How can we use biomass? - The ethical dimension of bioenergy.

Biomass is also known as a “renewable raw material”. The special thing about the renewable raw material and a significant difference to other raw materials is that biomass is also "alive". It sounds banal, but it has far-reaching effects. For many economic uses, this point may initially be of no interest, but this special position also gives biomass an ethical dimension. Since I recently had a very interesting interview with Dr. Bernhard Widmann (head of the TFZ in Straubing), who dealt with the social opportunities and conflicts of bioenergy, I would like to investigate some moral questions. What long-term influence can the ethical dimension of modern biomass use have on its long-term development. What are the dangers and opportunities? Here are some suggestions.

Moral differences as the most important cause of current problems in the bioenergy industry ?!

Even a very radical vegan or Frutarian would not go so far as to call the food of any living being morally questionable or presumptuous. Eating biomass to be able to live yourself is widely accepted. As long as we don't find an alternative food source to hydrocarbons, it will probably stay that way.

The situation is different when it comes to the material and energetic use of renewable raw materials, where the positions diverge significantly. In my opinion, some of the biggest problems that the bioenergy industry has to face in its current development are based on moral disagreements and the resulting conflicts of interest. Here is a selection of current conflicts:

  • Tank-or-plate discussion on biofuels: certainly the best known and most frequently discussed example in the media, which shows that moral issues have a strong influence on the acceptance and implementation of technically possible applications of bioenergy. Solutions offer biofuels next generation
  • Deforestation: is to be completely rejected for the extraction of bioenergy resources. However, about 4% of global rainforest deforestation, especially in Southeast Asia, is due to the extraction of land for the production of bioenergy biomass (e.g. oil palm). The reputation of bioenergy suffers from this share of deforestation.
  • Indirect Land Use Change (ILUC) : please refer Article about the sustainability of bioenergy
  • Introduction of E10: At first glance, this is a purely technical problem, which is due to concerns about the risk to your own engine. In my experience, deeper reasons are often a general rejection of biofuels.

The aforementioned moral conflicts are linked to one another. The development of the potential of bioenergy is therefore closely linked to a differentiation of these moral questions and the development of solutions.

An Indian and an engineer meet to discuss ethics

As an energy manager, timber trader or engineer in a biomass CHP plant, you cannot really openly question the material and energetic use of biomass without running the risk of undermining your own professional foundation. A professional soldier would also not be expected to adopt a basic pacifist attitude.

The Indians have very cleverly resolved the ethical conflict over the (use) of nature by humans, taking three principles into account:

  • The intensity of the encroachment on an ecosystem is limited to the fact that it remains able to recover from itself (Resilience of an ecosystem).
  • Complete use of the resource obtained (example buffalo) leads to an efficient use of biomass.
  • Holistic approach to one's own position within nature, which leads to a sustainable use of it.

Use of biomass as a way to be in harmony with nature

Maybe that sounds paradoxical at first. The human use of raw materials often ends up in the development of industrial processes that contribute to increased efficiency and decreasing product costs. These are not necessarily procedures that sound like a "harmony with nature".

Nevertheless, I believe that above all through a more intense energetic and material use of biomass and the associated social dependency, a significantly stronger appreciation for the gifts of nature can take place. The more closely our society is connected to nature, the sooner we will be ready to take an active part in protecting it. Only when we perceive ourselves more strongly as part of the biosphere will we passionately protect it.

The technical use of the biosphere (biomass) and environmental protection do not have to be a contradiction. Things that are valuable to humans are also ready to protect.

The moderate use of biomass can contribute to the wellbeing of the entire biosphere. At this point, however, the argument almost takes on a religious journey.

Excerpts from the interview with Dr. Widmann on opportunities and the ethics of bioenergy

You can find out about the deeper cultural backgrounds of many moral conflicts associated with the use of bioenergy in the exciting interview between Dr. Bernhard Widmann and Christian Dürnberger, who conducted the interview.

Mr. Widmann is head of the Technology and Promotion Center (TFZ) Straubing. Mr. Dürnberger is a philosopher and communication scientist and works at the Institute for Technology-Theology-Natural Sciences (TTN). The TTN belongs to the Ludwig Maximilians University in Munich.

Here are some excerpts from the interview:

  • Bioenergy should not be seen as the cause of the hunger problem in developing countries, but should rather be seen as part of the solution to this problem.
  • In the past century, a third of the arable land was needed to grow "biofuels" - namely feed for draft animals
  • Food and energy are "means of life"

The interview shows that the modern energetic use of biomass has arrived in society with all the advantages and difficulties of this position. Bioenergy is also described in a socio-historical context and in addition to solar and wind energy as a formative component for our future cultural landscape.

Mr. Widmann also comments on the tasteless slogan "burn wheat" and its effect and symbolism in our culture.

But read for yourself. Here to full interview.

Thank you for the interesting conversation between Mr. Widmann and Mr. Dürnberger!

What do you think of the modern use of biomass? What should be allowed and where should the limits of technical use be?

7 comments on “How can we use biomass? - The ethical dimension of bioenergy. "

  1. Dear Ron:

    I read your in-depth, informative and useful article.

    Would be pleased if you can contribute an article on energy topic which you deem fit for our 2nd Oct-Nov 2011 issue. I will send you the soft copy of the inaugural issue of our bi-monthly energy / environment journal 'Energy Blitz' coming out on Aug.15, 2011.

    With best regards

    MRMenon
    Tel: + 91-466-2220852 / 9995081018

  2. Thank you for linking my interview with Dr. Widmann. If you are interested in the ethical dimension of bioenergy, I would like to recommend our book “Energy from Biomass - An Ethical Discussion Model”. My co-authors and I have tried to make the conflict about the ethical dimension of bioenergy understandable, especially for practitioners, for example for the farmer who decides to switch to bioenergy. (Link to the book: Energy from biomass - an ethical discussion model)

    In our work, one thing quickly became clear to us: conflict is not just about ethical considerations. It's not just about the plate-tank conflict, for example. Rather, cultural ideas and beliefs play an important role. Example 1: the symbolic meaning of some crops: In our culture, wheat stands for life, for the living, for food. An energetic use therefore contradicts our feelings.

    Example 2: Many people associate agriculture with originality. Technology hardly plays a role in their ideas. On the contrary, they wish that agricultural products should still be made the way they were hundreds of years ago. Every technological innovation in the field of agriculture contradicts this longing.

    In our book, we have worked out even more of such important cultural ideas that shape the conflict over bioenergy. This results in our three-tier model: We discuss bioenergy (1) environmental ethics (2) social ethics and (3) cultural.

    I think you have to consider and understand all three areas when we talk about bioenergy.

    Link to the book: Energy from biomass - an ethical discussion model

  3. Thank you very much, Mr. Dyrnberg, for presenting the appropriate book and opening a cultural and ethical perspective on biomass and agriculture.

    According to your investigations, the traditional use of agriculture reaches far more deeply into the collective memory than many of us, including affected farmers and biogas plant operators, are aware of.

    For a further breakthrough of the diverse and technological use of biomass, the discussion about the common ethical basis must be carried even more into society. With the numerous criticisms that we have observed over the past few years, especially with regard to biofuels, this seems to be exactly what is currently happening.

    If I can summarize this somewhat more freely and in a simplified manner, the modern use of renewable raw materials requires not only innovative technologies, but also a new exploration of our ethical concept of biomass and agriculture.

  4. “The brief episode of the use of fossil fuels has given us luxury and convenience unparalleled in human history. The post-fossil era begins irrevocably. It is primarily characterized by the use of the "normal" energy flow of the sun. This will result in major economic, social and political changes. "(Dirk Althaus)

    At the end of the "fossil episode" we will only have the sun as an energy source. And bioenergy is part of the extensive use of solar energy. The changes mentioned by Dirk Althaus will enable us to serve our tank and plate. These changes will lead to the fact that the Indian comes into its own in the engineer: The use of bioenergy provides for the complete use of the materials. At the end of all usage cycles, as remainder from processing or specially grown for energy generation. Everything is used - everything in such a way that nothing is wasted and everything in a manageable space. Regional production and consumption is the basis for sensible use of bio (solar) energy. The DESERTEC fantasies mark the other, absurd end.

    We will also have to learn that solar energy - on our planet - is surface energy. We will learn to use the areas sensibly: Sealed areas for PV and thermal - undeveloped land for biomass. Biomass as an energy supplier for food and (!) For material use. When we humans have scratched the deep holes (oil, gas, coal, uranium) empty, we have nothing else! Only the sun's energy!

    We will need a long time until then - but now we recognize the need to think about solutions.

    With warm regards from Zillenberg

    Harald

  5. Thank you for this comment with a lot of visionary energy.

    I also believe that the combination of material and energy use of biomass (cascade use) is the most sensible goal. The operation of the tank AND plate can be the solution for many current challenges and the future of agriculture. Especially for poorer countries, the modern use of renewable raw materials (circular economy) can mean a development leap for their economic system.

    At the same time, however, the development of a sustainable bioeconomy is so complex that it has to be developed in a dialogue between various experts from business, process engineering, politics, environmental protection, etc. Networks like the “Bioenergy Network” are very important for this!

    Greetings from Berlin,
    Ron

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