Can’t see the forest for the trees?
February 11, 2014
By Patricia Hanney
Canada’s renewable fuel targets have been in place since 2010.
Canada’s renewable fuel targets have been in place since 2010. The transition from first-generation feedstocks to more advanced options highlights forest biomass as a promising option; however, the lack of clarity at the federal, provincial and local levels could hamper this development and create unforeseen problems.
As we have yet to identify a scientifically proven method to assess the sustainability of biofuel production from the range of biomass options out there, it makes it harder for decision and policy makers to design and implement coherent guidelines for bioenergy feedstock production. Attempts have been made to understand how to go about assessing impacts of biofuels production through Comprehensive Environmental Assessment, which takes into account the whole supply chain and accompanying stakeholders. Guidelines designed for the removal of woody biomass are implemented at the provincial level, and apply to public but not private forested lands. The maritime provinces of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia have made the most notable contributions to biomass removal guidelines. British Columbia, the largest domestic exporter of forest products, has been slower to address the sustainability concerns of harvesting (B.C. accounted for 34.8 per cent of forest product exports in 2010).
As expectations and demands for forest residues are set to increase, both wood pellet and biomass producers would benefit from the creation of legislation that assesses risk factors and offers clear guidelines.
Crown lands make up the majority of Canadian forests (93 per cent), with less than 0.2 per cent being harvested each year. The annual allowable cut (AAC) from the forest is governed at the provincial level. Certification initiatives, on the other hand, are voluntary, market-driven schemes that implement standards through a set of guiding principles with numerous criteria and indicators. They ensure that sustainability standards have been met throughout the supply chain with the use of chain-of-custody, which acts as a tracking mechanism for forest products as they leave the site. A sustainability label is then awarded when these standards have been met, rendering the product “certified.” Right now, over 150 million hectares of Canadian forest are certified under one of following programs: The Canadian Standards Association, the Forest Stewardship Council and the Sustainable Forestry Initiative. The challenge for Canada is to find a way to ensure that these various certification schemes can be harmonized and consistent, with standards that are applicable at local, national and international levels.
Without harmonized regulation, it’s very difficult to make optimal decisions on environmental impact, sustainable development, and life-cycle assessment; understanding the environmental performance of forestry-based biofuels across each stage of the supply chain is next to impossible, and a range of negative environmental consequences on soil, water, and air quality, as well as biodiversity, could occur. If progress is to be made within the parameters of existing forestry certification initiatives and provincial guidelines, attention must be directed at the harvesting and operation management patterns at the local and regional levels. Harmonized regulation could standardize the process of biomass removal, creating a level playing field that would help to reduce uncertainty for wood pellet and biomass producers.
Ideally, a set of legislated guidelines would enable industry to follow clear requirements in line with developments of the European Renewable Energy Directive. As the forest industry continues to develop this valuable opportunity, Canada needs to ensure that we give forest-derived biomass the regulation it needs to thrive.
| Patricia Hanney
Biomass feedstocks are undeniably one of the most important considerations for the emerging bioeconomy. Patricia Hanney and Dr. Terry McIntyre’s research at Concordia University, Montreal, looks at the environmental sustainability of biomass options and policy developments for advanced biofuels.
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