceiling down to that level and nearly asphyxiated the person forced to breath that air.

    Oh yes. I have “fond memories” of Cow Dung fires in the Himalayas.

  3. Paddy

    May 23, 2011 at 1:40 pm

    There are several peer reviewed climate research papers that conclude that the great Asian brown pollutants cloud is caused in large part by burning biomass, including animal dung, wood, charcoal, and land clearing. Oh, China’s massive consumption of dirty (high sulfur) brown coal helps too.

    Germans have discovered that residues from making green biogas fuel to generate electricity contaminates surrounding areas with the ground with botulism pathogens than can infect birds and mammals, including humans.

    Frankly, I am not aware of any positive impacts burning biomass as a replacement for fossil fuels.

  4. Ross

    May 23, 2011 at 9:04 pm

    If we impoverish ourselves to the extent these morons advocate who will feed humanity ? Who will determine access to the luxury electricity will become ?

    And who will stand up in front of the 2 + billion impoverished people of the world and say I’m sorry but you have to die because we are firghtened by a 0.8 degree C increase in global temperature over a century so we cannot expand electricity supples and we had to shut down farming and food distribution that used evil fossil fuels ?


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