Biomass Threatens Our Climate

Biomass electricity is dirty energy. Like fossil fuels, burning biomass in power stations emits huge amounts of heat-trapping carbon dioxide and exacerbates climate change. We must end subsides to this polluting energy source now.

 

Addressing the climate emergency means immediately shifting to clean energy and dramatically slashing carbon emissions over the next decade. No energy source that puts more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere over this critical period should continue to get government subsidies.

A clearcut located in the Roanoke River basin in North Carolina, just outside of Williamston, North Carolina. Whole hardwood trees and other large-diameter wood from this site was taken to the Enviva Ahoskie, North Carolina wood pellet mill.

Logging truck carrying whole hardwood trees and other large-diameter wood to the Enviva Ahoskie, North Carolina facility. Enviva is the largest wood pellet manufacturer in the world and a key supplier of biomass to Drax.

Aerial view of industrial scale wood pellet production.

Burning Biomass for Electricity Emits Heat-Trapping CO2 at Every Step

 

The climate impacts of harvesting and burning biomass from forests in power stations are well established. In addition to the large supply chain emissions in processing and transporting wood pellets to the UK from overseas forests, all biomass power plants emit more CO2 from their stacks than coal plants do per unit of electricity. This means that bioenergy, which the UK treats as a “zero emitting” source of electricity actually increases CO2 in the atmosphere.

Drax Power Station in North Yorkshire England

Bioenergy proponents argue that forest regrowth negates this harmful impact on our climate. That is simply not true, even under the best-case scenario in which new trees are immediately replanted to replace those that have been logged.

 

This is for three reasons:

 

1. Older trees have been shown to sequester CO2 at a higher rate, so a permanent carbon debt is created when an older and larger tree is replaced with a sapling. Not only will it take years (likely decades) for the new tree to reach the size of the felled one, but during that time the now felled tree would have grown even larger if it had been left in place. This is often referred to as the “forgone sequestration” caused by additional biomass harvest in the forest. It means that biomass harvest reduces a forest’s store of carbon over the long run, compared with what it would be without the additional demand for wood.

 

2. It is difficult to ensure that harvested trees will be replaced and kept intact.

 

3. Forest harvesting also releases carbon from the soil.

 

Together, this means that harvesting biomass from forests for energy has an immediate and negative impact on the climate, with consequences that can persist for decades or even centuries. Even when biomass energy is generated by burning genuine forestry residues—the leftovers from logging operations, like tree tops and limbs—the result is increased CO2 in the atmosphere over several decades. This is time we simply do not have if we are going to avert the worse consequences of climate change.

 

Biomass Undermines the UK’s Plans to Lead on Climate Action

 

Britain’s COP 26 President Alok Sharma says climate change is the biggest challenge of our time, and that the UK’s presidency offers a unique opportunity to address this. Yet the UK is actively undermining this ambition and worsening the climate crisis by continuing billions in subsidies for dirty biomass electricity—the opposite of global leadership.

The European Academies Science Advisory Council (EASAC) now states that using woody biomass for power “is not effective in mitigating climate change and may even increase the risk of dangerous climate change.”

The UK cannot claim the mantle of global climate leadership while it remains the world’s largest market for burning trees for energy. Continuing to subsidise wood-burning for electricity puts the country’s climate goals in jeopardy. The UK government must immediately redirect billions in dirty biomass electricity subsidies to true clean energy like wind and solar.

Resources

Explore these links to discover more about the climate impacts of burning trees for electricity.

Serious Mismatches Continue Between Science and Policy in Forest Bioenergy

European Academies Science Advisory Council: Climate Impact of Woody Biomass

Think Wood Pellets are Green? Think Again.

500+ Scientists Tell EU to End Tree Burning for Energy

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About Us

Cut Carbon Not Forests is a campaign to remove subsidies from companies that burn trees for electricity, co-ordinated by a coalition of UK and US-based NGOs. Join us in asking the Government to redirect biomass subsidies to real clean and renewable energy.

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