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Eucalyptus plantations - not as green as they look.

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Frontline Online: Will GE Eucalyptus plantations feed the UK’s new biomass powerstations?

February 15th, 2013

by Lorna Howarth

The Ecologist's Lorna Howarth reports on news and action from the environmental frontline....

Replacing one destructive fuel with another is not the answer.

If biomass powerstations in the United Kingdom burn almost twice as much wood per year than is actually produced in this country annually, it stands to reason that fuelstock will have to be imported to keep them going. So where is all this extra wood going to come from? 

The Drax Group not only operates the UK's largest coal-fired power station but they are planning to convert half their coal power stations to biomass. It sounds like a good thing to convert from fossil-fuels to biomass, but to do this, they will need to burn pellets made from around 18 million tonnes of wood every year. What is more, study after study has shown that the climate impacts of large-scale biomass electricity (especially burning trees logged for this purpose) is disastrous for the environment. 

Drax already imports and burns wood from Canada, the USA, Portugal and South Africa. Highly biodiverse forests are being clearcut in North America to make wood pellets bound for UK power stations. The new demand from Drax is likely to mean further expansion of monoculture (and possibly, genetically-engineered) tree plantations in these countries and in South America, leading to more land-grabbing, more depletion and pollution of soils and freshwater and less food sovereignty and food security, particularly for countries in the global south.

Worryingly, and in parallel to these concerns, the Global Justice Ecology Project is raising the alarm in response to industry plans to develop genetically-engineered eucalyptus plantations in the southern United States: South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas. "GE eucalyptus trees are a disaster waiting to happen,” says GJEP Executive Director Anne Petermann. “It is critical that the USDA rejects them before it is too late." Petermann coordinates the international STOP GE Trees Campaign, which has collected thousands of signatures supporting a ban on GE trees due to their potentially catastrophic impacts on communities and forests. 

“In addition to being invasive, eucalyptus trees are explosively flammable. In a region that has been plagued by droughts in recent years, developing plantations of an invasive, water-greedy and fire-prone tree is foolhardy and dangerous,” Petermann continued.

The forests of the Southeastern United States are some of the most biodiverse in the world. They contain species found nowhere else, like the Louisiana Black Bear, the golden-cheeked warbler and the red-cockaded woodpecker which are already endangered. Eucalyptus plantations for biomass energy generation could push these and other species over the edge towards extinction. 

It is a great irony that powerstation conversion to biomass is being presented to the public as an environmentally-friendly option, undertaken in order to meet our renewable energy obligations. However this is naught but greenwash if this is at the expense of ecosystems and species on the other side of the world, let alone the possibility of using genetically-engineered trees species, the long-term safety of which is in question. 

For Drax, partial conversion to biomass is a lucrative way of meeting EU air quality standards for sulphur dioxide (biomass burning is about as polluting as coal burning, but is lower in SO2, and is lucrative because of the large subsidies available through Renewable Obligation Certificates). The UK's new Green Investment Bank was set up with £3 billion of public funding to support 'low carbon development'.  Yet their biggest loan so far - £100 million - has gone to Drax to help with their partial conversion to biomass.

Replacing one destructive fuel with another is not the answer. The impact of big biomass mirrors that of the coal industry, and painting these industries as green is damaging to truly sustainable development. We need small-scale, community-owned and community-managed solutions where massive subsidies and profit are not the primary drivers.

Biofulewatch are starting a campaign to raise awareness of the issues surrounding Big Biomass;

The STOP GE Trees Campaign;

Lorna Howarth is a writer and environmentalist. She is a contributing editor to Resurgence & Ecologist magazine and the founder of a small independent publishing agency:

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