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Stop the biomass blackout: say no to the UK's destructive bioenergy policies

Ian Lander

7th February, 2012

Biofuelwatch warn of an unfolding 'biomassacre' as the UK is set to rely on a growing amount of wood-based biomass, driving landgrabbing, replacing old growth forests with plantations, destroying biodiversity and causing air pollution

Most readers will be only too well aware how palm oil for biofuels causes rainforest destruction on, say, Sumatra, threatening the lives and livelihoods of indigenous peoples and decimating wildlife, such as orangutans, elephants and rhino. This article is about a new elephant in the room that threatens to have an equally destructive affect on people and planet. The link between deforestation and climate change is well known and estimated to cause between 25-30 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions - and excessive demand for wood is one of the main causes of forest destruction . It may surprising you that UK policy makers consider timber for electricity generation as renewable energy and (almost) carbon neutral.

Biofuelwatch are concerned about policies that require an industrial supply of timber for centralised power stations as opposed to say, coppicing of woodland to heat local homes. The EU Renewable Energy Directive sets a target for renewable energy of 15 per cent by 2020. The UK government has chosen to prioritise industrial bioenergy over sustainable renewables. We all pay for biomass subsidies through a surcharge (Renewable Obligation Certificates or ROCs) in our electricity bills.

Plans for bioenergy power stations would translate into £3 billion annual subsidies by 2020. The cost to the earth's forests and other ecosystems remain hidden. Generating electricity at the expense of forests also incurs a carbon debt. Studies show that the carbon released from burning wood can take decades or even centuries to be re-absorbed by forest regrowth - that's if forests are allowed to regenerate, rather than, as commonly happens, converted to monoculture plantations. Smokestack CO2 emissions from biomass power stations are 50 per cent greater than from coal power stations per unit of energy. We cannot afford to borrow from future generations in this way, given how perilously close we are to runaway climate change. Biomass power stations are on average 25 per cent efficient, so for every four trees burned, the energy from three of them is discharged straight into the air or water.

At the heart of the issue is land; a word now unfortunately synonymous with -rights and -grab. Land grabs are associated with human rights abuses. In August 2011 the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) warned, 'If left unchecked, the growing pressure on land access could undermine livelihoods and food security in some of the world's poorest countries...Biomass plantations may also compete for the best lands with food crops (and with biofuel feedstocks), adversely affecting local food security and further marginalizing smallholder farming'.

UK industry announcements for biomass power stations - a response to the subsidies - would require over 60 million tonnes of wood a year, compared to total annual UK wood production of less than 10 million tonnes. DECC admit ‘that the overwhelming majority of fuels for the expansion of biomass electricity will be imported... industry indicate that this is already happening'.

The Forestry Commission's Woodfuel Strategy for England aims to develop an additional 2 million tonnes of biomass per year. Two million tonnes would not even meet one third of biomass capacity planned by just one large generator - Drax. There are plans to convert several coal power stations to biomass. Converting just one average-size coal power stations would require twice the UK's annual would supply. Tilbury B power station near London, will become the biggest biomass power station in Europe when it switches from coal to biomass this year.

In many parts of Scandinavia, old growth forest logging and other highly destructive logging has been documented and appears to be accelerating, due to attempts to ‘harvest' ever more wood, not least for bioenergy. A letter signed by over 200 scientists worldwide, thousands of individuals and many groups warns against the destruction of the last of Sweden's old growth forests. This pattern is repeated in North America and Canada.

The expansion of wood-based bioenergy is already leading to an expansion of monoculture tree plantations, affecting forest-dependent peoples. In West Papua, for example, a large concession for rainforest land has been granted to establish plantations for bioenergy woodchips and pellets for export. In Brazil eucalyptus plantations are being expanded rapidly, at the expense of highly biodiverse and carbon-rich wooded savannah. One Brazilian company recently signed a Memorandum of Understanding for the supply of eucalyptus to MGT Power, a UK energy firm whose plans for a 295 MW biomass power station in Teesside have been approved and who have also applied for a similar power station in Tyneside.

Sustainability is a word that has become associated with biofuels and biomass. We believe that the biomass 'standards' planned by the UK Government are not worth the plantation-derived paper they are written on. They are based on flawed carbon accounting that ignores most carbon emissions and carbon debt and take no account of human rights abuses, land-grabs, food security, food sovereignty, biodiversity loss and adverse affects on soil, water and air quality. Companies can meet standards through a range of dodgy and discredited voluntary certification schemes

It is a well known adage that where there's muck, there's brass. The final elephant in the room concerns black carbon. This is emitted to the atmosphere from biomass and fossil fuel burning. It is considered by some scientists to be the second largest contributor to global warming after CO2.

Finally biomass power stations have a pronounced negative affect on local air quality and estuary ecosystems. The UK Government has estimated the mortality health impacts that additional air pollution from biomass could result in the loss of up to 1,750,000 life years by 2020.

UK bioenergy policy is accelerating forests being slashed and burned. In the name of energy security, the food security and sovereignty of the majority world is being further undermined, and biodiversity is destroyed.

Please help prevent this biomess and take part in our email alert to ask your MP to lobby DECC on behalf of people and planet and say no ROCs for biofuels and biomass.

Ian Lander works for Biofuelwatch

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