A surcharge on UK energy bills is funding subsidies for biomass electricity generation that is making climate change worse, polluting communities, destroying forests and harming wildlife.
In 2017, the UK Government granted around £1 billion in renewable subsidies to power stations - including Drax Power Station in Yorkshire - to burn millions of tonnes of wood for electricity.
Drax alone received £729 million - around £2 million per day - in subsidies to burn wood pellets and is now the world’s largest biomass burner.
Despite claims by the biomass industry that they mostly burn “low-grade wood residues”, US conservation NGOs have proven that a significant proportion of wood pellets for Drax and other UK power stations comes from the clearcutting of whole trees from wetland forests in the Southern US.
Meanwhile, new subsidies for onshore wind and solar power have been scrapped while the government is only planning to allocate £60m for the next round of renewable energy funding in May.
However, with a fixed amount of government money available for renewable energy under the Levy Control Framework, ending the generous biomass subsidies would automatically release around £800m for genuinely low-carbon wind, wave and solar power.
This would make a huge difference in reducing both our air pollution and our greenhouse gas emissions.
Why are biomass power plants receiving these huge renewable subsidies for burning wood?
Governments and the biomass industry argue that converting old coal power plants to burn wood is ‘green energy’ which can help reduce our carbon emissions.
This argument is based on the mistaken belief that burning wood is ‘carbon neutral’ because there is an assumption that new trees will absorb the carbon emissions produced by the burning.
This has allowed the biomass industry to present itself as a ‘low carbon’ and ‘sustainable’ alternative to fossil fuels, with the Minister of State for Climate Change and Industry describing biomass as “a cost-effective and transitional means of decarbonising the electricity grid”.
However, the truth is that there is nothing renewable or sustainable about biomass burning. By contrast, biomass comes at an enormous cost for communities, wildlife, forests and the climate.
The biomass industry claims that it is actually helping to increase forest growth in America by felling large areas of forest and replanting them with new trees.
Yet, this supposed forest growth disguises the fact that when new trees are planted in these areas, they are often monoculture plantations which cannot support biodiverse species and are little more than ‘green deserts’ for wildlife.
The destruction of forests to provide fuel for biomass burning is also harming communities who live near the US wood pellet production sites and the UK biomass power stations.
Wood pellet production causes noise and water pollution for local communities in the Southern US, while both pellet mills and biomass power stations produce dangerous air pollution, including small particulates which can enter the bloodstream and cause cancer, heart disease and neurological problems.
The fact that biomass burning is increasing climate change is equally alarming. Far from being carbon neutral, burning wood actually emits more CO2 than coal per unit of energy generated because the higher moisture content means that burning it is less efficient.
In 2017, Drax alone emitted 11.7 million tonnes of CO2 from burning wood. This is more than the total amount by which the UK should be reducing emissions every year in order to meet its carbon budgets.
Biomass proponents claim that these emissions will be reabsorbed by forest regrowth or by planting new trees, but new trees will take decades or even longer to reabsorb the emissions, if they ever can. This is time which we do not have if we are to avoid the worst effects of climate breakdown.
The climate impact of burning wood for energy was highlighted by 800 scientists in a letter to the European Parliament in January 2018: "Even if forests are allowed to regrow, using wood deliberately harvested for burning will increase carbon in the atmosphere and warming for decades to centuries [...] even when wood replaces coal, oil or natural gas. The reasons are fundamental and occur regardless of whether forest management is "sustainable."
Burning wood not only adds to carbon emissions, but it also destroys the very forests which we need to absorb our greenhouse gases.
Bhis technology has not been tried in large power stations and many experts regard it as unfeasible, but the biomass industry argues that new carbon capture and storage technology will allow it to remove its emissions from the atmosphere.
We already have the most powerful means to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and reduce climate breakdown - forests.
Protecting and restoring the world’s forests is as important as phasing out fossil fuels if we are to keep global temperature rises to 1.5 degrees, as 40 international scientists argued in response to the IPCC report in October: “While high-tech carbon dioxide removal solutions are under development, the “natural technology” of forests is currently the only proven means of removing and storing atmospheric CO2 at a scale that can meaningfully contribute to achieving carbon balance.”
In the light of the IPCC report’s dire warning that we are running out of time to save the planet from the worst effects of climate breakdown, it is essential that we stop wasting our money on the false solution of biomass burning and instead redirect subsidies to genuinely renewable wind, wave and solar power.
Over 120 international environmental groups emphasised in their position statement on forest biomass energy in October 2018: “Subsidies for forest biomass energy must be eliminated. Protecting and restoring the world’s forests is a climate change solution, burning them is not.”
It is more urgent than ever that we call for an end to subsidies for burning wood, as Drax prepares to hold its AGM in London this coming week.
If you would like to take action to save forests and our climate from biomass burning, Biofuelwatch has launched a new campaign for people to ask their MPs to help redirect subsidies from biomass power stations to genuine renewables.
Last year, the government made a positive first step by effectively ruling out future subsidies for large-scale biomass electricity. This sends a strong message that biomass burning is not part of the solution to climate change.
However, the change in the subsidies rules only applies to new projects and existing biomass power stations are currently set to continue receiving many billions of pounds in subsidies between now and 2027, unless we can redirect them to wind, wave and solar power. Fortunately, this could be done easily through secondary legislation.
Together, we can persuade parliament to tackle climate change, save forests, reduce pollution and combat environmental injustice by ending subsidies for burning wood.
Sally Clark is a bioenergy campaigner with Biofuelwatch. Biofuelwatch will be outside the Drax AGM in Grocers’ Hall in London on Wednesday 17 April between 12 and 1.30pm to protest at Drax’s biomass burning and its plans to build the UK’s largest ever gas power station. Everyone is welcome - visit the campaign's Facebook page here.