10 March 2013

Burning the Forests

In the name of saving carbon, our politicians have just taken a disastrously wrong decision on the issue of biofuels. They have agreed that Renewable Obligation Certificates (ROC’s) will be awarded to power stations which burn biofuels, so paving the way for a massive expansion in the amount of wood and palm oil which are harvested and sent to the UK to be burned in our power stations.

Why is this so bad? The old wisdom on biofuels used to be that since the carbon had been recently absorbed by the trees or plants involved, then burning it was essentially carbon neutral. Unfortunately this simplistic analysis missed out two very important details.

Firstly it takes trees a long time to grow and store up that carbon, but it is released effectively instantly. Even if new trees are planted to compensate it will be well over 50 years before they have sequestered the same amount of carbon as has been released. Moreover the desire to have a quick growing simple product means that increasing amounts of land will be given over to biologically deserted monoculture plantations. We have seen the adverse effect of these on our own hills and are moving away from this approach, but this will encourage exactly that same sterile development in other countries on a dramatically larger scale.

Secondly the most productive and flexible of liquid biofuel sources is palm oil. Already implicated in the destruction of millions of hectares of rainforest in Indonesia and other Far Eastern countries, this encouragement is likely to see even larger swathes of ancient forest destroyed to make way for new palm oil plantations. There isn’t much hope for saving the Orang-utan with policies like this being enacted.

A new report from the RSPB in association with Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace – Dirtier than Coal? – documents that even the government’s own analysis shows burning whole trees will increase greenhouse gas emissions by at least 49% compared to coal over a 40 year period. Yet despite this we are going to subsidise a massive expansion of precisely this activity. The Dutch and German governments are not going down this route and even Scotland has set a 15MW cap on the capacity of plants which would receive the subsidy, but here in England we are apparently happy to encourage global deforestation to keep our lights on.

To add insult to injury, the Green Investment Bank, intended to support the development of a low carbon economy here in the UK, has announced that it will be making a £100 million loan to Drax to enable the company to convert half its boilers to burning biomass – largely imported wood. In doing so, Drax is shamelessly harvesting government subsidies to switch from being Britain’s biggest polluter through the coal it burns, to occupying the same position through burning millions of tonnes of imported wood.

Drax isn’t the only former coal fired power station going down this route. Tilbury B has already converted and Ironbridge, Eggborough and Lynemouth all plan to partly or fully convert to burning biomass. Between them they will need to burn five times as much wood as the UK produces each year. They will be importing initially from the USA but increasingly from poorer nations where natural forests will be replaced by plantations to feed this frenzy.

It may be too late to stop this disastrous turn in government policy, but it isn’t too late to put pressure on the companies involved to turn their backs on biomass and on the Green Investment Bank not to fund large scale biomass. Biofuelwatch are co-ordinating a protest at the Drax AGM on 24th April and you can write to the GIB calling on them to stop funding biomass. You can also follow developments on the Biofuelwatch Facebook page. The battle may be lost, but the war isn’t over yet. 

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