Despite biomass, more carbon is being put into our atmosphere than when we were burning coal - Selaine Saxby

The burning of wood as a renewable energy source has been adopted by the UK and the EU as a sustainable option to replace coal. In the UK, we subsidise the use of biomass to generate energy by £1 billion. However, in recent years, scientists and industry have raised serious concerns about the actual benefit of burning wood for energy. I secured this debate so that we can have a discussion about how taxpayers’ money is being spent and whether, at this time of global energy disruption, we are investing in the best forms of energy generation for our planet and for our energy security.

Biomass became prominent when coal-fired power stations were converted into biomass power stations. That was subsidised to aid the phase-out of coal and originated at a time when biomass was cheaper than renewables such as wind and solar and had perceived additional benefits, such as providing consistent, reliable power.

Now, however, Drax is the UK’s biggest single-point source of carbon dioxide emissions. Because of the technology installed, the power station must run predominantly on wood pellets and has only limited capacity for non-woody biomass such as energy crops and organic waste.

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The whole lifecycle emissions of CO2 per kWh are 41 grams for solar, 11 to 12 grams for wind and 948 grams for coal. For forest biomass, they are 1,079 grams.

Drax Power Station in North Yorkshire. Picture by Simon Hulme.Drax Power Station in North Yorkshire. Picture by Simon Hulme.
Drax Power Station in North Yorkshire. Picture by Simon Hulme.

That is far from the assumed carbon-neutral outcome. The UK produces roughly 12 per cent of its energy from biomass and three per cent from coal.

The UK’s carbon emissions have not dropped at the same rate as our reduction of coal would indicate. The reality is that more carbon is being put into our atmosphere currently than when we were burning coal.

The difference between the idea that burning wood for energy is renewable and the reality comes from two misrepresentations. Both come about from the wrong approach to the accounting for the carbon output.

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The emissions from cutting down trees are attributed to the land-use sector rather than the energy-generation sector.

Selaine Saxby, MP for North Devon.Selaine Saxby, MP for North Devon.
Selaine Saxby, MP for North Devon.

As we import the majority of our wood pellets, we are exporting our carbon emissions.

Although that may look good, it does not achieve anything, as we all share our atmosphere and the effects that carbon emissions cause.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change allows such zero-rating of emissions based on the idea that every tree will be replanted and its replacement will harness the same level of carbon as its predecessor; unfortunately, that has proven not to be the case. Many studies have shown that the carbon payback times for forest biomass are decades or centuries away, depending on the type of forest cut down to produce the wood pellets.

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We are entering a crunch point in our work to limit the effects of climate change, with tipping points in the melting of sea and glacial ice, sea-level rises, ocean acidification, permafrost melt and the Amazon biome. We do not have the time to wait decades or centuries for the carbon to be reabsorbed and sequestered; nor does such an approach fit in with the goal of carbon neutrality by 2050.

This is a shortened excerpt from a Parliamentary speech by the Conservative MP for North Devon.

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