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Growing energy on trees? Rendering forest-based bioenergy renewable in the US South

Authors: James Palmer*, University of Bristol
Topics: Cultural and Political Ecology, Energy, Environment
Keywords: Bioenergy, Energopolitics, Renewability, Socioecological Fix, Working Forests,
Session Type: Paper
Presentation File: No File Uploaded

‘Working forests’ in the US South are increasingly producing biomass wood pellets to replace coal, thereby instituting a socioecological ‘fix’, in the European electricity sector. Wood pellets, like most bioenergy, are classed as carbon neutral; emissions released when the pellets are burned are supposedly recouped by replanting the forests from which they were derived.

On the ground however, bioenergy firms do not legitimise their activities by demonstrating the carbon neutrality of wood pellet manufacturing in its own right. Instead, they emphasise the mutual interdependence of wood pellet manufacturing and historically incumbent forest product industries concerned with the manufacture of commodities like paper and construction materials.

Drawing on interviews with forestry professionals, industry representatives, scientists and environmental campaigners, this paper will show how the ‘renewability’ of forest-based bioenergy in the US South depends paradoxically upon the claim that wood pellet manufacturing diversifies industrial interest in forest resources in the region, while simultaneously reducing overall competition for wood itself. This claim rests critically upon a conceptualisation of working forests as organic machines, whose performance can be actively enhanced by harmonising socio-ecological and industrial processes.

While these claims entice forestry professionals and industry groups however, they also work to fetishize forest productivity for its own sake, obscuring the contestability of the end goals towards which that productivity is directed. The paper therefore contends that wood pellet manufacturing constitutes the “parasitic colonisation” of pre-existing nature-based manufacturing by energy interests determined to naturalise not only their resource base, but ultimately the need for energy itself.

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