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Wildlife and Countryside Link publishes its first Bioenergy Position Statement

Bioenergy means many things: turning energy crops into fuels for cars; using manure on farms to generate gas; and burning imported wood pellets in power plants that used to burn coal. In the UK this use of wood for generating electricity is one of the biggest concerns, and is the focus of Link’s new Position Statement. Burning wood for bioenergy - which looks set to continue into the future - harms the climate and nature.

August 2023

The Government has published its new Biomass Strategy. So there has never been a better time for Wildlife and Countryside Link to publish its first Bioenergy Position Statement.

What is in the Government’s new Strategy?

The new Biomass Strategy changes very little in reality. It doubles down on the Government’s commitment to bioenergy playing a key role in power generation, heat, and transport. To date, a large proportion of biomass has been imported, and most of this imported biomass has come in the form of wood pellets - with much of this wood coming straight from forests.

There is a recognition that in the UK, and internationally, using large amounts of wood from forests, or growing large areas of energy crops, could affect food security or nature restoration.

But the Strategy suggests it will continue to rely on a very similar regulatory framework for bioenergy as currently exists (albeit with some tweaks).

However, there are five key points to note:

  • There is no new funding in this Strategy for bioenergy. This is important because the financial viability of bioenergy, especially with even more expensive carbon capture technology planned for the future, is in question. Some bioenergy power companies are only profitable thanks to the large subsidies taken from the public’s energy bills.
  • The Government’s own models predict that by 2050 the UK may only have just over half the biomass it needs. This is a big gamble with the UK’s energy system and with hitting our net zero goal (even if you believe that biomass is carbon neutral).
  • The Government’s plans are fairly conservative about the area of energy crops that will be grown in the UK - they see much lower amounts than the Climate Change Committee, for example. Instead they think the UK will remain much more dependent on imports of biomass.
  • To meet this demand for imports, the Government thinks that in just 18 months (from 2025) our imported biomass will have magically shifted from being mostly wood pellets, to being mostly agricultural residues and energy crops grown overseas. It is unclear how they think this can be achieved or where these forms of biomass will come from - the bioenergy industry is betting all its chips on more and more wood pellets.
  • Analysis by the Government’s Chief Scientific Advisor acknowledges that burning wood can negatively affect the carbon stocks in those forests, even if carbon capture technology is fitted to the power station.

What Are Our Concerns?

Burning forest biomass to produce electricity causes harm to nature and is no better for the climate than burning fossil fuels. The UK’s largest bioenergy power station is also its biggest single source of carbon dioxide

The Government’s plans for net zero and the energy system rely heavily on bioenergy. In future it hopes carbon capture technology can be added to bioenergy plants.

While the UK has significantly reduced the emissions in its power sector, a significant share of this reduction comes from simply counting the huge emissions from bioenergy power plants (which used to burn coal) as zero

Burning trees is not carbon neutral:

The scientific evidence is clear that burning wood that comes from directly from forests is not carbon neutral. It’s counted as zero carbon at the power station. But in the forest the wood comes from, there are real impacts on the climate - the carbon stored in trees is released, and forests’ ability to absorb carbon is reduced for decades. Bioenergy power plants only call themselves carbon neutral by effectively offsetting their emissions against the future regrowth of trees in decades to come.

Even the scientific advisors for bioenergy companies are questioning this carbon neutral assumption.

Forest bioenergy harms nature:

The UK has become a global leader on nature and biodiversity, helping to spearhead international initiatives in recent years such as the Leaders’ Pledge for Nature.

But the UK’s international credibility on nature is somewhat undermined by its financing of bioenergy - which relies on the import of millions of tonnes of wood pellets, harvested from nature-rich, and legally protected, forests in eastern Europe, Canada, and the United States

The alternative to these wood pellets is to grow energy crops in the UK. But to grow enough crops to displace these wood pellets would require up to 1.4 million hectares of land. This is more than one quarter of all the land currently used to grow crops for food in the UK. There is also no guarantee that energy crops grown here would be sold in the UK, rather than exported to other countries using bioenergy.

The Government aims to protect and restore nature across 30% of the country by 2030. It is difficult to see how this could still be achieved with such a significant area of land used for energy crops.

Bioenergy threatens energy security and food security:

Importing millions of tonnes of wood pellets is the opposite of the Government’s current plans for energy security. The bioenergy industry itself says that its number one concern for the future is that the (already high) cost of wood pellets will rise further.

In contrast, growing up to 1.4 million hectares of energy crops (over a quarter of the land used to grow crops for food) would require significant displacement of food production at a time when farming in the UK is already coming under strain due to climate change.

Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage may not work:

The Government is relying on Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage to create so-called “negative emissions”. In the coming years these will offset ongoing greenhouse gases from flying, farming, and heavy industry.

But these negative emissions only exist on paper. If you look at the atmosphere, you see that the transport and processing of wood pellets, and the impact on carbon in forests, means that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere increases for years to come. Carbon capture at the power plant can’t prevent these climate impacts further up the supply chain.

What Would We Like the Government to Do Next?

With the publication of the new Biomass Strategy the Government has signalled that it still sees bioenergy as part of the UK’s future energy mix and path to net zero. But in bringing in new laws and policies the Government can curb some of the worst impacts of bioenergy. It can do this by:

  • Making sure the full carbon impacts of bioenergy are properly counted and used to determine whether it is eligible for subsidy or not.
  • Ruling out any primary wood directly from forests from any Government financial support whatsoever.
  • Strengthening the UK’s sustainability criteria to ensure that any use of waste biomass, or energy crops grown in the UK, does not harm nature.
  • The reason so much Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage is needed is to offset emissions from other sectors. But it’s a technology that doesn’t even exist at scale yet. If the Government bets on BECCS to achieve net zero, and then it materialises much later than planned, or not at all, we’ll miss the target. Much better to invest in proven ways to cut greenhouse gases, like rewarding farmers to restore nature and farm sustainably.
  • Invest in energy technologies that will bring down bills, drive down energy demand, and are genuinely low-carbon - like onshore wind, battery storage, and home insulation. Forest bioenergy is incredibly expensive, is likely to grow up in price as competition for wood does too, and doesn’t actually deliver any carbon savings.

Matt Williams is a senior advocate for forest protection at NRDC. Follow @NRDC

The opinions expressed in this blog are held by the authors and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.