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Back Biomass

by Paul Thompson

Paul Thompson of the Back Biomass campaign on why he disagrees with an earlier article published by the Ecologist concerning the growing of trees to provide fuel for biomass stations...........

The Back Biomass campaign recognises that the solutions to climate change are complex and subject to different opinions. We are grateful to The Ecologist for raising these issues and we are keen to engage in dialogue with all organisations with an interest in delivering our low carbon future.

Sustainably sourced biomass is an increasingly important tool in the fight against climate change and has a beneficial impact on forest management and biodiversity around the world. However, it is frequently subject to confusions and misunderstandings. We wish to deal with three of these below.

The first misunderstanding is that increasing demand will put excessive pressure on global feedstocks.

This is not the case. A number of peer reviewed studies have concluded that biomass could supply a significant proportion of the world’s primary energy requirements without damaging food production or adversely affecting the environment.

Most recently, a report by Imperial College’s UK Energy Research Centre reviewed 90 global studies, concluding that one fifth of current global energy supply from biomass is a “reasonable ambition”, achievable without damaging food production. Given biomass-fuelled power plants have a 25 year (approximate) life span, it also stands to reason that the industry has an inherent long-term interest in the sustainability of global biomass feedstock.

The second misconception is that ‘study after study has shown that the climate impacts of large-scale biomass electricity is disastrous for the environment’.

Again, this is highly misleading. Sustainable biomass is part of the natural carbon cycle – it is not a case of simply reducing emissions, but also of absorbing them. This is why peer-reviewed studies from climate experts such as the International Energy Agency, AEA and the International Panel on Climate Change state that energy from properly managed forests is low carbon.

Only a few select studies question the carbon neutrality of biomass and of those few, if any, are peer reviewed. One of the most widely cited, the Manomet Study, was not peer-reviewed and the author himself has complained in an interview with the New York Times that “All the headlines miss the details and therefore serve to misinform rather than inform the public”.

Similarly, some critics have misused UK Government analysis on emissions from biomass to such an extent that the Department of Energy and Climate Change was forced to issue several clarifications and supplementary notes to set the record straight.

Many arguments used to question the carbon impact of biomass are based on a fundamental misunderstanding of forestry management.

Sustainably managed forests are not harvested in their entirety and then entirely regrown. In reality, landowners manage forests as a whole landscape, harvesting and regrowing different sections (‘stands’ or ‘plots’) at different stages. Through this and other continuing growth in the forest, carbon stocks remain stable or increase.

This makes financial sense for foresters (because it ensures stable income), while maximising growth rates and ensuring carbon is absorbed faster. Clearing forest floors of deadwood and employing anti-wildfire measures are also standard management techniques used to encourage rapid, healthy growth and optimal carbon absorption. In this way, sustainable forestry techniques not only prevent a decrease in forest carbon storage, but can create an increaseor ‘carbon credit’.

As an additional safeguard to ensure forests used for biomass are properly managed in this way, the UK is implementing robust Sustainability Criteria, requiring biomass energy to demonstrate independently verifiable greenhouse gas emission reductions of at least 60% across the whole supply chain, compared to the EU fossil fuel grid average. Without this, biomass electricity generators will not qualify for Government support.

Therefore, even with greater demand for biomass, we can be sure the carbon impact represents a significant saving compared to continued dependence on fossil fuels. Demonstrating this reduction in carbon is clearly only possible in forests where the rate of biomass growth faster than the rate of harvesting.

However, managing forests sustainably only makes sense if the forest is economically viable - this is underpinned by extra revenue from demand in the biomass industry.

Many UK and international forests are unmanaged, largely because no market exists for enough of their products. In the case of wood with no other market, the land on which it is grown would otherwise be left unmanaged (with negative ecological consequences such as wild fires, infestation and disease). It may also be subject to sale, change of use away from forestry - or in worst cases development.

An expansion of wood industries like biomass means more demand for wood products, which could well result in more overall forest cover, not less. This has been the case in the United States where, between 1990 and 2010, forest carbon volumes increased 31% despite heavy demand for forest products over the same period.

This leads to the third accusation: that biomass harms biodiversity.

This is very much not the case. Not only does the biomass industry provide incentives for landowners to leave their forests as forests, but it provides incentives for improved management of forestry with attention to biodiversity and ecosystem services.

According to the RSPB’s Paul Bellamy, “in managed forests, producing raw materials for industry, we can use our knowledge of the effects of management to maximise the value of these sensitive ecosystems.” North America (from which the UK is expected to import the largest proportion of its feedstock) has embraced a variety of world-leading, independent forestry certification schemes requiring measures to protect biodiversity, water resources and the broader environment during forestry operations.

For example, Canadian forestry (regulated by provincial law) requires landowners to protect biodiversity and avoid monoculture by planting three to five species after harvesting and supplementing replanting with natural regeneration. The UK Sustainability Criteria also prohibit biomass used in the UK being sourced from ecologically sensitive areas such as rainforests, wetlands and peatlands anywhere in the world.

Paul Thompson is Head of Policy, Renewable Energy Association, and the Back Biomass campaign. Paul became the REA’s Head of Policy in March 2010. Key recent work includes transport biofuels, biomass sustainability and renewable heat. He has also been heavily involved in developing the REA’s training courses for the Renewables Obligation, feed-in tariffs and renewable heat incentive. Before joining the REA in 2008 he was Parliamentary researcher for Susan Kramer, MP, during which time she was Liberal Democrat spokesperson for both energy and transport.

References available on request.

Further information can be found here;

The Back Biomass campaign was set up by the Renewable Energy Association and is supported by the following organisations: British Sugar, Drax, Eggborough, E.ON, Enviva, Estover Energy, Eco2, Future Biogas, Helius Energy, RES, RWE, USIPA and the Wood Pellet Association of Canada.




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