UK Funds Biodiversity but Subsidizes Biomass Energy

(C) USFWS

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced today that the UK will commit at least £3 billion over five years to “climate change solutions that protect and restore nature and biodiversity,” such as projects to maintain forests and tackle the illegal timber trade and deforestation, among other endeavors.

While this is good news considering the biodiversity crisis we’re currently facing, it’s completely out of step with the UK’s continued reliance on biomass energy, which destroys biodiversity (forests and the life that depends on them) to create pellets to burn at power plants. Those power plants, in turn, emit toxins that also negatively impact life on earth (including human life)!

The sentiment behind the announcement—that maintaining biodiversity is a critical part of keeping the global temperature below 1.5 degrees—is an important one. Biodiversity and climate change are inextricably linked. As Prime Minister Johnson stated, the UK can’t achieve its goals “on climate change, sustainable development or preventing pandemics if we fail to take care of the natural world that provides us with the food we eat, the water we drink and the air we breathe.” For example, our forests play a critical role in mitigating climate change, given that trees are the most effective means to capture and store carbon

Unfortunately, we’re in the midst of a biodiversity crises, with the United Nations’ IPBES Report predicting that one million species stand to go extinct, many within decades, absent “transformative change.” Already, we have witnessed precipitous declines in wildlife populations and lost 1.3 million square kilometers of forests between 1990 and 2016 (the equivalent of 800 soccer pitches an hour).

If the UK really cares about maintaining biodiversity and its role in stemming climate change, it should immediately end its reliance on biomass energy and its subsidies to the industry and redirect the savings to true clean and renewable energy sources like wind and solar. The UK is now the top subsidiser of bioenergy in Europe. Today’s announcement to commit £3 billion to biodiversity protection over five years is overshadowed by the nearly £2 billion it’s spending every year to subsidize the biomass industry–primarily to burn wood imported from overseas forests at Drax Power Station.

This biomass production is devastating forests in both the U.S. Southeast and Europe and the species that depend on them. In 2019, approximately 5.33 million metric tons of wood pellets were exported from the US to the UK, which means that an area larger than the New Forest was chopped down. And years of on-the-ground investigations show that wood entering the UK bioenergy market is routinely sourced from clearcuts of mature, biodiverse hardwood forests in the U.S. Southeast (where the North American Coastal Plain has been designated as a global biodiversity hotspot). This large-scale destruction of our globe’s forests not only removes their capacity to sequester carbon, but also drives a number of already at-risk species closer to the brink, including salamanders, the Louisiana black bear, the Venus flytrap, and multiple songbird species.  

The UK is taking some real and important actions that recognize the biodiversity crisis, including committing to protecting 30 percent of its land and oceans by 2030 (known as “30x30”). So why, when it comes to biomass, does the UK continue to dig in its heels? It just doesn’t make sense and Britons don’t support it.

The UK should change course immediately.

About the Authors

Elly Pepper

Deputy Director, Wildlife Trade, Wildlife Division, Nature Program

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