Renewable energy: the potential opportunities and obligations of plantation forestry
Global demand for woody biomass in substituting fossil fuels does, and will increasingly, place significant pressure on timber plantations and question conventional management practices. Plantations are rationally laid out, located in areas of high productivity, typically have good infrastructure, and are serviced by technologically efficient harvesting systems. Thus they have an inherent capacity to contribute more to bioenergy feedstocks than other, more natural, forms of forest or forest management. Sustainability goals are defined not only in terms of their in situ effect, but also in how they conform and contribute broadly to sustainable development at the local, regional and global levels. Renewable energy is generally recognised as a positive step on the pathway to sustainable development, but biomass-based renewable energy is becoming a controversial issue. In agriculture, the lure of first-generation biofuels is already distorting world food markets, energy crops such as sugar cane and oil palm continue to encroach on natural ecosystems, while in plantation forestry, everything from stumps and roots to branches and needles has taken on a new value. Not only does this threaten the ecological viability of the site, but it poses a challenge to forest management in suggesting a future and more direct competition for raw materials and the livelihoods of other users and satellite industries. Some level of trade-off between the long-term goals of plantation forestry, ecologically sound harvesting practices, and the benefits of renewable energy need to be arrived at. The challenge lies in ensuring an equitable incurrence of liabilities and distribution of benefits for all, while guaranteeing a feasible supply to a long-term investment in an energy conversion plant. Many argue that the free market should play itself out, oblivious to the fact that renewable energy plants are often subsidised. In this paper, we provide a general overview of some of the issues facing plantation forestry and the bioenergy harvest. The paper is presented primarily to stimulate discussion around issues of relevance to the emerging bioenergy sector.
Keywords: bioenergy, biomass, plantations, production systems, sustainability