Over the years, the RSPB has campaigned for sustainable solutions to the climate change crisis. We've argued for strategic siting of windfarms away from the most sensitive places for wildlife. We've argued against destructive tidal barrages and in favour of environmentally benign solutions. We've argued that biofuels must neither directly nor indirectly lead to the destruction of important habitats for wildlife around the world.
And now, we are warning that the dash to generate electricity from biomass might mean that the current UK Government is about to make the same mistakes as its predecessors.
We've done some research to show that the bioenergy industry is developing rapidly in the UK, but will be heavily reliant on imported wood. This could have major impacts on wildlife and the climate. We are saying that the UK Government has an opportunity now to redirect subsidies away from such unsustainable sources towards a sustainable bioenergy industry based on using domestic wood and waste.
The driver for this is the Government's laudable plan to meet renewable energy targets by 2020. Included in that is an ambition for 6GW of biomass electricity. This would require an equivalent of around 36 million tonnes of (oven-dried) wood.
There are currently 31 bioenergy plants in the UK and 39 further plants are in the pipeline. Most of the new plants (such as Tilbury in Essex) will be reliant on imports. If these are all built, then there will be an incraese in biomass use from 5.2 to 48.3 million tonnes. This is a lot of wood coming into the UK.
The environmental concerns are twofold.
First, the biomass will come from Canada, the US and Russia, putting temperate forests under more pressure. Over-extraction of woody biomass for bioenergy is already removing the habitat of the great grey owl in Canada.
Second, there are climate risks from reliance on imports. This is a bit more complicated but undermines the case for a bioenergy system reliant on imported wood. I'll try and explain. When wood and other biomass is burnt in a power station, it releases carbon dioxide, just like fossil fuels. These emissions are ignored in government's proposed greenhouse gas emissions standard on the grounds that emissions from combusting wood are compensated for when forests regrow after harvesting. Yet studies show that trees take decades or even centuries to reabsorb the initial carbon lost to the atmosphere and therefore repay the "carbon debt" from their combustion.
The next bit is tied up with negotiations around the Climate Change Convention. Essentially, international rules state that countries should account for greenhouse gas emissions from land use, land use change and forestry - creating the brilliant acronym of LULUCF. But the rules state that the carbon released is recorded when and where the wood is harvested not when it is combusted. It is therefore counted as zero-carbon by the energy sector as the emissions have already been accounted. But countries are negotiating various opt outs so that a significant proportion of emissions from forestry and agriculture will go unaccounted. Worse is that those countries that have not signed the Kyoto protocol, such as the US, will not account for these emissions at all. So, if we import wood fom the US for bioenergy plants in the UK, no greenhouse gas emissions will be accounted despite the massive emissions arising from burning the wood to make power.
The solution is relatively simple. A number of studies show that you could source the necessary biomass from the UK by brining our woodlands back into sustainable management and by using household and agricultural waste. A number of our native woodlands are crying out for management. Butterflies and birds have suffered through the lack of management of our woodlands. What's more there is a large amount of unutilised waste - government's own figures suggest that there are approximately 6 million tonnes of waste wood that were landfilled.
We therefore have a choice: do we source our biomass from domestic sources - which will be good news for woodland wildlife such as nightingales, spotted flycatcher and the small pearl-bordered fritillary and will mean less waste going to landfill? Or do we rely on imported wood thereby putting more pressure on temperate forests and wildlife in Canada, the US and Russia?
The UK Government is about to start reviewing the levels of support given to the bioenergy industry via the renewables obligation. We want them to scrap subsidies for imported wood and redirect support to develop a sustainable bioenergy industry based on bringing domestic forests back into management and using wastes.
See - it's simple!
It's a good question. And one we shall be exploring with government over the coming weeks.
The answer does seem simple. What reasons would the government have for not strongly backing domestic sources? Surely it would help the domestic economy and reduce landfill sites, which are getting harder to place.
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