Green credentials of large-scale imported biomass are called into question

Gareth Brede

Thursday 23 February 2017

A new report is challenging the assumption that biomass should be considered a carbon-neutral source of energy

The carbon released into the atmosphere from the harvesting and use of biomass for energy can be three times higher than using fossil fuels and take centuries for new tree growth to reabsorb

Urgent changes are needed to address gaps in emissions accounting in the land use sector

• Biomass can play a role in the UK's drive to transform its energy sector and reduce green house gas emissions, but this role is limited

New independent reports, published by research institute Chatham House, are raising concerns that some UK renewable energy may be increasing rather than reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Evidence shows that climate change is already having an impact on wildlife and special places in the UK and across Europe. The UK Government is promoting biomass for heat, electricity and transport fuels as a way to reduce emissions and boost the use of renewable energy.

Today, Thursday 23 February, Chatham House is publishing 'The Impacts of the Demand for Woody Biomass for Power and Heat on Climate and Forests' presenting a detailed analysis of the sources and potential impacts of biomass energy internationally.

The report challenges two assumptions that are potentially key to any Government considering switching to biomass from fossil fuels.

Is biomass carbon-neutral? The report concludes that biomass is not carbon neutral. Although current UK and EU policy does not count the carbon dioxide released by bioenergy, burning wood pellets and other forms of biomass can release as much as three times the carbon of fossil fuels like coal per unit energy when full life-cycle impacts are taken into account. It can take decades or even centuries for new tree growth to reabsorb the emissions, meaning current assumptions that biomass automatically delivers a reduction in emissions are wrong.

Is biomass fully accounted for in countrywide carbon accounting? Emissions from bioenergy are not counted in the energy sector because under international carbon accounting rules administered under the Kyoto Accord, they are meant to be counted in the land use sector. Therefore, the UK assumes that biomass is zero carbon when used for energy. However, Canada and the US were not signatories to Kyoto, so when biomass from those countries is burned in the UK, the emissions don't get counted anywhere. The UK currently imports over 5.5 million tonnes of wood pellets from the US and Canada every year, thus this loophole means that millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions go uncounted both in the UK and the biomass country of origin. The report calls for urgent improvements to address these accounting gaps, in order to avoid the emissions 'going missing.'

Martin Harper, the RSPB's director of conservation said: "Last year's State of Nature report highlighted that climate change continues to be among the greatest threats to wildlife in the UK. Across the world governments and scientists agree that we need to reduce greenhouse gases such as carbon emissions.

"In the UK that means transforming our energy sector and increasing our use of renewable energy sources. So this report provides useful evidence as the Government is looking at how the energy sector can phase out the use of coal, and develop a strategy for reducing the UK's carbon emissions into the 2030s.

"The report sends a clear message that biomass can only play a limited role in our energy system. We believe that the UK Government should review how public money is used when it comes to subsidising the energy sector. RSPB has been exploring ways to use material produced during the management of our nature reserves to generate sustainable bioenergy. We need to be promoting and rewarding technologies that can efficiently create low carbon heat and electricity without harming nature, rather than handing money over to operations that appear to be at least as bad for the climate as the coal power they are replacing."

Mary Booth, director of the US-based Partnership for Policy Integrity and a reviewer on the report, said: "Many countries are increasing use of biomass as renewable energy. Alarmingly, the Chatham House report concludes that uncounted emissions from the 'biomass loophole' are likely large, and likely to significantly undermine efforts to address climate change."

Debbie Hammel, the NRDC's director of its Land Market's Initiative said: "Add this independent analysis to the growing body of scientific consensus that burning biomass is not a climate solution. In fact, burning biomass often worsens climate change by emitting more carbon than burning coal, in addition to the negative impacts on air pollution, forest ecosystems, and wildlife. The UK must take immediate steps to reform bioenergy policies to fully account for emissions from biomass-fuelled power stations, and focus its investments on truly low-carbon, and less expensive, sources of electricity generation like solar and wind."

"This report highlights yet again that wood is a source of carbon and that state-sponsored bioenergy can hinder the fight to reduce emissions," said Linde Zuidema, policy advisor on Forests & Climate at Fern. "The UK and other EU countries should heed its warning, and urgently limit their reliance on wood-based bioenergy as a source of renewable energy."

Gareth Redmond-King, Head of Climate & Energy at WWF-UK, said: "This report clearly shows that burning wood is not a climate change solution. In fact, it can make climate change far worse. Bioenergy only makes sense when using wastes and residues, not wood or crops, in hard-to-treat sectors, such as aviation and industry.

"The Government should take the findings of this report very seriously as it develops its Bioeconomy Strategy. The Strategy should support investment in sustainable management of forests and the development of long life bio-based products, for example, using more wood in house-building."

"These reports confirm once again that cutting down trees and burning them as wood pellets in power plants is a disaster for climate policy, not a solution," said David Carr, General Counsel of the Southern Environmental Law Center in the U.S. "Forests in our region, the Southeast US, are being clear cut to provide wood pellets for UK power plants. The process takes the carbon stored in the forest and puts it directly into the atmosphere via the smokestack at a time when carbon pollution reductions are sorely needed. As the UK phases out coal-fired power, it should pursue truly clean energy like solar, wind and efficiency, not burning wood for electricity, which the report shows can be worse for our climate than burning coal. Ratepayers should no longer be asked to subsidize burning wood for power."

"It is clear now, more than ever before, that protecting and keeping our natural forests standing is critical to solving the climate crisis. The report published by Chatham House adds a cornerstone to the growing foundation of scientific evidence showing that bioenergy leads to forest degradation, adding carbon to the atmosphere at a time when we need to be reducing emissions." said Danna Smith, Executive Director at Dogwood Alliance. "Achieving the ambitious goals set forth under the historic Paris Climate Agreement will require a massive forest protection and restoration effort aimed at pulling increasing amounts of carbon out of the atmosphere and storing it. Bioenergy is taking us in the wrong direction."

For more information about the report visit Chatham House's website: And to find out more about how the RSPB is doing to look at renewable energy please visit


The reports are available online via the Chatham House website after 9am on Thursday 23 February:

About RSPB

The RSPB is the UK's largest nature conservation charity, inspiring everyone to give nature a home. Together with our partners, we protect threatened birds and wildlife so our towns, coast and countryside will teem with life once again. We play a leading role in BirdLife International, a worldwide partnership of nature conservation organisations.

About Southern Environmental Law Center

The Southern Environmental Law Center is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. With nine offices across the region (Charlottesville, VA; Chapel Hill, NC; Atlanta, GA; Charleston, SC; Washington, DC; Birmingham, AL; Nashville, TN; Asheville, NC; and Richmond, VA), SELC is widely recognized as the Southeast's foremost environmental organization and regional leader. SELC works on a full range of environmental issues to protect the South's natural resources and the health and well-being of all the people in our region. Its largest project focuses on climate change, clean energy and air pollution.

About NRDC

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) is an international nonprofit environmental organization with more than 2 million members and online activists. Since 1970, our lawyers, scientists, and other environmental specialists have worked to protect the world's natural resources, public health, and the environment. NRDC has offices in New York City, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Bozeman, Montana, and Beijing. Visit us at and follow us on Twitter @NRDC.

About WWF-UK

We're creating solutions to the most serious conservation challenges facing our planet, helping people and nature to thrive. Find out more at

WWF-UK, a charity registered in England number 1081247 and in Scotland number SC039593 and a company limited by guarantee registered in England number 4016725, whose registered office is at The Living Planet Centre, Rufford House, Brewery Road, Woking, Surrey GU21 4LL. VAT number 733 761821.

About Fern

Fern is a non-governmental organisation created in 1995 to keep track of the European Union's involvement in forests and coordinate NGO activities at the European level. Our work centres on forests and forest peoples' rights and the issues that affect them such as bioenergy, development aid and climate change. All of our work is done in close collaboration with social and environmental organisations and movements across the world.

About PFPI

The US-based non-profit Partnership for Policy Integrity (PFPI) uses science, legal action, and strategic communications to promote sound energy policy.

Last Updated: Tuesday 28 August 2018

Tagged with: Topic: Transport and energy