Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.
The Life cycle impacts of biomass electricity in 2020 report assesses the carbon emissions associated with North American wood burned in UK power stations. Most pellets imported into the UK come from North America. One of the two authors is DECC’s outgoing Scientific Advisor, David McKay – a widely respected expert in energy technologies and their climate impacts.
So, does the report vindicate the biomass industry, or those who have been warning that burning millions of tonnes of wood in power stations is the last thing we need if we want to protect forests and avoid the worst impacts of climate change? The industry takes comfort from the report saying that it may (not will!) be possible to meet the UK’s 2020 bioenergy demand with low-carbon wood from North America. However, it hardly supports the likes of Drax and their suppliers – particularly since Drax cannot, for technical reasons, burn many of the ‘low-carbon’ residues identified in the report.
On the other hand, the authors confirm that a lot of biomass really is ‘dirtier than coal’. Crucially, they state that the methodology suggested by the European Commission for calculating biomass carbon emissions is deeply flawed and makes bioenergy appear as low-carbon even if it is linked to greater CO2 emissions than electricity from coal. That’s the same methodology that is used by the Government and on which their proposed biomass sustainability standards are based. The report thus implies that the Government’s biomass policy and their planned standards are not fit for purpose.
According to Energy and Climate Change Secretary Ed Davey ‘this calculator shows that, done well, biomass can offer real carbon savings – which is why we are tightening our rules for sustainable biomass’. But what he means is simply that the very carbon standards demolished by this report will become mandatory from 2015.
Davey probably knows that aligning the proposed standards to the findings of the report would close down Drax and E.On’s Ironbridge power station and might stop other coal-to-biomass conversions and large new biomass power stations across the UK. For example the largest pellet producer in the US, Enviva, has been shown to source wood from clearcut wetland forests that had not been logged for at least a century. Enviva is a key supplier of Drax and has a supply contract with E.On, too. This, the report confirms, is worse for the climate than burning coal for well over 40 years.
Are biomass carbon standards based on this new report the answer? Would they protect the climate, and might they even allow us to burn millions of tonnes of imported wood without harming forests and increasing carbon emissions in the process?
Well – no. There are fundamental problems with relying on sustainability standards, not least the fact that those rely on self-reporting by companies and their chosen consultants. The Government has admitted that companies’ declarations that vast amounts of their biofuels came from used cooking oil from the Netherlands were ‘implausible’ – i.e. misleading. Standards simply require companies to tick the right boxes – an invitation to fraud.
Moreover, DECC’s new report assesses a wide range of “scenarios”, all of which depend on assumptions about what would have happened in the absence of a demand for bioenergy – or what might happen in future, for example to US wood markets. Putative scenarios make for an interesting academic debate – for policy purposes they are of little use. For example, logging a native forest for bioenergy is shown to be climate friendly if, without the demand for bioenergy, that forest would have been converted to agricultural land. What’s to stop the industries from claiming that without their demand for wood, American forests would just be cut down and turned into cotton fields? Implausible – but who can ever prove what ‘would have happened’? All of the ‘sustainable’ scenarios depend on developments which are out of UK companies’ or our government’s control.
Furthermore, some of the scenarios and assumptions in the report are questionable, while important ones are missing. For example, the authors calculate how much different types of wood may be ‘available for UK biomass’ as if there wasn’t a fast-growing demand for bioenergy within North America, let alone from across Europe. There’s no scenario that sees UK demand force US biomass plants to run on wood from whole trees rather than residues. Many, though not all, such ‘indirect impacts’ have been ignored. Some scenarios assume that, without our bioenergy demand, vast amounts of sawmill and residues would be burned as waste on the roadside – which is most unlikely. Some are based on a low future demand for wood in North America – improbable without an economic crash. Nobody can draw up credible ‘carbon standards’ based on speculations about future wood prices.
As an EU member state, the UK government should base environmental policies on the precautionary principle (not something it has a record of doing). The government is subsidising company plans to burn more wood each year than the UK produces annually and there is clear evidence that biodiverse North American forests are already being destroyed as a result. Those subsidies must be stopped.
(Picture: Deforestation in Sumatra to make way for an oil palm plantation)
Drawing connections between events as disparate as the ‘social murder’ of Grenfell and recent mudslides in Sierra Leone, Remi Joseph-Salisbury points to the enduring relevance of Pan African thought for anti-racist struggle today.
We work ourselves into the ground for little economic benefit. It's high time to for a change, writes Aidan Harper.
Deregulation and tax loopholes are justified by saying that they 'protect growth'. But really, they just protect the wealthy, writes James Fox
Inequality is often treated as a law of nature - but really, it's the result of conscious political choices. It's time to choose equality, writes the IPPR's Carys Roberts.
Tom Palmer, aka Agent Kingfisher, was the 'messiah' of London's squatting scene until his death last year. But who was responsible for his fate? MI5, late capitalism or simply a drug overdose? Matt Broomfield investigates.
'Docs Not Cops' write that we must resist attempts to make our NHS any less universal
Louis Mendee explains the real human costs of climate change for the global south.
From climate change to automation to demographic shifts, Mathew Lawrence explains the challenges our economy will face in the coming decade.
Fifty years after the Abortion Act, women are still dying from being denied basic services, write activists from Feminist Fightback
We need to tackle the patronising ideology that lets Tory think-tanks sneer at social tenants, writes Emma Dent Coad
Labour Party laws are being used to quash dissent
Richard Kuper writes that Labour's authorities are more concerned with suppressing pro-Palestine activism than with actually tackling antisemitism
Catalan independence is not just ‘nationalism’ – it’s a rebellion against nationalism
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte argue that Catalonia's independence movement is driven by solidarity – and resistance to far-right Spanish nationalists
Tabloids do not represent the working class
The tabloid press claims to be an authentic voice of the working class - but it's run by and for the elites, writes Matt Thompson
As London City Airport turns 30, let’s imagine a world without it
London City Airport has faced resistance for its entire lifetime, writes Ali Tamlit – and some day soon we will win
The first world war sowed the seeds of the Russian revolution
An excerpt from 'October', China Mieville's book revisiting the story of the Russian Revolution
Academies run ‘on the basis of fear’
Wakefield City Academies Trust (WCAT) was described in a damning report as an organisation run 'on the basis of fear'. Jon Trickett MP examines an education system in crisis.
‘There is no turning back to a time when there wasn’t migration to Britain’
David Renton reviews the Migration Museum's latest exhibition
#MeToo is necessary – but I’m sick of having to prove my humanity
Women are expected to reveal personal trauma to be taken seriously, writes Eleanor Penny
Meet the digital feminists
We're building new online tools to create a new feminist community and tackle sexism wherever we find it, writes Franziska Grobke
The Marikana women’s fight for justice, five years on
Marienna Pope-Weidemann meets Sikhala Sonke, a grassroots social justice group led by the women of Marikana
Forget ‘Columbus Day’ – this is the Day of Indigenous Resistance
By Leyli Horna, Marcela Terán and Sebastián Ordonez for Wretched of the Earth
Uber and the corporate capture of e-petitions
Steve Andrews looks at a profit-making petition platform's questionable relationship with the cab company
You might be a centrist if…
What does 'centrist' mean? Tom Walker identifies the key markers to help you spot centrism in the wild
Black Journalism Fund Open Editorial Meeting in Leeds
Friday 13th October, 5pm to 7pm, meeting inside the Laidlaw Library, Leeds University
This leadership contest can transform Scottish Labour
Martyn Cook argues that with a new left-wing leader the Scottish Labour Party can make a comeback
Review: No Is Not Enough
Samir Dathi reviews No Is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics, by Naomi Klein
Building Corbyn’s Labour from the ground up: How ‘the left’ won in Hackney South
Heather Mendick has gone from phone-banker at Corbyn for Leader to Hackney Momentum organiser to secretary of her local party. Here, she shares her top tips on transforming Labour from the bottom up
Five things to know about the independence movement in Catalonia
James O'Nions looks at the underlying dynamics of the Catalan independence movement
‘This building will be a library!’ From referendum to general strike in Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte report from the Catalan general strike, as the movements prepare to build a new republic
Chlorine chickens are just the start: Liam Fox’s Brexit trade free-for-all
A hard-right free marketer is now in charge of our trade policy. We urgently need to develop an alternative vision, writes Nick Dearden
There is no ‘cult of Corbyn’ – this is a movement preparing for power
The pundits still don’t understand that Labour’s new energy is about ‘we’ not ‘me’, writes Hilary Wainwright