July 16, 2013
by phil
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It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World. European consumption patterns are already responsible for over a third of of global deforestation which is bad news for the climate, biodiversity and forest-dependent communities. And yet the UK and Europe have now decided to burn trees to create electricity. Why are policy makers ignoring the advice of their own scientists which says this will be worse for climate change than burning coal? Where might millions upon millions of tonnes of trees come from and what implications might this have for exacerbating land grabs and land conflicts?


  • Harry Huyton, Head of climate and energy policy, RSPB
  • Rachel Smolker, Biofuelwatch US, Energy Justice Network
  • Almuth Ernsting, Biofuelwatch UK
  • Giuseppe Nastasi, legal advisor at 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 release in an instant the carbon that they have been absorbing and storing for decades, adding CO2 to the atmosphere which increases global warming. The European Union and the UK government ignore these emissions when calculating the climate impacts of biomass energy. They claim that these emissions are balanced by the CO2 absorbed by other trees that might replace the burnt trees in the future – ignoring the fact that this takes decades if not centuries.

But the high-level, authoritative review of the peer-reviewed science in this area conducted by the European Commission’s Joint Research Council (JRC) confirmed that the assumption of biomass’s “carbon neutrality” is false.

In a table summarising the findings of the various studies (p. 75), the JRC found that if we burn whole trees now for electricity, the emissions are worse than coal and are only lower than coal in some scenarios in the medium term (fifty years time). Since we need to decarbonise our electricity supply completely by 2030 we should not be replacing coal with something worse.

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. Also, we now know – from correspondence released under the Freedom of Information Act – that all the coal stations in the UK that have applied to convert to biomass can only burn slow growing trees from the Northern hemisphere that are low in bark content. The BBC’s Roger Harrabin, drawing on an investigation by the Dogwood Alliance, showed that Drax is already burning whole trees not just from managed forests in the US, but also from natural swamp forests in North Carolina.

According to Biofuelwatch: “Drax told DECC that North America will be the main source of the biomass it requires in the short term, but that current available supply of this to Europe is only half what UK generation will require by 2015.” When the US can no longer meet the UK demand for trees, Drax thinks that demand could be met from South America and Africa.

Europeans already cause a massive amount of deforestation globally. Between 1990-2008 the EU consumed more than a third of the crops and livestock associated with deforestation in their country of origin. The EU aims to halve deforestation by 2020 and stop it by 2030 but it does not have an action plan for achieving this. In fact it is likely that the amount of deforestation the EU is responsible for has increased recently due to the use of biofuels (such as palm oil) in road transport. If Europe continues down the biomass route its deforestation footprint is likely to increase further still.

Implications for the Global South: land conflicts, food insecurity

We have already run a real-world experiment with biofuels which has had devastating impacts 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 for a total of 17 million hectares specifically for biofuel cropsover the last ten years.

Southern NGOs such as World Rainforest Movement are rightly worried that the new demand for biomass will simply add to these already unacceptable pressures on forests and food security in the global south and the European Parliament’s own assessment concluded that EU biomass policy would be likely to impact on poor countries by

  • adding pressure on forests and other ecosystems
  • driving land-use conflicts
  • driving the replacement of natural forests by monoculture plantations
  • having a long-term impact on local food security and energy security


It appears that government was giving secret assurances to industry of financial support for coal-to-biomass conversion projects at the same time as a public consultation on the level of that support. This suggests that the public consultation was a sham – mere democratic window dressing.

The Green Investment Bank is a public bank that is considering lending money to a new biomass project in Scotland. The Chair of the GIB is also Chair of Scottish & Southern Energy, a company who would benefit directly from this decision since it owns 50% of the company that wants to build the plant.

The tide turns?

The UK 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.

Finally Europe is rolling back on its support for biofuels. In recognition of the significant problems with biofuels, the European Parliament voted to introduce a cap on the amount of biofuels that can be used in transport fuels. The cap of 5.5% was proposed after the European’s science body found that biodiesel made from rapeseed was worse for the climate than conventional diesel. Since the problems with biofuels closely parallel those associated with biomass, this also weakens the case for biomass.

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 enormously profitable by giving it subsidies. The UK is finalising its subsidy and support regime for different types of electricity production as the Energy Bill passes through parliament – so we have an important opportunity to fix this now.


1 comment

  1. tony

    I disagree with wood and biomass combustion. I would far rather see us reducing energy use across the board, transport, industry, offices and domestically. This means a programme of measures, draught proofing, closing doors and windows when heating is on, wearing pullovers or cardigans, taking these off when it is warm, insulation and energy use reduction measures.

    I am very concerned about the impact on air quality of wood and biomass combustion and the deleterious effects this has on health and life expectancy.

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