Every household in the UK could soon be paying £50 extra on their electricity bills to pay for a boom in electricity production from burning wood at an industrial scale. Surely FSC accreditation of that wood to ensure forests aren’t being destroyed just to keep the lights on is not too much to ask?
Think renewable energy and serene images of wind turbines come to mind. But apparently huge biomass power stations that burn wood from forests across the world also count. In fact, they are generously subsidised by electricity bill payers through the Renewables Obligation. A typical 300MW power station might get an annual subsidy of about £115 million, straight from the pockets of everyday electricity bill payers.
We have no objection to such subsidies. If the UK is to meets its climate change targets and lead a global transition to a low carbon economy we need them. But only if they are for genuinely low carbon technologies that do not cause environmental havoc, as the growing biomass industry in the UK threatens to.
Interest in large-scale electricity generation is growing rapidly across the UK. On the Humber alone, for example, a total of five power stations are proposed with a combined capacity of 1.2GW. In their Renewable Energy Action Plan, DECC estimated that a total of 3.4GW will be installed by 2020 in the UK. They also confirmed that they expect a significant portion of our heat to come from biomass by that time.
This amount of biomass electricity would get about £1.2bn in subsidies – or £50 per household - and would need 19 million tonnes of wood every year. This is in addition to the demand that will arise from more biomass heating systems – in total we might be looking at an additional demand of over 30 million tonnes of wood every year from the UK. The most anyone has seriously suggested the UK could produce per year is about 14 million tonnes (see the Forestry Commission Read report, 2010).
So, where will it come from? Well, there’s a reason why these stations are all being located by deep sea ports.
Currently, much of the biomass burnt in the UK is wastes, such as olive pips and palm kernels. This is a good thing, but it seems clear that the sector can’t grow to the dizzy heights many hope it will on a diet of pencil shavings. Canada, South America, Eastern Europe, and Russia are all likely to be important sources for woodchip to keep these plants generating. In 2007, WWF showed that 7.3% of wood consumed in the UK is from illegal sources. This is in addition to the amount of wood that was legally cut down but caused habitat loss and tropical deforestation. There is nothing to suggest that the UK biomass market will be any different. Indeed, the anonymous nature of wood chip and pellet may even facilitate the use of wood from dodgy sources.
The Government have at least acknowledged the problem, but their proposals to address it are woefully inadequate. The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) scheme is the only system that goes anyway near guaranteeing that wood is sustainably sourced and has not caused the destruction of primary forests. It’s already established, and is as independent and robust as they come. Government could require that all bioenergy generators only source FSC wood tomorrow. Seems like a fair price to pay for the billions of public subsidy they will receive over the coming years.
If I import a lorry load of stolen bicycles, successfully slipping them through border control and into the country, I could still get into a lot of trouble with the police for being in possession of stolen goods. And rightly so. For every stolen good there is a crime that has been committed and a victim (yes, I’ve had a very nice Brompton stolen and I’m still bitter).
For every piece of paper, park bench and floorboard made from illegal wood there was a crime that took place and a multitude of victims. Wildlife dies, indigenous people lose their livelihoods, and all of us ultimately suffer the climate implications of reckless forest destruction.
Illegal timber is illegal, and possession of illegal timber should be illegal. It’s simple, they’ve done it in the US, and, just 9 months ago, both the Conservatives and the Liberals were planning on doing it here.
But from media reports it appears that the Government might be having second thoughts about this (see this article on the Guardian website). Apparently, making possession of illegal timber illegal would be bureaucratic and costly, and this would be inappropriate in these tough times.
Rainforests continue to be destroyed at an extraordinary rate across the world. The FAO estimate that about 13mn hectares are lost every year. This means that since this Government came into power, about 4.5 million hectares of rainforest have been destroyed worldwide. As well as an enormous loss for wildlife, this would have released over 4 billion tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere – just over seven times the total emissions from the UK last year (2009).
Illegal logging is one driver of this, and turning a blind eye to those that make this a profitable activity is unjustifiable.