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Electricity from trees 'dirtier than coal'

Last modified: 12 November 2012

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Burning whole trees in power stations can be dirtier than coal, concludes a new report by the RSPB, Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace.

The report uses Government’s own data to show that burning whole trees to generate electricity is worse for the climate than coal: generating power from typical conifer trees results in 49 per cent more emissions than burning coal.

The report follows a series of announcements from major coal power stations, including Drax and Eggborough, of intention to switch over from burning coal to burning wood.

The three organisations are calling on Government to cancel plans to subsidise burning whole trees in coal power stations and new ‘biomass only’ power plants. Instead, they want Government to focus on building a small-scale bioenergy sector based on sustainable UK feedstocks, including wood waste and arisings from forestry, as well as continued investment in clean, green renewable energy such as solar, wind and wave power.

Harry Huyton, RSPB Head of Climate Policy, says; “When trees are burnt in power stations, CO2 comes out of the chimney, just like it does when you burn coal.  The difference is that the wood is less energy dense and is wetter than coal, so it takes a lot more energy to harvest, transport, process, and finally burn it. 

“Government has justified burning trees in power stations 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.

“Worse, the idea that there is enough wood to keep our lights without endangering the world’s forests is equally misguided. If Government subsidies go ahead, this report shows that we will be burning 30 million tonnes of wood each year. That’s six times the total UK harvest.  This massive demand for wood will result in traditional industries that depend on wood –for furniture and building materials, for example - losing out and having to use other materials like plastic and concrete, which are worse for the environment, instead.

“We want to see Government excluding the burning of whole trees on subsidies, and focusing instead on supporting clean, green renewable energy, including small-scale bioenergy schemes and the use of wastes such as waste wood and forestry arisings in energy generation”

Kenneth Richter, Friends of the Earth’s biofuels campaigner said: “Burning imported trees is worse for the climate than burning coal - it’s absurd that the Government is spending millions of pounds subsidising it.  Ministers should spend our money on sustainable solutions to our power problems, such as cutting waste and getting clean British energy from the wind, waves and sun.”

Doug Parr, Policy Director from Greenpeace UK, said: “It’s time to end the fiction that burning wood is carbon free. If we don’t get the arithmetic right on the real impacts of biomass energy, our carbon budgets will be more like carbon fraud. Meanwhile opportunities in UK for delivering sustainable energy and job-creation are going begging.”

Download the ‘Dirtier than Coal?’ report.

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