Stop burning the world’s forests for energy - says RSPB - as new report shows bioenergy’s risks to climate and nature

Becca Smith

Wednesday 11 May 2022

  • Bioenergy in the UK – a huge 12% of our current energy mix – mostly comes from burning wood, with millions of tonnes imported from forests around the world.
  • Industrial burning of wood for electricity releases more greenhouse gases than coal, but it is currently rated as zero carbon in UK energy policy. Cutting down forests or growing large areas of energy crops not only threatens climate, but nature and food security too. However a new report, by the RSPB and 3Keel, has revealed more sustainable sources already exist here in the UK.
  • The UK Government is set to propose a new Biomass Strategy this year. Now is the perfect time for them to commit to low-risk sources of home-grown biomass which can deliver up to 4% of the UK’s primary energy by 2050, far lower than our current reliance, the RSPB says.

The RSPB, along with 3Keel, has today published new analysis that shows logging forests for energy, or carpeting the countryside in energy crops, puts nature, climate and food production at risk. Yet, without action from the Government, these sources could be heavily relied upon for the UK’s future bioenergy supply in the race to net zero.

The contribution of these high-risk materials to our energy supply, according to the report, should be limited and replaced with sustainable wastes, like gas from landfills or materials generated while managing woodlands for wildlife. This will reduce the impacts bioenergy can have on nature and our climate, with the analysis from the RSPB and 3Keel also predicting that these low-risk sources could deliver up to 4% of the UK’s primary energy by 2050.

However, today, the vast majority of biomass electricity here in the UK comes from burning wood pellets, mainly sourced and imported from forests in the south eastern USA. Drax power plant, the UK’s single biggest CO2 emitter, has received billions of pounds of public money in renewable energy subsidies and tax breaks to burn this wood, even though it releases more CO2 into the atmosphere than coal. 

Not only this, but independent news organisations and environmental groups have documented the effect that wood pellet harvesting is having on important forest habitats. Many of these forests are home to declining or rare species of birds and other wildlife, and the logging of overseas forests to burn for UK energy use risks damaging the habitats and ecosystems this wildlife depends on.

Alternatively, some of the most sustainable materials for bioenergy, according to the RSPB, could come from managing its 222 nature reserves here in the UK, as Jenna Hegarty, Head of Land, Seas and Climate Policy from the charity, describes: “Here at the RSPB, managing our nature reserves for the benefit of wildlife can also provide the most sustainable source of biomass available that benefits nature and the climate, not harms it.

“Whether it’s reed cuttings from reedbeds, which are conserved for the benefit of species like bitterns, otters and cranes, old gorse and bracken that has been removed from heathlands to benefit Dartford warblers and woodlarks, or wood taken from managed woodlands to allow species like pied flycatcher  and wood warbler to make much needed recoveries, our much-loved natural spaces could provide some of the most sustainable materials for bioenergy here in the UK.

With the Government wanting much more land to be protected and managed for nature in the future,  there is real scope to use genuine wastes from nature reserves to contribute to the nation's energy needs, whilst squarely recognising that bioenergy's role can only be a small part of the mix.

The Government also wants to use even more bioenergy in the future to meet net zero targets, including with unproven technology that could capture and store the carbon dioxide created when burning biomass. However, this is fraught with risks.

Staggeringly, global models suggest that if this technology – Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage – relies on burning crops, it will need almost half of the world’s current cropland, covering an area of 1.2 billion hectares, to meet hypothetical projections.

This would reduce space for food, squeeze out nature, drain finite water sources, pollute our countryside with fertilisers and pesticides, and threaten communities’ access to land. The RSPB report launched today questions whether this country, and the world, can afford to carpet the countryside with bioenergy crops.

Jenna Hegarty from the RSPB continues: “Blanketing our countryside in energy crops risks squeezing out both nature and food production, while keeping forests standing is crucial to storing carbon and helping nature.

It’s time for a bioenergy policy that helps nature and the climate, not damages it. Taking a chainsaw and a match to the world’s forests when we have other, cleaner ways to keep the lights on like solar and wind power is madness.

“Now is the time to limit bioenergy to secure, nature-friendly, home-grown sources, such as genuine wastes from nature reserves, and to focus on clean and sustainable renewables like solar and wind in harmony with nature. The Government’s forthcoming Biomass Strategy is a chance to pour cold water on burning nature-rich forests and crops that could otherwise feed people, ditching plans that threaten nature and switching instead to a bioenergy policy that helps our struggling wildlife and aligns with net zero plans in the face of the Nature and Climate Emergency.” 

See here for the full report

Tagged with: Topic: Climate change Topic: Forestry Topic: Green issues Topic: Habitat conservation Topic: Planning and economics Topic: Transport and energy