In response to an NGO report (12th November 2012) entitled ‘Dirtier than coal? Why Government plans to subsidise burning trees are bad news for the planet’, Paul Thompson, Head of Policy at the REA, issued the following statement on behalf of the Back Biomass campaign:
“Even when we factor in the biomass supply chain, which includes shipping and processing, its carbon footprint is dwarfed by coal. This is a key part of the criteria the Government uses to regulate the industry.
“It’s also wrong to claim that biomass leads to ‘carbon debt’. This argument ignores a number of realities about how forests are managed and the types of wood and crops that produce biomass feedstock. With sustainable forestry and the use of a mixture of biomass sources, carbon debt can be avoided altogether. Many forests around the world are actually in carbon credit as a result of better management linked to biomass energy use.
“In fact, biomass goes hand-in-hand with sustainable forestry practices that have contributed to a global rise in forest cover over the past 20 years. It’s a renewable fuel source that outperforms fossil fuels on a host of measurable benefits.”
Please find below a fact sheet on biomass and sustainability which rebuts the claims made in the NGO report:
BIOMASS AND SUSTAINABILITY
Biomass is a renewable, low-carbon fuel and generating electricity and heat from biomass is an increasingly important tool in the fight against climate change. If biomass is sustainably sourced, it should have a beneficial impact on forest management and lead to a substantial saving in greenhouse gas emissions across the supply chain compared to fossil fuels.
When wood or plant material is burned, the carbon released into the atmosphere has only been locked away for the lifetime of that tree or plant. If cultivation of biomass is sustainably managed, the same amount of carbon should be reabsorbed, keeping carbon levels in the atmosphere stable. In contrast, burning fossil fuels releases carbon that would otherwise have stayed locked underground. This carbon stays in the atmosphere, contributing to climate change.
The UK biomass industry is at the forefront of developing sustainability criteria which should recognise existing high environmental standards in the biomass supply chain and encourage them elsewhere.
WHY IS BURNING BIOMASS A GOOD ALTERNATIVE TO BURNING FOSSIL FUELS?
If procurement policies are coupled with strong sustainability criteria, they encourage:
Less conversion of forest land for development by landowners seeking more profitable uses.
Less neglect of forests, which leads to wildfires, disease and infestation – all of which impair carbon absorption and can even lead to increased net emissions.
Greater rates of carbon absorption among the forest stands as trees are given optimal access to the light and nutrients they need to grow.
Continued carbon absorption – mature trees that no longer provide a net carbon sink are harvested to allow younger trees that absorb at a greater rate to flourish.
Countries that do not have regimes in place to protect forests and natural habitats (such as the UK’s ‘sustainability criteria’) to adopt high ethical and environmental standards in order to meet UK procurement policies. In more developed countries such as Canada and the USA, well-developed forestry management and certification schemes are already in place, protecting communities, as well as sensitive ecosystems and food chains.
An additional market for forestry products when traditional uses (e.g. newsprint) are in decline.
COMMON MISUNDERSTANDINGS ABOUT BIOMASS SUSTAINABILITY
Misunderstanding #1: Carbon Debt
TRUTH: Carbon levels in a well-managed forest should remain level or even increase over time
‘Carbon debt’ is the argument that, even though trees are replanted, it takes the new trees years to grow and so there will be more carbon in the atmosphere during the interim period. With carbon levels in our atmosphere an urgent problem, some people claim that carbon debt is a reason not to burn biomass.
This concern is misplaced because:
It measures the harvesting cycle inaccurately and views biomass on a tree-by-tree scale. Any assessment of the carbon stock of a forest has to look at the whole area, because for every tree removed there will be many others at different stages of growth. Recently planted trees absorb carbon faster than those close to maturity. Provided the rate at which carbon is absorbed by the forest exceeds the rate at which it is being removed, there is no carbon debt. Taken at the forest-wide scale, carbon levels in a well-managed forest remain level (or even increase) over time because only part of the forest is being harvested at any one time.
The sustainable management of the trees in a production forest means they have been absorbing far more carbon than they would have done if the forest had not been managed. In effect, this means such trees are building up a carbon credit as they grow. It makes sense to start the clock when the tree was planted and even more sense to look at the forest as a whole.
Not all biomass comes from timber wood. Firstly, most wood biomass feedstock is made up of residues, bark, off-cuts and other wastes, which could never be used for timber. Secondly, non-wood sources such as agricultural residues or miscanthus (especially grown for energy use), are specifically planted for this purpose, meaning there is no carbon debt at all.
Misunderstanding #2: Carbon Footprint of the Supply Chain
TRUTH: All biomass used for heat and power generation in the UK saves over 60% carbon across the supply chain compared to fossil fuels
Some people claim that the supply chain carbon footprint of biomass, when wood products are imported from abroad, is not factored into the carbon emissions of biomass and therefore the real footprint is much larger than claimed. In fact, the UK Government requires the whole biomass chain – including harvesting, processing, storing, transporting and replanting – to emit at least 60% less carbon than the EU grid average emissions. The industry is absolutely committed to meeting, and in many cases significantly exceeding, that standard.
This is made possible both on a local and global scale, because there are two models of delivering biomass:
Biomass can be grown locally in the UK, often very near to the point of use, significantly reducing transport emissions whilst also stimulating local supply chains and rural economies.
Shipping, which is the main transportation method for biomass, can be made very carbon-efficient.
For example, transporting a large shipment of biomass from North America has a smaller carbon footprint than transporting a similar load just from Scotland in the 1,600 lorries that would be required.
Misunderstanding #3: Indirect Substitution
TRUTH: The energy sector does not necessarily directly compete with other sectors for its fuel as it can use a wider range of wood and there is significant scope to increase the quantity of wood available.
One claim about biomass is known as ‘indirect substitution’. It suggests that using wood for biomass is competing with supplies of wood for furniture, construction and similar purposes. Therefore builders, for example, will use more concrete in place of wood, which leads to high carbon emissions.
However, this wrongly assumes that:
a) All of a tree is burned for biomass energy.
b) There is a defined capacity of forestland and we can’t increase or improve it.
c) Wood is the only source of biomass.
a) Biomass frequently only uses parts of the trees that have no other commercial use, such as thinnings, smaller branches and off-cuts, which would otherwise be wasted. In fact, because of the difference in timber prices (wood for furniture or construction is more expensive than the biomass industry could afford), biomass rarely causes indirect substitution.
b) Higher demand for well-managed forests means helping forests to become more productive and even bringing currently neglected forests back into use. 60% of the UK’s forest land, for example, is currently unmanaged.
c) There are non-forest sources of biomass, such as energy crops and agricultural by-products, including miscanthus, switchgrass, hemp, straw, bamboo and sugarcane. In addition, a lot of biomass burned for energy is sourced from by-products and residues or is a material, such as non-recyclable waste wood, that has no other economic value and therefore goes to landfill.
d) The bioenergy industry stimulates reforestation. Alternative demand for bioenergy, often met by wood that previously had little value, can underpin the investment case for better forest management and new forest plantation. FAO’s Global Forest Resources Assessment 2010 shows forest cover has been steady in Canada and increasing in, for example, in the US, Russia and Europe between 1990 and 2010. Most biomass used in the UK comes from the areas above, but even elsewhere in the world the rates of deforestation are declining .
The Renewable Energy Association’s Back Biomass campaign is an industry led and government supported initiative launched in summer 2011 to urge the Government to ‘Back Biomass’ power as a crucial part of a secure, affordable, low carbon future for the UK. We believe that power and CHP from sustainable biomass offers proven, practical, secure low carbon energy as part of a balanced energy mix. For more information, please visit www.backbiomass.co.uk
The REA was established in 2001, as a not-for-profit trade association, to represent British renewable energy producers and promote the use of renewable energy in the UK. The REA endeavours to achieve the right regulatory framework for renewables to deliver an increasing contribution to the UK’s electricity, heat and transport needs. For more information, please visit www.r-e-a.net
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