Sadly, 17 Jan 2018 will go down in my memory as a series of missed opportunities to protect the world’s forests.
The UK and the EU currently rely heavily on burning wood to generate ‘renewable’ energy. But burning millions of tonnes of trees every year is actually bad news for the climate. It sends carbon dioxide straight up into the atmosphere at around the same rate as coal, sometimes at an even higher rate. And it can take years, decades or even longer for this carbon dioxide to be recaptured by regrowing trees. Such a strategy makes little sense when we urgently need to bring emissions down in order to tackle climate change. Hundreds of scientists expressed this to European politicians in the days running up to the vote and urged them to act to protect forests.
It’s also putting precious forests at risk in Europe and the US at a time when other pressures on them are growing too. From illegal logging in old-growth forests in Poland to climate change increasing the risks of forest fires in the southeast US (forests from which the UK imports millions of tonnes of wood every year to burn in its power stations).
But back to yesterday: first came a crucial vote in the European Parliament on the role of bioenergy from 2021-2030. Politicians in Brussels had a critical opportunity to ban the use of stumps and roundwood (whole trees) from being used for energy. Unfortunately, they missed the chance to do so, ignoring very clear scientific evidence that these types of biomass can increase (instead of reducing) emissions.
These scientists know that burning millions of tonnes of trees for energy every year makes little sense if your objective is to reduce emissions in the short term (which we urgently need to do) or to protect biodiversity. Europe’s and the US’s forests, and their wildlife, are suffering as a result.
Later that day came an announcement from the UK Government on the renewable subsidies they provide to power plants that convert from coal to using woody biomass. This decision is important as the UK plans to phase out coal altogether by 2025, and plant may be examining the possibility of converting to biomass.
The UK Government’s decision regarding changes to subsidies was clearly not enough to put the brakes on the harmful use of wood for energy. Later that day, Drax power plant (in Yorkshire, and Europe's largest wood-burning power station), which has already converted three of its six units to biomass, announced that it will continue with the conversion of a fourth unit. In 2016 Drax burned 1.2 million tonnes of roundwood (whole trees), with 850,000 tonnes of this imported from the US. This industry is having a huge effect on forests and wildlife in the southeast US.
In the consultation on these proposed subsidy changes the Government acknowledge that compared to other renewables biomass co-firing or conversion from coal provides little or no carbon savings. This begs the question of why they didn’t opt for much more stringent changes that would deter further use of woody biomass. Instead changes that were designed to restrict this type of biomass have put the wind in the sails of a further conversion at Drax.
If politicians continue on such a course, then they’re putting the world’s forests and biodiversity at further risk. And the emissions released by burning these trees are undermining the strides made in reducing emissions by booming technologies like solar power
Unfortunately all of this bad news has overshadowed some small but important steps forward that the European Parliament made yesterday to improve coherence between European energy and nature protection policy and objectives. Stay tuned for more on this slight glimmer of a silver lining tomorrow.
  • Thanks for a very interesting post, Matt. As a professional forester I've been concerned about what is going on, and not entirely convinced by assurances of sustainability. The extraordinary TV programme 'Swamp Loggers' was anything but reassuring and is backed up by the reports you cite - this does not look too sustainable to me !

    10 years ago I was responsible for developing woodfuel in England. There was a general assumption the market would be big electricity - large volumes moved long distances at starvation prices for growers. Which didn't seem to sit too comfortably with England's woodland resource - and, as you point out, burning for electricity is far from efficient. So we developed the policy now backed by the renewable heat incentive, for small to medium heat, preferably close to where the wood is. We didn't initially aim to support small domestic - woodburning stoves - because it was happening anyway and there are particle pollution issues in big cities.

    Most of the fuel in England will come from thinnings - big timber goes into flooring, timber framing and furniture - uses which lock the carbon for 10s to 100s of years. Some may come from coppice - vital for the future of iconic birds like Nightingales. In contrast to the issues you rightly highlight, the carbon from much of wood used for heat in England may be recaptured even before the wood is dry & burnt. We still have huge areas of neglected woodland which have grown past the point of suitability for many of our threatened woodland birds.

    RSPB has an exemplary record in woodland management - places like Church Wood, Blean, are superb - and only maintained by the continuous coppice cycle. And if you are in the new Avalon Hide at RSPB Ham Wall you can hear and see another aspect of the woodfuel story off to the left - those huge heaps of waste are waste wood which 10 years ago would have gone to landfill being ground up for wood energy.