If Boris Johnson is serious about ending global deforestation, the UK must stop subsidising the burning of trees for energy
“Forests… are essential to our very survival”. So said the Prime Minister, announcing the pledge to tackle deforestation during the COP26 talks. I agree. The government is right to push for us to end deforestation. Its ambitious Net-Zero commitments are admirable. Unfortunately, they risk being undermined.
If Boris Johnson is serious about his green legacy, the government should stop subsidising biomass energy – specifically the cutting and burning of trees from overseas to fuel Britain’s power stations. The ugly truth is the government is directly funding Drax Power Station in Yorkshire to do exactly this; pumping nearly 1 billion annually to an energy giant that has been dropped from S&P’s Global Clean Energy Index due to sustainability concerns.
We have the dubious honour of being Europe’s top bioenergy subsidiser. Now, despite mutterings in the Treasury, spending on clean energy is a small price to pay for a low-carbon economy – but it’s got to be cash for true renewables. Biomass is sold as low-carbon but is anything but.
As it stands, UK billpayers are effectively paying to increase emissions. Instead of following Conservative free market principles, billpayers are propping up a power station to help it pay for its fuel. Technologies like wind and solar have come down over time, reducing their reliance on subsidy. With biomass, which has fixed costs – the price of wood – there is no prospect of this.
Treating forest biomass as zero-carbon risks undermining the Paris Agreement
The government’s argument is biomass energy is a zero-carbon fuel. In reality, it’s effectively the “fourth fossil fuel” – contributing as much, potentially more, to climate change as coal, oil, and gas. And like coal, it exacerbates the damaging effects of climate change, degrades forests, threatens wildlife and harms some of our planet’s most biodiverse ecosystems.
The 30,000 hectares of US forest logged for biomass in recent years almost exactly matches the area of trees Johnson wants planted in the UK. We’re not restoring nature. We’re robbing Peter to pay Paul.
A new report reinforces that treating forest biomass as zero-carbon risks undermining the Paris Agreement. Wood pellets burnt for electricity here were responsible for some 16 million tonnes of CO2 emissions in 2019. But due to clever accounting, much of this - equivalent to the emissions of seven million passenger vehicles - is left off the UK’s emissions balance sheet.
If the Prime Minister wants to show global leadership, why has he welcomed the world’s largest biomass burner to stand with him at COP26? Why could Drax host a panel at Conservative Conference? Drax’s close government ties - 18 meetings in the last six months - should be a source of concern. Last week the Treasury announced new sustainability disclosure requirements to combat greenwashing. How does the government’s embrace of Drax fit with that?
Ministers must know this runs contrary to climate ambitions, given growing consensus that biomass is not clean energy. Take it from Greta Thunberg, or environment minister Lord Goldsmith, who has warned that that it results in emissions at least equal to coal. It’s time our government wakes up to the incoherence in its climate policy and accepts that reliance on large-scale biomass electricity generation is incompatible with international commitments to address the climate emergency.
I’m one of a cross-party group of parliamentarians urging the Prime Minister to invest in true renewables like wind and solar power and end biomass subsidies. We want the government to stop undermining its commitments and pledging to protect the environment on the one hand, while spending vast sums on a technology that is increasing carbon emissions on the other.
I am a champion of the Prime Minister’s bold environmental vision. But if this is to become a reality, he must change course on biomass. Otherwise, it will just be empty words.
Lord Randall is a Conservative peer and former environment adviser to Theresa May.
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