New sums look good for farmed biofuels

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BURNING wood is probably worse for climate change than burning coal, according to a new report which could work in favour of quick-growing biomass grown by farmers.

Three powerful pressure groups, RSPB, Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace, commissioned an American expert on energy equations to follow up his own suspicions that important elements had been left out of the calculations which got tree products in the list of biomass fuels eligible for subsidy.

The argument for biomass is that plants absorb carbon when they grow, so emissions when they are burnt do not change the atmosphere if they are replaced – unlike coal and oil, which were laid down when the atmosphere was full of carbon.

Timothy Searchinger of Princeton University pointed out that the time it takes to grow a tree is a major but. You burn a carbon store and do not get it replaced for years. And it costs energy to chop it up and move it.

It would take a hundred years for burning trees to give an end result better than burning coal, according to his latest findings.

Meanwhile, burning a typical imported conifer will create nearly 50 per cent more pollution than getting the same energy from coal, he reckons.

The charities which hired him have called on the Department for Energy & Climate Change to take an urgent look at its plans for extending support for burning wood – much of which would be imported – and “to focus on building a domestic bioenergy sector instead”. Harry Huyton, the RSPB’s head of climate policy, said this week: “Government has justified burning trees in power stations by claiming the chimney emissions are offset by the carbon that the forest takes in when it re-grows, but this is pure fiction.

“It can take decades, if not centuries, for the trees to recapture that carbon, leaving us with more emissions in the atmosphere now, when we least need it.

“If Government subsidies go ahead, we will be burning 30 million tonnes of wood each year. That’s six times the total UK harvest.

“This will result in industries that depend on wood having to use other materials like plastic and concrete, which are worse for the environment.”

Friends of the Earth said: “Ministers should spend our money on sustainable solutions to our power problems, such as cutting waste and getting clean British energy from the wind, waves and sun.”

Lucy Hopwood, a biomass expert at the National Non-Food Crop Centre, at York, said DECC was following a European prescription intended to get a biomass industry up and running.

She said: “Everyone has a different interpretation of what sustainable means and consultations about it are still going on.

“Meanwhile, our production of willow and miscanthus crops is still very small.”

A DECC spokesperson said power-station biomass rules already took some account of the factors identified in the report and the rules for domestic heating subsidy were still under discuss-ion.