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The biomass question

Green credentials of large-scale imported biomass are called into question
Woodfuel pellets

New independent reports, published by research institute Chatham House, are raising concerns that some UK renewable energy may be increasing rather than reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Challenging assumptions

The UK government is promoting biomass for heat, electricity and transport fuels as a way to reduce emissions and boost the use of renewable energy.

However, a Chatham House report published on 23 February presents a detailed analysis of the sources and potential impacts of biomass energy, and challenges two assumptions that are key to any government considering a switch to biomass from fossil fuels.

Is biomass carbon-neutral?

The report concludes that biomass is not carbon neutral. Although current UK and EU policy does not count the carbon dioxide released by bioenergy, burning wood pellets and other forms of biomass can release as much as three times the carbon of fossil fuels like coal per unit energy when full life-cycle impacts are taken into account.

It can take decades or even centuries for new tree growth to reabsorb the emissions, meaning current assumptions that biomass automatically delivers a reduction in emissions are wrong.

‘These reports confirm once again that cutting down trees and burning them as wood pellets in power plants is a disaster for climate policy, not a solution. Forests in our region, the Southeast US, are being clear cut to provide wood pellets for UK power plants. The process takes the carbon stored in the forest and puts it directly into the atmosphere via the smokestack at a time when carbon pollution reductions are sorely needed.

‘As the UK phases out coal-fired power, it should pursue truly clean energy like solar, wind and efficiency, not burning wood for electricity, which the report shows can be worse for our climate than burning coal. Ratepayers should no longer be asked to subsidize burning wood for power.’

General Counsel of the Southern Environmental Law Center in the US

Is biomass fully accounted for?

Emissions from bioenergy are not counted in the energy sector because under international carbon accounting rules, administered under the Kyoto Accord, they are meant to be counted in the land use sector. This means the UK assumes that biomass is zero carbon when used for energy.

However, Canada and the US were not signatories to Kyoto, so when biomass from those countries is burned in the UK the emissions don’t get counted anywhere.

The UK currently imports over 5.5 million tonnes of wood pellets from the US and Canada every year, so this loophole means that millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions go uncounted both in the UK and the biomass country of origin.

The report calls for urgent improvements to address these accounting gaps to avoid the emissions ‘going missing.’

‘Add this independent analysis to the growing body of scientific consensus that burning biomass is not a climate solution. In fact, burning biomass often worsens climate change by emitting more carbon than burning coal, in addition to the negative impacts on air pollution, forest ecosystems and wildlife. The UK must take immediate steps to reform bioenergy policies to fully account for emissions from biomass-fuelled power stations, and focus its investments on truly low-carbon, and less expensive, sources of electricity generation like solar and wind.’

NRDC’s director of its Land Market’s Initiative

Click here to read the report, ‘Woody Biomass for Power and Heat: Impacts on the Global Climate’. ‘The Impacts of the Demand for Woody Biomass for Power and Heat on Climate and Forests’ can be found here.

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