Last year, the RSPB, Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace published a report, called Dirtier than coal?, that shone a light on some evidence that the biomass industry would prefer was kept hidden.
We revealed two important facts:
Firstly, government plans to support the conversion of coal plants would mean that by 2017 the UK will be burning 30m tonnes of biomass, most of which will be wood. To give you a sense of proportion, this is about six times the entire UK wood harvest. It will mostly be in coal power stations that are being switched over to biomass.
Secondly, burning wood from whole trees results in higher greenhouse gas emissions than coal. For example, the government’s own research has shown that using wood from whole UK conifers results in an increase in emissions of 49% compared with coal.
Since then, the evidence has continued to stack up. Last month, the European Commission’s science department published a major review that showed that while energy crops, residues, and wastes can be low carbon, wood from whole trees is worse than fossil fuels. What’s more, existing industries that depend on wood to make furniture, wood panels, houses, and suchlike, have also begun to get extremely concerned about the impact of this enormous new source of demand, warning against the “reckless” pursuit of bioenergy. Using wood in these industries is better for the climate as it keeps carbon locked up, while burning it puts it up in smoke and into the atmosphere.
We’ve worked hard to raise these issues with the industry, government and the public, so it was disappointing to be accused of “scaremongering” this week. The claim was inspired by a letter we received recently from the industry association that represents biomass electricity generators, the REA, which accuses us of “spreading misinformation”. By this, they presumably mean quoting government research and a large body of peer-reviewed literature.
It’s hardly surprising, however, that tensions are emerging. Getting an energy policy in place that delivers affordable, low carbon electricity is complex and extremely challenging, particularly against the context of continued economic hard times. So it’s understandable that many would prefer to ignore the fact that one of our major forms of renewable energy could actually increase our carbon emissions. Understandable, but not excusable, because the result will be wasting time and the public’s money supporting something that fuels climate change and puts further pressure on our precious forests.
That doesn’t mean there isn’t a role for bioenergy; there is. We want to see a brave new world where every ounce of food waste and sewage goes into anaerobic digestors that produce green gas for our homes. Where local woodlands are brought back into management and the wood clearings are used to provide heating for schools and hospitals, and where steelworks are powered by combined heat and power stations using wood waste.
To get there, however, we need government and industry to take their fingers out of their ears and accept that the world’s forests are not limitless sources of “renewable” fuel for Britain. Then we need to get round a nice wooden table together to completely rethink biomass policy.
• Harry Huyton is the RSPB’s head of climate and energy policy