Dirtier than coal

Scotland is a forested country, and our native pine forests are an important part of our identity. I’m proud that the RSPB Scotland owns and looks after some of the country’s most beautiful and important woodlands - such as the wonderful Abernethy Forest in the Cairngorms National Park – but as well as conserving forests, we’re also ready to fell them when that’s the right thing to do for nature. Look at our work at Forsinard Flows, for example, where we’ve been restoring an enormous peat bog by removing hundreds of hectares of  plantation forestry that should never have been established in such a precious place in the first place.

Bog pools and conifer plantation, Forsinard Flows

That’s why I read the RSPB’s new report – Dirtier than coal? – with great interest.

The premise of this report is that burning whole trees in power stations emits more carbon than burning coal. This is because wood is less energy dense than coal, which means it is bulkier to transport, requires drying, and is less efficient to burn.

Governments across the world, and the growing bioenergy industry argue that the emissions that come out of the chimney in a power station when wood is burnt can be counted as zero as they are neutralised by regrowth of the forest following harvest. In reality, it takes time for trees to regrow and recapture the carbon, thus a ‘carbon debt’ is created when the wood is burnt, and it can then take decades or even centuries for forests to regrow, recapture this carbon and repay the debt.

Taking conifer trees as an example, research has shown that burning the whole tree – including the trunk – emits 49% more CO2 than coal.

The Scottish Government have shown leadership on this issue, recognising the serious problems associated with using trees for industrial electricity generation. Critically, they have proposed a cap on the size of power stations they will support with public subsidy. However, they need to go further and ensure support for burning whole trees is ruled out entirely.

This isn’t just a carbon issue though. Across the UK, plans to burn trees in power stations will create an enormous demand for wood – Government projections suggest it could be as high as six times the total current UK wood production. Most of this wood will, of course, be imported from countries like Canada, the Baltic States and the USA, where their forests are already under serious pressure for the existing wood and paper industries.

That’s why conservation groups like the Dogwood Alliance – who work to protect the extraordinary wildlife of the USA’s Southern Forests – are opposing plans for new pellet plants that are coming forward to supply the UK and European bioenergy market.

I wish them the best of luck, because just as Abernethy is one of our great treasures, the Southern Forests are part of their natural heritage, and I for one do not want to see electricity generation in Scotland or the rest of the UK causing wildlife decline there, particularly when we have a huge renewable energy resource of our own in the wind, sun and waves.