Biomass (-growth) is our reference : Back to the forests

By now its obvious: the way we are currently dealing with climate, environment, raw materials, food, biodiversity, will not help us prevent disasters. But what then? The struggle and discussion on solutions is in full swing currently. Just look at the energy transition. We do not want fossil fuels anymore: nice for a few decades, but the use changes the system in such a way that there is no room for us as humans, we are returning the earth to a state of millions of years ago, liberating that CO2 again, which had been captured in millions of years and created a climate in which we could come to existence. Turning that backwards, ergo we disappear again. We don’t want that, so we look for other ways to provide our energy: sun, wind, biomass, hydro-power (all sun, sometimes 2nd order). And the discussion about biomass (-burning) in particular is exemplary and flying in all directions. “We need it to maintain our energy supply” it is said. But it is not sustainable and not sensible. We are trying to calculate in such a way that biomass burning seems to be ‘CO2 positive’, but we will never bring the CO2 emissions to 0. There is a delay in burning and restoring, while even a balance would no longer be enough [1]. Then what? After all, fossils will no longer be part of our future.

Solar cells and wind turbines (and the associated huge networks and storage systems) require an enormous amount of materials and metals, which in turn require an enormous amount of energy to produce. Not very convenient, since then we need more and more biomass as so-called renewable energy to produce them.

A first conclusion cannot be anything other than that we must reduce energy demand significantly. That is, to stay within a maximum of what can be produced per day or per year on a renewable basis. And I don’t mean reckoned with the incoming solar energy and wind, there is enough of that. But in order to absorb, convert and use that, energy must be invested again: and the energy for producing conversion systems must of course all come from a renewable source. The calculation must therefore be made including the systems to be set up to use them in our society.

But then there is also the non-energy related use of biomass, such as the bulk of materials for homes, for example. And I’m not referring to the Netherlands here, but worldwide: there are hundreds of millions of people still without a home, and billions are arriving in the next decades. These must all be made from renewable materials: after all, you can make them from non-renewed materials, but these are much more energy-intensive in production, and where does the immense amount of energy come from to produce those materials and products? From biomass energy? That would be very stupid: because you could make a biomass-wooden house from a limited budget of renewable material, compared to a house from non-renewed material for which you then need twice as much renewable material as biomass (- energy). I have already once roughly calculated that this is a factor of two more biomass: Biomass for materials versus biomass for renewable energy for producing non-renewed materials. Apart from the fact that the extraction of non-renewed materials also has many other adverse effects, just like non-renewed energy has. In other words, biomass is desperately needed as a material itself, especially for housing. Ergo, we need a lot more biomass. [2]

And then there is also food: the production is, despite roaring stories about huge Dutch agriculture yields, disastrous: We mainly look at the output, but with 6 x as much energy input as output, it is not sustainable in any way, whether that is fossil or renewable energy input. [3] So that has to change anyhow. An exploratory study shows that virtually no modern agricultural system has enough output to compensate for the input. [4] Apart from maybe a private vegetable garden that works with manual labor. The only more large-scale system with a large net yield is… .. Food forests.[5] For our food, and for a sustainable system, food forests are ideally suited: the yields are large, and so is the EROI ( energy return on energy invested): at least 25 times as much food energy comes out as is put in: that is, the labor needed for planting, maintaining and harvesting. Of course, the actual profit is in the captured solar energy. The diet from food forests is somewhat more limited, nuts and fruit are the big earners, although some cabbage and lettuce varieties are also abundant, but it could be combined, through labor, with growing some other vegetables.

Ergo: we therefore need an enormous amount of biomass, as the only truly sustainable production based on an external source, for material, for food, and for energy: both for direct use (biomass growth) and indirectly. And all that comes together in forests, with wood as the most versatile and voluminous solid material. (And other woody biomass like bamboo, which gives even greater yield as wood).

This means that in the proposed transition we cannot discuss unilaterally about “bio-energy in the energy transition”, but that the entire discussion should be guided by the potential of biomass (-growth) for all our demands and desires. Biomass is the reference of everything!

In summary, you could also formulate it as follows: the whole universe strives for decay, enlargement of entropy, chaos. Even everything here on earth. The only reason that chaos is/can be prevented here on earth is through the continuous addition of energy, of course coming from outside a further closed system: Solar energy and its derivatives. And capturing that solar energy relies mainly on the growth of biomass. Direct or indirect.

Not surprising that this corresponds to what is generally seen as an important strategy in the climate approach: planting billions of trees.[6] As much as possible, on a massive scale. And even more as imagined, when material and food is included. And take that annual growth as the starting point for distributing the yield to food, material and some energy: but the latter not by burning it as biomass energy (that does not help, especially now that we have to go to zero-CO2 emissions), but by material investments in techniques that can increase that yield, which yield maximized energy, compared to what is invested in captured biomass energy. That is: minimal (renewable) material impact at maximum output. Wooden windmills for example, also modern! [7] And only made from whats left over in biomass , once everyone is provided with food and material for shelter.

This need for forests is even reinforced by the need to restore biodiversity. That is fundamental to the functioning of nature, which we depend on, and to prevent it from working against us: the evidence is accumulating that our close interaction with nature, in particular deforestation, is the main cause of the more frequent occurrence of animal originated viruses, such as recently Covid-19. We minimize nature, which reduces the space for animals , and makes contacts more frequent. [8-11]

Moreover, where the forests grow, the people appear healthier, there is a direct relationship between them. [12] Count  your blessings.

Fossil energy, the legacy of years of biomass conversion before man was around, should have been used only to a very limited extent, for example for the one-off creation of an energy infrastructure for the benefit of all humanity, and then only to the extent that the CO2 levels would stay below dangerous climate change. But by now that is a obsolete observation. We must go to 0-CO2, and capture and store as much as possible, for which trees or forests are the ultimate means. Not the least by using it as mass, to remain stored for long. This is also supported by the effect that arose after Columbus discovered America: As a consequence, millions of original inhabitants later died, mainly from infectious diseases, leaving huge agricultural areas free, on which forests began to grow again over the years, such that during the 16th century a dip in the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere is visible. [13] Make that food/material/energy forests, and there you are.

Biomass (-growth) is the actual reference of a sustainable existence here on earth. As a consequence of this argument, you should therefore not calculate in Euros, but in Trees. Not in GNP based on money, but in annual National Tree Income, in NTI. That is the capital that yearly comes to us free of charge and for which we do not have to deplete our ‘own’ resources and supplies, with all its nasty consequences.

In short, Back to the Forests, we once ran away from. We tried neglecting them for a while, but that doesn’t work out. We still depend on nature ie forests, it is our natural habitat. Evolution might at some point produce a human species that can do without forests, but we are certainly not that species. Our past is our future …



PS : in fact for ‘biomass’ one should read: ‘non-human’ biomass growth….:-)


[1] see the annex with this article:

[2] see also the chapter on this issue in the building carbon budget explorations:


[4] eroi agriculture systems:

[5] food forests:

[6] planting billions of trees:

[7] wooden windturbine:

[8] Guardian

[9] Guardian

[10] Guardian

[11] UNEP

[12] more green is more health:

[13] The Human Planet- how we created the Anthropocene -Lewis and Maslin- Pelican book, 2018