Biomass Fuel for Energy Generation

The UK government has published sustainability criteria for biomass fuel for energy generation, to remain in place until 2027 – even though the government itself accepts that their criteria do not fully address the carbon emissions from burning biomass (see )

The fact that burning biomass releases carbon dioxide which may not be reabsorbed soon enough – thus potentially leading to a rise, rather than a fall, in CO2 emissions – was highlighted by AECB members Alan Clarke and Nick Grant in 2010 ( ) and addressed again by members Kate de Selincourt and Sofie Pelsmakers  at the start of this year ( /)

The Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) has now accepted this point in principle – but is still failing to address the issue in their policies for subsidising bioenergy.  As they admit, “the proposed renewables obligation sustainability criteria do not currently directly address the preservation of … carbon stocks except where the reported use of the land changes.” (Reduced carbon stock in a forest after harvesting for bioenergy equates to increased CO2 in the atmosphere.)

Nick Grant and Alan Clarke pointed out in their discussion paper that the burning of wood for fuel was not the only possible fate of carbon taken up during tree growth – and other uses for the wood (eg construction, storage in the soil) could lead to an overall reduction of atmospheric CO2.  By contrast, they argued, burning wood produces high CO2 emissions, but these are completely overlooked in current accounting practice.

Environmental bodies including the RSPB, Friends of the Earth, and Biofuelwatch have criticised DECC’s new biomass sustainability criteria for failing to address this issue and account properly for changes in carbon stocks (and also for failing to give adequate protection for wildlife, biodiversity and human rights).  Yet as Kate de Selincourt and Sofie Pelsmakers reported in their article for the AECB, DECC does appear to have accepted the importance of the carbon stock change issue (often described as “carbon debt”) – even while failing to take the issue into account in its policies.

The Department is developing a bioenergy calculator (the BEaC -Biomass Emissions and Counterfactual – Model) that does look at carbon debt. As reported on the Business Green website, “[the BEaC calculator]’s preliminary findings suggested the carbon impact of biomass rises significantly when carbon stock and indirect emissions are taken into account. ( )  Yet DECC now say that although “the plan is to eventually incorporate BEaC in the DECC’s main 2050 pathways calculator…BEaC is not a regulatory tool, and it will not replace the Biomass & Biogas Carbon Calculator (B2C2) available from the Ofgem website.”  Unlike BEaC, B2C2 does not take account of carbon stock changes, unless a drastic change in land use, for example clearfelling of a forest and replacing it with arable land, takes place.

Unless a full analysis is carried out on biomass fuels, so subsidies can be restricted to those that genuinely offer lower carbon emissions than the fossil alternatives, subsidies will increase, not decrease, CO2 emissions, warns Friends of the Earth’s biofuels campaigner Kenneth Richter.  “It is incomprehensible that under the new rules the burning of trees in power stations will be counted as “carbon neutral” despite the preliminary results of DECC’s own research showing that it can be worse for the climate than burning coal. Until comprehensive carbon accounting for biomass is introduced it risks driving climate change, not curbing it”