Biofuels and biomass: climate problem, not solution

The above film is the 30 minute version of 'Burned: Are trees the new coal?' Below is the discussion from the Campaign against Climate Change webinar, 9 June 2020, with two of the film's US filmmakers, Lisa Merton and Chris Hardee. Along with Biofuelwatch campaigner Pete Deane and Sam Mason from PCS Union and host Suzanne Jeffery from Campaign against Climate Change, they discuss what we can learn from the film, and how campaigners can help redirect the massive subsidies currently being diverted from true renewables to an industry that damages the climate.

Take action: Open letter for organisations to sign to call for subsidies to be directed from biomass to renewables. Individuals can contact their MP with the same request.

Agrofuels (biofuels from intensive agriculture) are increasingly being burned as a supposedly 'green' alternative to fossil fuels. However, because of emissions from deforestation and intensive agriculture, they can be at least as damaging to the climate as coal, oil and gas.

Palm oil is one of the most notorious - as well as an ingredient in food, it is also being used in biodiesel in the EU, ironically in an attempt to lower carbon emissions, despite the devastation palm oil plantations have caused, being linked to mass burning of Indonesian forests which have made Indonesia the third largest carbon emitter in the world.

The climate impacts of wood burning are less well known, but can be significant, both because of the links to deforestation and because the rate of CO2 emissions are not matched by forest regrowth: it can take between thirty five to fifty years for new trees planted now to offset the carbon released by harvesting and burning the forests that preceeded them, nor is this regrowth guaranteed in many cases.

The largest burner of biomass in the UK, and in fact in the world, is Drax power station in Yorkshire, which burnt pellets made from 12 million tonnes of wood last year - a million more tonnes than the UK produces in a single year. Far from being offcuts, as Drax claims, most of the wood pellets are imported from North America, with a significant proportion coming from clear-cutting highly biodiverse coastal wetland forests. Others come from pine monocultures which have replaced what were once biodiverse and thriving forests.

Drax is only able to survive due to large renewable energy subsidies of over £2 million a day, which enables it to continue being the largest burner of coal and emitter of CO2 in the UK. Through their #AxeDrax campaign, Biofuelwatch are working to end these damaging biomass subsidies, campaigning for proper support for truly renewable technologies such as wind and solar, and energy efficiency.

In Febuary 2017, a study was published concerning the sustainability of biofuels. The author, Duncan Brack, who is a former special adviser at the UK Department of Energy and Climate Change, states that emissions from pellets are higher than coal, and that the UK's government substantial subsides for biomass should be reviewed urgently. For more information see this article by New Scientist.

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