Enviro groups are celebrating the bright green lights in the province's new energy plan at the same time as they pan the dark nuclear hole at the centre of it.
So forgive me for skirting the larger issues and going for the tiny here. While biomass (the use of biological material for energy) is slated for under 1 per cent of the total in McGuinty's plan, this source is likely to become the hottest issue between the Global North and South in the years to come.
Sure, Ontario is only initiating a small biomass project - the incineration of wood chips for electricity at Atikokan - but we'd better clear the air now: a new wave of organics-burning is poised to gobble up the planet, destroying soil and robbing foodland. Renewable energy? I've recently become a sceptic.
Most enviro watchers already know the food-robbing consequences of growing masses of corn for ethanol. But just as we absorb the eco costs of trading edibles for fuel, a new energy dilemma emerges on the horizon. And it looks like Ontario has now made a baby step in a bad direction.
Thing is, I've long been a supporter of biomass in general, championing the creation of energy, plastics and building materials from plant and animal wastes. I've talked about rotting food that could be converted to biodiesel or methane, the use of crop wastes such as stems and stocks, and so on. I've seen biomass as a way to provide extra green revenues to support local and enviro-conscious farmers and waste recyclers.
But on November 26, I squirmed through a public lecture by Jim Thomas, co-author of The New Biomassters: Synthetic Biology And The Next Assault On Biodiversity And Livelihoods and a member of ETC Group (Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration).
Thomas was first on a panel providing the big global picture to open the biennial conference of Food Secure Canada in Montreal.
While greens have been raising the alarm about global warming and peak oil, energy, chemical and packaging companies have been preparing for the next all-purpose industrial fuel to replace oil, gas and coal. Unlike fossil fuels, which come from below ground, the new energy grows above ground with green leaves and green cachet.
Included in this plan are the 50 million hectares of land in southern Africa and other tropical areas purchased by corporations and governments, he says - monocultural plantations of energy-bearing plants like palm trees and jatropha.
But setting agricultural wastes on fire to light up our CFS light bulbs isn't benign either. Using the leavings from commodity crops - corn stover, rice straw, wheat husks - steals nutrients from the soil, which needs rotting substances as part of its cycle. From an ecosystem point of view, these may not be wastes at all.
Neither are wood chips from sawmills or forest underbrush, scheduled to be fired up for electricity at the old coal plant in Atikokan in the heart of logging country in northwestern Ontario in 2013. (An Ontario Power Generation rep says it's possible the plant will burn agricultural waste as well to augment biomass from the forest sector.)
It's a project that does not inspire Thomas. The need for wood chips will whet the voracious appetite for more trees to supply what coal once supplied, he argues in a telephone interview with NOW.
In a decade, he forecasts, the world will be using 20 billion tonnes of wood chips and pellets, creating a $65-billion-a-year industry earning money by selling electricity and collecting carbon credits for their "green" fuel.
Humans already use a quarter of the 230 billion tonnes of biomass produced on the earth each year, he says, leaving the rest for wild animals and all the ecosystem functions that grasses, trees, algae and seaweed perform in terms of storing carbon, pumping out oxygen and the like.
The bio-energy economy means opening up that three-quarters of the world's biomass for the benefit of one species immersed in one high-consuming lifestyle.
The claim that this switch in fuels is in any way green, renewable or "carbon-neutral" is deceitful, he says. Burning an old plant doesn't equal a new plant born. It takes one minute to burn a tree that took 80 years to grow and will take 80 years to replace in terms of carbon storage, he stresses. That overstretches the meaning of "renewable" or "carbon neutral," he argues, especially when 80 years is a long time for a planet on a strict deadline to prevent runaway global warming.
Trying to see if I can salvage any of my former biomass arguments, I turn to Ontario Green party leader Mike Schreiner. He says the main problem in Ontario isn't biomass itself but the lack of regulations ensuring this resource is managed on a local scale by family farms and other community-based operations. Cow manure converted to methane and burned for electricity on the farm is renewable and perhaps better than carbon-neutral, he tells NOW, because burning the methane eliminates a gas 22 times more potent than carbon dioxide.
Thomas agrees that "scale is absolutely key, and small scale can be sustainable." But today's reality is that large, centralized plants producing huge volumes dominate, while small ones don't even have a foothold.
Is there a green option for any of these industries? "That's a good question," Thomas says.
BIOMASS MYTHOLOGY 101
Once trumpeted as the green future, the use of plant and other organic materials for energy will instead rob the planet
Myth Basing our economy on biomass is natural.
Reality There's nothing natural or sustainable about industrial monoculture farms and plantations or industrial-scale extraction of timber.
Myth Biomass is a solution to climate change.
Reality Burning biomass can release more CO2 than fossil resources. And that released greenhouse gas won't be absorbed by replacement plants any time soon.
Myth Biomass is a renewable resource.
Reality Plants may be renewable in a short time, but the soil and ecosystems they depend on are not. Industrial farming robs soil of nutrients.
Myth Biomass yields will increase.
Reality Global production of biomass is already at historically high levels, and there are limits to what the planet can surrender.
From The New Biomassters: Synthetic Biology And The Next Assault On Biodiversity And Livelihoods, by ETC Group