Wood energy schemes “a disaster” for climate change

A study published in London on 23rd February 2017 by the well respected Royal Institute of International Affairs warns that most schemes to generate “low carbon electricity” from wood burning are actually doing the opposite, with carbon emissions from wood pellets higher than coal and considerably higher than gas.

Calculations of net carbon savings have not been counting emissions from the actual wood burning, merely assuming that these are countered by the sequestration impact of new plantings – which effectively leaves a large gap.

Hot air for climate policy - logging for renewable energy in Poloniny National Park  Photo Peter Sabo, WOLF Forest Protection MovementHot air for climate policy - logging for renewable energy in Poloniny National Park Photo Peter Sabo, WOLF Forest Protection Movement

The Study also casts further doubt on the feasibility of BECCS (Bioenergy Carbon Capture and Storage), aimed at removing carbon from the environment by large-scale tree felling together with use of energy crops and storage underground of resulting carbon emissions. "However, all of the studies that the IPCC surveyed assumed that the biomass was zero-carbon at the point of combustion, which … is not a valid assumption. In addition, the slow rate of deployment of carbon capture and storage technology, and the extremely large areas of land that would be required to supply the woody biomass feedstock needed in the BECCS scenarios render its future development at scale highly unlikely."

Urgent review of biomass policy

Written by Duncan Brack, a former Special Advisor to the UK Government, the Study calls for immediate review of subsidies for biomass, which now supplies 65% of renewable power in the EU on the back of generous subsidies.

With the EC currently proposing a new Directive on Renewable Energy (draft published 30th November), there are growing calls for reallocation of subsidy exclusively towards wood waste products where there is no extra harvesting and proven carbon savings.

Impacts on biodiversity and illegal logging

This urgency of this call is underlined by an investigation published in November 2016 by BirdLife International with Transport & Environment showing that bioenergy plants are burning whole trees from protected areas rather than using forest waste.

This includes biomass from logging in Poloniny National Park (Slovakia), and riverine forests around Emilia-Romagna (Italy) where tree removal was apparently disguised as flood mitigation.

In Slovakia alone, according to the investigation, there has been an increase in use of wood for bioenergy of over 70% in the last 10 years, impelled by EU Renewable Energy targets. Under current legislation, European bioenergy plants do not have to produce evidence that their wood products have been sustainably sourced.