The biomass debate heats up

Published:  19 September, 2017

Biomass opposition is constantly stepping up as Norbord and other wood-using industries join forces with environmental charities to urge Government to limit support for subsidies.

The opposition to Government subsidies for biomass burnt in the generation of electricity is gathering steam in the UK as environmental groups joined with the wood panels industry to lobby Greg Clark, the UK Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy at that time, to stop this practice.

Norbord’s Use Wood Wisely is an educational resource for the responsible and sustainable use of wood.

Rather than burning virgin timber as fuel for energy generation – and thereby releasing tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere and contributing to climate change – Norbord argues for the ‘cascade of use’ philosophy. It is much more efficient to process virgin timber into added-value products, such as wood panels, that are used in the housing and construction industry.

It is only when the wood products come to the end of their use, and can no longer be recycled or upcycled, that the timber element should be considered for burning for energy.

By making useful and durable products the embedded carbon can be locked away, preventing it from being released into the atmosphere.

While Norbord and other wood-consuming industries are concerned about the unfair competitive advantage created by subsidies which favour energy generators – and the subsequent increase in raw material costs – the company also shares the environmental concerns of non-governmental organisations such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth.

It was this meeting of minds that brought environmental charities and industry together to lobby the Government over these shared issues. The joint letter, which was delivered to the Minister in February 2017, called for the Government to act quickly to limit support for these subsidies in order to protect the climate and environment as well as those many British businesses that depend on these same resources to manufacture their products.

The letter pointed out that current policy to subsidise the burning of woody biomass to generate electricity could see the sector consuming the equivalent of six times the UK’s annual forestry harvest by 2017. Current policies threaten the survival of existing industries in wood, wood panels, packaging, construction, furniture and paper, as well as the viability of up to 100,000 jobs that are directly or indirectly dependent on these industries.

The letter also referred the Minister to the growing body of evidence that warns about the ‘carbon debt’ to the environment when a tree is harvested and burned. This debt can take between decades and centuries to repay as trees regrow, meaning that using wood for energy generation fails to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the medium term.

Karl Morris, Managing Director and Senior Vice President, European Operations, said: “What’s interesting about this joint initiative with non-governmental organisations is that it shows how different groups, with sometimes different viewpoints, can come together to voice their concern over a single issue. Although we have different reasons for doing this we have one objective in mind: to raise the issue of biomass subsidies that encourage the burning of wood and the harm it is doing the wood industry, our environment and taxpayer’s pockets.”

The delivery of this letter also coincided with the publication of a critical report by the respected international affairs think tank, Chatham House. The report highlighted the fact that Britain is wasting hundreds of millions of pounds subsidising power stations to burn US wood pellets, as this practice is doing more to harm the climate compared to the coal it replaces.

The report stated the Government’s assessment of the positive impact on the climate by switching from coal to wood pellets is flawed because it ignores emissions from burning pellets in power stations. Its assessment only counted emissions generated from producing and transporting wood pellets – not from the actual burning.

The report concluded that chopping down trees, processing into wood pellets and transporting them across the Atlantic to feed power stations produces more greenhouse gases than burning coal for power generation, which is also much cheaper.

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