UK government subsidises woody biomass found to emit more carbon than coal

Woody biomass is being heavily subsidised by the UK government, costing hundreds of millions of pounds, even though burning the fuel releases more emissions than coal, says a new report.

Using wood, much of it imported from the USA, for biomass power and heat is often seen as a relatively cheap and flexible way of supplying renewable energy, but a report by Chatham House suggests the process could be more harmful than traditional energy sources.

Duncan Brack, author of the report – Woody Biomass for Power and Heat Impacts on the Global Climate – wrote that “while some instances of biomass energy use may result in lower lifecycle emissions than fossil fuels”, this was not the case in “most circumstances”.

“Comparing technologies of similar ages, the use of woody biomass for energy will release higher levels of emissions than coal and considerably higher levels than gas.”

The report said: “It is not valid to claim that because trees absorb carbon as they grow, the emissions from burning them can be ignored.”

Brack, who was a special adviser to former energy and climate change secretary Chris Huhne, is an associate fellow at the international affairs think tank.

Huhne is now the Europe chairman of Zilkha Biomass Energy, which produces water-resistant biomass pellets which are transportable like coal.

Wood pellets were one of the environmentally friendly sources encouraged by the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme in Northern Ireland.

The scheme, established in 2012 by then economy minister Arlene Foster, was supposed to pay a proportion of fuel costs, but tariffs were set too high, creating a “burn to earn” incentive.

It prompted a row between Sinn Fein and the DUP which led Martin McGuinness to stand down as deputy First Minister and forced Foster, who was First Minister, out of office.

A spokesman for the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy said: “All biomass power plants in the UK have to meet mandatory sustainability criteria to ensure they reduce carbon emissions.

“Biomass conversion projects are a useful way to convert old polluting coal power stations into lower carbon electricity sources, whilst helping us maintain energy security and keeping down bills.”

Huhne defended his support for biomass, saying climate change had only become a problem after the industrial revolution when people moved from burning wood, which absorbed carbon dioxide, to fossil fuels.

“We moved from a world which was sustainable and had no impact on the climate to a world where we were digging up fossil fuels, whether it was coal or later oil and gas, and burning those,” he told Channel 4 News.

“We were then injecting a new source of carbon into the atmosphere.”

The World Bank recently said that developing countries are taking the lead in implementing policies designed to enable the switch to sustainable energy by 2030 and reduce carbon while developed countries are not doing enough. 

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