UK Biomass Policy Statement Hints at Shift but Isn't Enough

Replacing coal with forest biomass is not a climate solution. But cracks are beginning to show in the UK Government’s finely tuned head-in-the-sand approach to biomass energy policy.

The mounting scientific evidence is indisputable. Replacing coal with forest biomass is not a climate solution. It increases heat-trapping CO2 pollution in the atmosphere and harms forests, neither of which will urgently address our climate and biodiversity crises. But cracks are beginning to show in the UK Government’s finely tuned head-in-the-sand approach to biomass energy policy.

The Government’s new Biomass Policy Statement shows that it’s harder than ever for officials to deny the damaging impacts of burning forest biomass for electricity. In it, the Government appears to acknowledge that there are gaps in the biomass sustainability criteria, governance, and regulatory landscape that must be addressed, and pledges to engage with stakeholders to ensure that bioenergy deployment advances UK climate goals, rather than resulting in greenwash.

Specifically, referring to bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS), the Government recognizes public concerns about the “net negativity of BECCS,” (and therefore, implicitly, the ‘zero carbon’ status it categorically grants to standalone biomass-burning). The Government writes that it wants to ensure that, “criteria for sourcing [biomass] feedstocks are in line with up-to-date scientific evidence.”

These small but welcome acknowledgements are a step in the right direction, but the Statement generally continues to ignore the facts and instead appears intent on holding onto long-debunked claims about forest biomass that it needs to abandon once and for all.

The most egregious of these debunked claims is that burning forest biomass is “carbon neutral.” Scores of scientific studies have demonstrated that forest-derived biomass electricity produces stack emissions of CO2 at levels comparable to fossil fuels, and these emissions stay in the atmosphere for decades to centuries—well beyond timeframes relevant to tackling the climate emergency. But the UK’s carbon accounting rules allow these emissions from burning biomass to be counted as zero, assuming they will be counted in the country where trees are cut down, but this is often not the case.

So biomass looks like a ‘zero carbon’ fuel when in fact the power plants burning it are some of the biggest carbon polluters in the country. This misleading ‘zero-carbon’ status creates a significant policy incentive to subsidize bioenergy as a climate solution even when it is not.

And indeed, the UK’s subsidy tap remains open. Despite these dangerous climate risks, the Government continues to subsidize large biomass power plants with £3 million per day. Drax alone has already benefited from £5 billion in subsidies from 2012-2020 and is projected to receive a further £5 billion from 2020-2027.

History repeats itself, despite a mountain of evidence against burning trees for energy.

“It is widely recognised that bioenergy has an important role to play if the UK is to meet its low carbon objectives by 2050.” UK Government, 2012

“Biomass… is a vital resource for the key green technologies and energy carriers highlighted as necessary for net zero: low carbon electricity, hydrogen, carbon capture, and bioenergy.” UK Government, 2021.

The first of these statements is from the UK Government’s 2012 Bioenergy Strategy. The second from its new Policy Statement.

This makes it clear that the Government still sees biomass – and in the future BECCS – as central elements of its climate plan. Who would imagine that nine years, full of ringing the alarm bell by scientists, environmental groups, and vulnerable communities have elapsed between these two statements? But they have.

The last few months have produced an accelerating drumbeat of evidence against biomass electricity. Something had to give, and it did: a statement by one of the Government’s own ministers, ignoring the official line and speaking truth to the colleagues he shares an office with to say that there are ‘real problems’ with burning wood for electricity. And it’s not the first time that Zac Goldsmith has questioned the Government’s biomass policy, years earlier citing “clear evidence” that biomass produced carbon emissions “at least equal to coal,” and urging reconsidering of the “huge annual subsidies” set aside for “large-scale, inefficient biomass electricity generation.”

Goldsmith’s concession is unsurprising. The UK’s largest biomass burner, Drax power station, has been identified as the country’s single biggest source of CO2 emissions, and one of Europe’s top five emitters of dangerous particulate emissions, alongside some of the continent’s worst coal power plants. Multiple independent investigations show that wood sourced from clearcuts of mature and biodiverse forests routinely enters Drax’s supply chain.

Now the Government is considering a significant future role for BECCS in helping achieve its climate commitments. But adding CCS to biomass plants would be wildly expensive, even by the Government’s own estimates. Analysis provided for the Government alongside its Net Zero Strategy finds that the first BECCS plants could need a price of £179/MWh guaranteed by public subsidy – more than triple the price guaranteed to offshore wind and in the range of new nuclear. This corroborates previous findings by analysts at Ember about BECCS costs.

And of course, the leading contender for BECCS, Drax, has a notoriously damaging business model and is now the subject of a complaint to the OECD over its misleading climate claims. A recent NRDC report found that supply chains similar to what Drax predominantly relies on are so highly emissive that they will worsen climate change, even with the addition of CCS technology.

Without wholesale reform, a new BECCS industry risks turbocharging the UK’s bioenergy problems. That is a recipe for climate disaster.

In a recent report, Chatham House warns that classifying biomass as ‘zero carbon’ in the country where it is combusted for energy, such as the UK, gives policymakers false confidence about emissions cuts being achieved, and underscores that UK sustainability criteria do not take account of the real impacts of different biomass feedstocks on the climate.

Unfortunately, the Government gives no indication in its Statement that it is prepared to discard its “sustainable sourcing” framework as the basis for existing or future reliance on bioenergy. Instead, it continues to praise UK sustainability standards as “globally leading,” despite their demonstrable failure in protecting the climate, forests, and biodiversity.

Especially troubling is the Government’s belief  that the majority of biomass entering the UK  is from forestry “wastes and residues,” and thus can be treated as a ‘zero carbon’ fuel when burned for energy. The fact is, forestry industry terms (e.g. “thinnings,” “unmerchantable trees,” “waste wood” or “low grade wood”) may make sense in the context of traditional forest products (e.g.,lumber, pulp and paper, plywood), but were never intended to communicate anything about the net carbon emissions associated with different types of woody biomass in the context of energy production or climate policy. What is a “waste,” “residue,” or otherwise “low-value” wood product in traditional forest product markets still emits CO2 when burned as fuel for electricity generation, and it is scientifically indefensible to assume otherwise.

Yet it is these feedstocks that make up the majority of biomass supply used in electricity and heat generation in the UK, mainly in the form of imported wood pellets. Alarmingly, Chatham House has found that scaling up BECCS to meet the UK Climate Change Committee’s Plans could require four times the amount of wood burned at Drax power station today.

BECCS should deliver “genuine” and “credible” negative emissions thanks to sustainability criteria, the Government’s Statement says. These words suggest it recognizes these very serious concerns about creating a large new bioenergy market before wholesale biomass sourcing reforms are codified. But unless the UK Government stops playing definitional games and places clear limits on burning biomass from forests, creating a lucrative new market for BECCS not only risks exacerbating climate change but contributing to even greater destruction of forests around the world.

The UK Government must wholly rethink its approach to biomass and BECCS.

While the new Biomass Policy Statement includes a few helpful nuggets when it comes to biomass, it reiterates many of the misconceptions about biomass’s environmental credentials and suggests a high-risk direction of travel for the UK: more biomass-burning, ideally with CCS, as a cornerstone of the Government’s climate plan.

But there’s still time for the Government to admit it has made mistakes on its biomass policy in the past and pave a different future ahead of its Bioenergy Strategy, due in 2022. Meaningful biomass policy reform would see the Government do three key things:

  1. Immediately open a consultation on redirecting existing and harmful biomass electricity subsidies under the Renewables Obligation towards genuinely non-emitting and renewable alternatives like wind and solar. Knowing that it has a problem, it is wrong for the Government to continue subsidizing business-as-usual with such massive sums of billpayer money.
  2. Stop legitimizing billions in biomass electricity subsidies on the basis of failed “sustainable sourcing” standards and outline a much narrower reliance on bioenergy to meet climate targets based on the use of genuine industrial waste materials (e.g. sawdust). When biomass is taken from forests and burned for electricity, the result is more, not less carbon in the atmosphere, with or without CCS. Such feedstocks should be ruled out.
  3. Avoid approving any new subsidies for BECCS until there has been a full assessment of scenarios under which bioenergy with CCS can and cannot deliver genuine negative emissions. The UK’s dominant biomass supply chains today clearly cannot.

Relying on house-of-cards carbon math and a technology that right now looks incredibly costly to get off the ground risks making the UK’s climate plan unaffordable, unpopular, and an illusion. If future reform of biomass policy is commensurate with biomass’s environmental impacts that will signal the Government is serious about recognizing the science; otherwise, a reliance on bioenergy could put the Government’s entire climate plan at risk.

Related Blogs