New Internationalist

PODCAST: Big biomass

2013-08-19-trees-590.jpg [Related Image]
Deforestation is already a huge global problem; biomass just adds to it Moyan Brenn under a Creative Commons Licence

The industrial burning of trees to meet energy needs will harm the climate more than burning coal. Phil England and guests explain why support for biomass needs to end, now.

European consumption patterns are already responsible for over a third of global deforestation which is bad news for the climate, biodiversity and forest-dependent communities. And yet Britain and Europe have now decided to burn trees to create electricity. Why are policy makers ignoring the advice of their own scientists which says that this will be worse for climate change than burning coal? Where might millions of tonnes of trees come from and what implications might this have for exacerbating land grabs and land conflicts?

Listen to the podcast here.

For this episode of Climate Radio, Phil England is joined by:

•    Harry Huyton from RSPB
•    Rachel Smolker from Biofuelwatch US and Energy Justice Network
•    Almuth Ernsting from Biofuelwatch UK
•    Giuseppe Nastasi from Client Earth

Carbon-neutral or worse than coal?

European and UK policy on biomass assumes that using biomass to produce electricity is carbon-neutral. But when trees are burnt in power stations they instantly release the carbon that they have been absorbing and storing for decades. The CO2 that is added to the atmosphere increases global warming now and it will take decades if not centuries, for an equivalent amount of CO2 to be reabsorbed by any new trees planted.

An authoritative review for the European Commission confirmed that the assumption of biomass’s ‘carbon neutrality’ is false and that, under most applicable scenarios, the greenhouse gas emissions associated with biomass are worse than coal.

Where would all these trees come from?

Government and industry used to claim that biomass for electricity plants would come from waste sources, and locally-grown sustainable crops. However, the scale of the government’s bioenergy plans mean that there would never be enough supply from these sources alone. Data obtained by Biofuelwatch shows that the coal stations in Britain that have applied to convert to biomass can only burn slow growing trees from the Northern hemisphere that are low in bark content. North America will be the main source of European biomass in the short term after which demand is projected to be met from South America and Africa.

Implications for the Global South: land conflicts, food insecurity

There has already been a real-world experiment with biofuels which has had a devastating impact on the global poor. Biofuels have made global food prices rise and become more volatile, contributing to food riots and global unrest. There have been 293 land grabs – a total of 17 million hectares – specifically for biofuel crops over the last ten years.

Southern organizations such as World Rainforest Movement are worried that biomass will simply add to existing pressures and the European Parliament’s own assessment concluded that EU biomass policy would be likely to impact on poor countries by putting pressure on forests and other ecosystems, driving land-use conflicts and impacting on local food and energy security.

The tide turns?

The British government has limited its support for biomass. However current policy could still mean burning up to 20 million tonnes of trees every year for several decades. The EU is reducing its support for biofuels after the European Commission’s science body found that biodiesel made from rapeseed was worse for the climate than conventional diesel.

End subsidies now!

With the publication of the European Parliament’s report on the impacts of biomass energy on climate change, there is no longer any intellectual justification for treating large-scale biomass as ‘renewable energy’ and making it extremely profitable by giving it subsidies. Britain is finalizing its subsidy regime for different types of electricity production as the Energy Bill passes through parliament – so we have an important opportunity to fix this now.

Take action

•    Follow Biofuelwatch and Biomass Monitor for updates
•    Tell the Green Investment Bank to stop supporting biomass projects.
•    Ask your MEP to change the rules on biofuels
•    Campaign for the Energy Bill to stop supporting biomass

Listen to the podcast.

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  1. #1 Tim 20 Aug 13

    I find it hard to believe there is not enough organic waste to support a solid biomass industry. There is literally hundreds of millions of tons of the stuff rotting all over the world and making a far bigger contribution towards climate change than it would be if it were combusted and converted to energy. This is a hugely valuable resource especially in countries like Africa and South East Asia where they need distributed baseload power and are reliant on expensive diesel fuel. Europe and America should be driving this technology forward and investing in ever more efficient technologies and initiatives that help collect this valuable resource.
    The most damaging thing to climate change is government indecision on policy incentives. I think some of the initial rounds of incentives for biomass were very fair, efforts now should not be to undo everything again! but rather work on setting a frameowrk on sustainable fuel collection which is cheap and abundant, there have been great improvements in technology here, and some countries like Denmark are fantastic examples, they use 80% of their agricultural and forestry waste. The potential to replicate this in Africa, South America and S.E Asia is huge, but it will need a little support.

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About the author

Phil England a New Internationalist contributor

Phil England is producer of Climate Radio and co-founder of the award-winning community radio station Resonance FM. In 2012 he produced an alternative audio tour for the Tate Modern as part of the campaign to end oil sponsorship of the arts. His freelance writing has appeared in The Independent, The Herald, The Ecologist, Variant and The Wire.

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