Biomass: The Chain of Destruction

| 9th November 2013
Fenced in by eucalyptus

Community fenced in by eucalyptus plantation in Maranhao, village of Mundé. Ivonete Gonçalves de Souza, Cepedes.

Biomass electricity in the UK = clear-cutting of ancient swamp forests + bulldozing of traditional communities' lands + deprived UK communities bearing the brunt of toxic emissions.

Our latest report, Biomass: The Chain of Destruction, just launched at a public meeting in London, includes the first detailed case study of a land-grab linked directly to Europe's new demand for wood-based bioenergy.

That case study, which was researched and written by Ivonete Gonçalves de Souza (Cepedes) and Winfridus Overbeek (World Rainforest Movement), focusses on the Baixo Parnaíba region of the Brazilian state of Maranhão.

Traditional communities in that region have a long history of living in harmony with the highly biodiverse wooded Cerrado savannah. But for at least the last two decades they have been struggling to defend their lands, first from landowners planting soya and more recently from pulp and paper companies' eucalyptus monocultures.

The largest and most aggressive of those is the Brazilian firm Suzano Papel e Celulose, which is seeking to diversify into pellet production for European power stations.

Traditionally, communities in Baixo Parnaíba make their living from small-scale farming and from harvesting the fruits of different native trees. As a community leader cited in the report explains:

"Suzano is destroying our livelihoods. We depend on the Bacuri tree and harvest at least 100 tonnes [of fruit from different trees] at a time here. That's how we live. As well as Bacuri, this area also has Pacas [a species of rodent], armadillos, deer, Jacu birds, as well as other birds and species important to us. The plateau provides us with medicine, fruit, flowers, beauty and space for us to rear some cattle."

Some communities have successfully defended their lands from Suzano by standing in front of the bulldozers, but despite this, Suzano has succeeded in bulldozing 30-40,000 hectares (the size of the county of London) in the region for their new plantations.

As a result of eucalyptus expansion, biodiverse forests are clear-cut, communities lose their lands and livelihoods and rivers are polluted and depleted. Some of the plantations are so densely planted and will be cut down so frequently that they are only suitable for wood pellet production rather than for paper.

In 2010, Suzano signed a Memorandum of Understanding to supply pellets to the UK biomass company MGT Power. MGT holds planning permission for a power station at Teesside Port that would burn pellets and woodchips made from nearly 3 million tonnes of wood a year and they have proposed another power station of the same size at the Port of Tyne.

So far, neither MGT's first power station nor Suzano's pellet plant appear to have attracted sufficient investment but this has not stopped investment in plantations for wood pellets. Even if MGT's power station plans were to fail, Suzano has every reason to be confident that other companies in the UK or elsewhere in Europe would want their pellets.

As of September, 9 larger biomass power stations (15 MW capacity or greater), were operating in the UK, a further 45 were proposed and five coal power stations had permission to partly or fully convert to burning wood pellets.

Altogether, those plants would need to burn around 82 million tonnes of freshly harvested 'green' wood every year - more than 8 times as much as all the wood produced annually across the UK. For dedicated biomass plants, fast-growing eucalyptus from the tropics is likely to be an ideal economic choice.

During a Planning Inquiry in Grangemouth, Forth Energy argued that they were looking at Brazilian eucalyptus as a prime choice for 'sustainable biomass'. Following the Inquiry and despite nearly 1,000 local objections and a strong local campaign, Forth Energy were awarded planning permission for a power station that would burn 1.5 million tonnes of wood a year in the town.

For coal power stations converting to biomass, the picture is different. As a Biofuelwatch Freedom of Information request revealed, there is only one type of biomass of which substantial amounts can be burned in coal power stations without corroding the boilers: Wood from slow-growing trees and with little bark. This rules out most forestry residues because of their high bark content and it confines wood sourcing to temperate and boreal forests.

Danna Smith of the US conservation NGO Dogwood Alliance explains in the report what this means for southern US forests. According to Danna, those are the world's most biodiverse temperate forests with the most diverse freshwater ecosystems. The Venus flytrap for example is endemic to a region which is targeted by Drax's and E.On's pellet supplier Enviva. At least some of Enviva's pellets have been shown to come from clear-cut wetland forests and all their existing and planned pellet mills are close to ancient forests.

Pellet and energy companies deny responsibility for those clear-cuts: They argue that since private landowners (who own 90% of southern US forests) can sell sawn timber at $30 a tonne, whereas stumpage for pellet production attracts just one-sixth of that price, nobody would cut down their forest for bioenergy. Yet high sawn timber prices alone would give landowners an incentive to selectively log forests and allow smaller trees to mature. As Danna explains: "The reason they are clear-cutting their forest is that there is now a demand for the smaller stuff."

Brazil and the southern US are not the only regions affected by the UK's biomass boom. The report looks at the scale and impacts of pellet expansion in British Columbia (the main source of pellets for the UK), where clear-cutting of ancient boreal and temperate forests is rampant, and in Portugal, where the remnants of native forests are under increasing threat from encroaching pine and eucalyptus monocultures. Portugal's pellet production has grown explosively in recent years and 91% of pellets are exported to other European countries, including the UK.

For UK communities affected by biomass power stations, toxic air emissions are the biggest concern. In 2009, the then Environment Minister Jim Fitzpatrick, told Parliament that government-commissioned research predicted that up to 1.75 million life years could be lost across the UK by 2020 due to small particulate emissions from biomass expansion.

Biomass burning emits similar levels of pollution as coal burning, but the number of larger biomass power stations will soon exceed that of coal power plants in the UK. This means that more people will be affected by biomass emissions.

Biofuelwatch research shows that most biomass power stations in England are located or planned in relatively more deprived areas. In Scotland all proposed biomass power stations for 50 MW or greater capacity were found to be in relatively more deprived areas. Poorer communities will thus suffer disproportionally from biomass emissions - and from the illnesses and early deaths caused by it.

Clearly, large-scale biomass electricity is not clean and green and no more renewable than Brazil's Cerrado or North Carolina's swamp forests which are being cut down for it. Biofuelwatch calls for an urgent review of the definition of renewable energy and of subsidy rules, to ensure that only sustainable, truly low-carbon renewables such as sustainable wind, solar and tidal power are supported.

Almuth Ernsting is co-Director of Biofuelwatch.

See for an alert against public loan guarantees for big biomass investments


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