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Kitty Thompson: Does the Biomass Strategy leave us with more questions than answers?

Kitty Thompson, CEN's Nature Programme Manager

The government has finally published its long-awaited Biomass Strategy. This strategy recognises the multiple, often competing, demands we will have for biomass as we journey towards our target of net zero emissions by 2050. From construction to energy production, with every industry that has demand for wood, the inevitable question of sustainability arises.

The sustainability of woody biomass for energy production has proved a contentious topic in Parliament and one that CEN MPs have not shied away from. To name just a few, Selaine Saxby led a debate on the sustainability of burning trees for energy last December; Sir Peter Bottomley has coordinated letters to the Secretary of State on the same topic; and Pauline Latham has submitted an amendment to the Energy Bill on the sustainability of biomass energy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) in particular.

This concern has been worsened thanks to several high-profile news stories. BBC Panorama investigated the supply chains behind the biomass pellets we import from Canada, revealing that the promise that they come from waste wood may well have been broken. Another pellet supplier in Mississippi was flagged for violating emission rules, becoming a “major” source of hazardous air pollutants for the local area with a pending lawsuit. The industry vigorously denies these claims.

One part of the answer to this sustainability question put forward by energy producers, and championed in the government’s new strategy, is BECCS. By continuing to burn trees for energy production, but capturing the emissions at source, and then storing these emissions underground, the impact of the process is claimed to be carbon neutral.

While the technology’s carbon neutrality may be contested, the budget certainly isn't. Billions of pounds of taxpayer subsidies will be required to get BECCS up and running in the UK.

The topic of sustainability was clearly on the mind of the strategy’s authors. A quick search of this 201 page document reveals that the word “sustainable” is used 109 times and “sustainability” amasses 227 mentions. But frustratingly, a definition is not provided of either in the glossary section at the back.

A key commitment laid out in the strategy is to develop and implement a common sustainability framework. The government is also minded to take “a series of further actions” to strengthen the UK’s sustainability criteria, giving a clear nod to the need to ensure our imports of wooden biomass pellets from Canada and the USA are to a high enough standard.

But vague commitments mean nothing without action to back it up. The government must now assess and update current sustainability criteria for biomass to ensure we are not putting natural carbon sinks, i.e. forests, in jeopardy and punish those that try.

Sixty-six percent of biomass used for our energy generation is sourced domestically. However, the Climate Change Committee has repeatedly stated that an even higher proportion of biomass supply needs to be sourced from the UK. With this advice in mind, and as global demand for biomass increases, the government is anticipating the amount of wood the UK will be able to import to decrease “significantly”.

However, our demand for biomass across multiple industries is set to grow considerably by 2050, with Chatham House previously predicting demand for energy production alone quadrupling between 2020 and 2050. As an island nation already grappling with local land use battles and multiple competing priorities for our land, biomass represents yet another demand on our space.

Even government policy that could remedy this, namely the target to plant 30,000 hectares of new woodland annually from May 2024, is currently falling well short.

Emerging from the strategy, therefore, is an obvious disconnect. The strategy recognises that the UK supply of biomass will only increase slightly come 2050. Simultaneously, the CCC has recommended onshoring much more of our demand for biomass ahead of 2050. And yet our demand for only a small subset of this biomass, for energy generation, is set to grow by at least four times by then.

We are inherently limited in our ability to generate this energy but, according to our chosen route to net zero, are set to be increasingly reliant on it. While I am glad to have finally laid eyes on this highly anticipated government strategy, I am left with more questions than answers.

Want to find out more? Join us at Conservative Party Conference for our panel event:

Is burning wood for electricity a waste of taxpayers’ money or a climate solution?

11.00am - 12.00pm, Tuesday 3rd October 2023

Central Rooms 3-4, Manchester Central Convention Complex

The UK needs more affordable, clean, secure energy sources to lower household bills and meet our climate goals. But experts are increasingly questioning whether biomass power - burning wood pellets for electricity - can meet these objectives. The next generation of biomass power stations with carbon capture and storage attached (BECCS) could reduce the emissions from burning wood. However, these potentially lower emissions are not without concerns regarding the cost of the technology and the sustainability of sourcing wood pellets from abroad. Before issuing billions in subsidies, the UK must ask: is investment in BECCS good value for money? Can the sustainability of wood pellets be guaranteed? Are there alternative routes for reaching net zero?


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