Biomass energy is not sustainable at an industrial scale, according to a new report by Biofuelwatch, an international organization based in the US and United Kingdom (UK). Sustainable Biomass: A Modern Myth sounds the warning bell on trends that would make the UK the world’s largest consumer of biomass electricity, along with the inevitable impacts on the climate, forests, public health, and human rights.
The first-of-its-kind report dissects “sustainability standards” being proposed by the UK government to grease the skids for an unprecedented expansion in biomass incineration—much of which would come from the US and global south—while profiling the entities that would craft and monitor these standards.
“Industry plans, if realised,” reads the report, “will result in nine times as much wood being burnt for electricity every year as the UK produces annually.” Under the guise of providing environmental protections, government biomass sustainability standards would open much of the world’s remaining forests to the biomass industry, argue the report’s authors Almuth Ernsting, Rachel Smolker and Emilia Hanna.
Sustainable Biomass: A Modern Myth blames the distribution of government subsidies, such as Renewable Obligation Certificates, as the “main driver” for this rapid explosion in forest incineration, with proposed plans that would “attract around £4 billion in subsidies every year.” Instead, the report recommends that these limited taxpayer funds only support “forms of energy which are genuinely renewable, sustainable and climate friendly,” such as solar energy.
Many of the biomass power incinerators proposed for the UK would be gargantuan, the largest sited at Port Tal—a 350 megawatt incinerator that would devour roughly 3.5 million green tons of wood per year. The biomass industry free-for-all would also include full or partial conversion of coal plants to burn various percentages of trees, all under the banner of “green energy.”
While the health impacts of the proposed biomass boom, including asthma-causing particulate matter and carcinogenic volatile organic compounds, would be borne by UK residents—sustainability standards ignore human health—the vast majority of the logged forests would come from outside the island nation. As it stands now, biomass imports are shipped from Canada, the southeastern US, Eastern Europe, and Russia. Report authors predict the future supply of forests for bioenergy coming “primarily” from Africa and South America, an unsettling throwback to British colonialism of yesteryear.
The Biofuelwatch report clears up any misconceptions about these giant facilities being fueled solely by “wood residues,” making it clear that “across Europe and North America, bioenergy power stations are increasingly relying on burning wood from whole trees cut for this purpose.”
Currently, biomass developer RWE logs southeastern forests and processes them in a pellet mill in Waycross, Georgia to fuel their European coal plants co-fired with biomass. The RWE facility commandeers 1.5 million green tons of wood per year to create 750,000 tons of pellets to ship overseas. Organizations such as Dogwood Alliance, based in North Carolina, are pushing back against this forest liquidation for industrial scale bioenergy, both in the US and overseas.
Not only will whole live trees be logged to feed the incinerators, the report reveals, but natural forests around the world will be increasingly converted into monocrop tree plantations, largely devoid of biodiversity. Citing European industry analyses, the report determines that “most of the global increase in bioenergy” will come from these cellulose farms, “increasingly in southern countries,” some utilizing genetically engineered (GE) trees.
This looming deforestation for UK electricity consumption will have more than just forest impacts, but will also violate human rights. “Across the global South, industrial tree plantations are expanding at the expense of grasslands, farmlands and forests, and leading to land-grabs, threatening the livelihoods and rights of pastoralists, small farmers, rural communities, and forest-dependent peoples.”
UK sustainability standards also fall short of their supposed goals to protect the climate. “By ignoring all emissions associated with bioenergy in the energy sector, biomass power stations are falsely classed as ‘carbon neutral’ or ‘low carbon,’” according to the report. It also calls attention to how life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions are “outsourced to other countries” rather than accounted for in the UK and points out how the most recent science is ignored in the carbon accounting from wood sourced within the country.
The heart of the report picks apart various biomass certification schemes, which have been framed by the UK government as a way to ensure strong environmental standards, but are considered by critics to be just another form of “greenwash.” Biofuelwatch forecasts “booming business for what is a small group of specialist consultancy ﬁrms which verify, inspect and certify adherence” to so-called sustainability standards in order to qualify for subsidies.
“Whether a timber, energy or other company chooses its own label, a national or less known industry standard, or a recognized global certiﬁcation scheme…” reads the report, “chances are that it will turn to a ﬁrm belonging to the same group of private ‘inspection, veriﬁcation and certiﬁcation companies.’”
The report investigates and critiques several different biomass energy certification schemes, including Bureau Veritas, SGS, Control Union Certiﬁcation, TerraVeritas, TerraChoice, and Underwriters Laboratories. Biomass developers Drax and Forth Energy have put forth their own standards, exposed in the report as not being based on the most recent science, not requiring sufficient evidence for producers to pass inspections, and being used mainly as a lobbying tool to influence UK policy.
Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and Program for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC) certification schemes for wood pellets are also held under the microscope and dissected, calling attention to a lack of transparency in the certification process and past environmental violations that occurred under their watch.