Major new research has been published by Government today that demonstrates that power generated from biomass can be good for the climate - but it can also be worse than coal. It is clear that certain sources of bioenergy should not be receiving public money under the guise of being clean green energy sources, so the RSPB is calling for urgent action to make sure this doesn't happen.
Today’s report has been long in the making and in a way it tells us little new. You might remember our report in 2012 that initially raised our concerns that burning wood from forestry in particular could be bad for the climate. Or the concerns we and others raised in early 2013 when a draft of today’s report was first shared. Indeed, these findings have been replicated in many studies, synthesised in this report from the Joint Research Centre last year.
What’s significant is that the Biomass Emissions and Counterfactual carbon calculator (BEAC) - as it is known - is owned by the Government and therefore can’t be ignored.
Until now, the burning of trees in power stations has been justified by claiming the chimney emissions are offset by the carbon that the forest takes in when it re-grows after being harvested, but this is misleading. It can take decades, if not centuries for the trees to recapture that carbon, leaving us with more emissions in the atmosphere now – when we least need it.
This means that whilst some types of bioenergy can reduce emissions – such as when wastes and residues are being used – others can result in more emissions than fossil fuels, even after 100 years. Yet as many media reports have already highlighted, the kind of wood associated with high emissions is already being burnt in UK power stations. Government can no longer duck the issue of public subsidies going to dirty energy.
Government plans are for biomass to generate 5-11% of UK electricity by 2020. This will require an enormous amount of wood. To give you a sense of this: converting half of Drax power station to wood – as is currently planned - alone needs more than the equivalent of the entire UK forestry harvest. No doubt some of this can come from sustainable, low carbon residues, wastes and other sources of biomass, but serious questions have to be asked about whether this is a realistic ambition in the light of today’s study.
The RSPB is committed to sustainable, low carbon renewable energy, and we’re not afraid of saying so. We’re even helping develop new sources of sustainable bioenergy and have biomass heating systems in some of our own buildings. We have always called for genuinely sustainable biomass to be supported by Government. However, at the moment unsustainable biomass is also receiving public money and today’s analysis shows what the consequences of this could be for the climate, let alone forest wildlife.
This needs to stop, so today we are calling on Government to commit to reviewing its bioenergy policy in the light of its own report, and to fully account for all carbon emissions from burning wood.
Guest blog by David Christian Rose, PhD student University of Cambridge, http://www.geog.cam.ac.uk/people/rose/
Devastating floods in southern England, destructive storms in the Philippines, massive wildfires in Australia: just some of the recent events where climate change is believed to have played a significant part. And yet despite the growing realisation amongst policy-makers that climate change is increasing the occurrence of environmental disasters, meaningful policy still lags behind the action required.
So how can we increase the impact of evidence on policy-making, and what lessons might we gain from thinking about this question?
Firstly, we all - climate scientists, conservationists and the public alike – need to understand that policy-making is rarely based purely on scientific evidence, and indeed nor should it be, unless we wish for a technocratic society. We live in a democracy which pays attention to a multitude of factors. Consequently, we need to think less about producing more and more evidence and expecting that will to lead to policy change, and more about how we can deploy our knowledge in ways that makes it persuasive in combination with these other factors.
So scientists, conservationists, and other environmental campaigners need to present evidence astutely, in awareness and consideration of wider political and societal context. We perhaps even need to gain more understanding of wider issues prominent on government agendas, and learn to frame our evidence and its implications within salient political ideas.
In this context, the production of climate science and its communication to decision-makers has been far from ideal. In climate change negotiations for example, lack of meaningful policy action arises primarily from competing interests, such as justice issues between the global North/South, and not from poor scientific evidence.
Thus, we might question the value of the IPCC in working to increase the certainty of human causation of climate change - from 90% certainty in 2007 to 95% certainty in 2013. Just because evidence is made ‘better’ doesn’t mean that other pressing concerns on the policy agenda become less important, or disappear.
We must also tell good news stories more often. This shows policy-makers and the public that climate interventions actually work, building confidence to take potentially costly decisions. Yet we don’t hear success stories about climate change very often - whereas we are often very good at highlighting the ‘gloom and doom’. And yet there are many such stories out there – as a quick read of Andrew Balmford’s “Wild Hope” (2012) shows.
And the best thing about finding new ways to argue for the environment is that we can all do our bit. Work together to do something positive on the ground (don’t wait for policy guidance!), perhaps by making space for nature in your local community, and then show your local MP that your idea doesn’t just protect nature, but also helps you, the voter.
These ideas are taken out of an article in Nature Climate Change (paywalled) entitled ‘Five Ways to Enhance the Impact of Climate Science’.
Rose, D.C. (2014) 'Five ways to enhance the impact of climate science', Nature Climate Change, 4 (7) (25 June 2014): 522–524. http://www.nature.com/nclimate/journal/v4/n7/full/nclimate2270.html
Post by RSPB Economist Adam Dutton (@AdamJDutton)
Even the most diligent among us struggle to reduce our personal impact on the world. One thing we are sure of is that international flights will stick a huge red mark in our household carbon budget meaning we need to take fewer or make bigger carbon savings elsewhere in the house. So if flying is so carbon intensive why, we might ask, is the UK even thinking of expanding airport capacity?
The reason is that for years the plan had been to regulate its emissions through the European Trading scheme.
So when the government asked the Climate Change Committee if we could expand our airports and still meet our emission obligations the answer in response was in large a truism. Essentially the report says that, “yes we will stay within our emissions obligations if we control emissions” .
Independent technical commissions, like the one led by Davies into airports, are excellent at many things but they do not stray from their brief. As long as the EU trading scheme remained the main policy they could not consider failure without looking partisan. So we currently have lots of estimates of what will happen if we do control aviation emissions but none on what happens if we don’t.Unfortunately we don’t have any control on emissions as the EU had to back away from including aviation emissions in the trading scheme. Instead we are waiting on a deal from the International Commercial Aviation Organisation who have been promising us something along these lines since before 2001. Hopeful as we are for a deal it is better to make policy based on the world as it is rather than as we would hope it to be.
And if we don’t control aviation emissions other parts of the economy, which would already be working very hard to reduce emissions, would be burdened with costs in the order of £8.5 billion per year (probably more) to make up the difference and meet our obligations.
So, in addition to dealing with the other burdens airports place on people and biodiversity, the UK should commit to no airport expansion without a strong regulatory system in place to control carbon emissions from aviation. At the very least we should do the sums to estimate what will happen if we carry on as we are.
The full report can be found here: