Friends of the Earth (England, Wales, and Northern Ireland), Greenpeace, and the UK’s Royal Society for the Protection of Birds denounce burning trees for electricity as a greater threat to the climate over the coming decades than burning coal, the dirtiest fossil fuel, in a report released in November. 


The report, Dirtier Than Coal: Why Government plans to subsidise burning trees are bad news for the planet, criticizes proposals by the UK government’s Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) to continue and expand taxpayer subsidies for the biomass power industry. The NGOs accuse the government of ignoring principles set out in the 2012 UK Bioenergy Strategy which called for a biomass energy policy that would “deliver genuine carbon reductions that help meet UK carbon emissions objectives to 2050 and beyond.” According to critics, even the Bioenergy Strategy’s policy conclusions support an expansion of biomass energy and contradict the analysis and cautions about carbon impacts. 

Friends of the Earth (FOE), Greenpeace, and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) say that the government has “chosen to exclude a number of key sources of emissions” from biomass energy in their carbon calculations, with the findings “based on fundamentally flawed data relating to greenhouse gas implications.” Failure to fix the error and rework biomass policies will come at “considerable cost to the public, and have a damaging impact our climate.”

Dirtier Than Coal alleges that government support for burning trees for electricity “threatens” commitments in the Climate Change Act of 2008 to cut back on greenhouse gases “in terms of actual emissions to the atmosphere in the critical period to 2050, within which we must avert dangerous climate change.” The report authors demand an “immediate review and revision” of the emissions calculations to include those from “carbon debt and indirect substitution,” and to develop a “comprehensive accounting system.” They call for an end to subsidies for burning biomass from saw logs and roundwood because of the compelling evidence for a high carbon debt from burning wood from whole trees.

Carbon debt refers to the increase of carbon in the atmosphere from cutting and burning trees for biomass energy. The report is based on a study by Timothy Searchinger at Princeton University that used DECC data to conclude that burning trees for electricity would emit eighty percent more greenhouse gases than burning coal over a twenty year time frame and forty nine percent more over forty years. Only after one hundred years would burning trees for electricity “perform better than coal,” according to the study.

The environmental groups point out that DECC “ignores the fact that forests are already growing and already storing carbon,” and that when forests are cut and burned for energy, that “carbon storage is reduced” and the CO2 that had been stored in the trees escapes into the atmosphere.

Indirect substitution is what happens when wood is “diverted from existing uses, such as construction and wood panels.” According to DECC data, eighty percent of trees for biomass energy would have to be imported, since the UK has a “limited domestic wood resource that is already in demand from other industries.” The groups claim that ignoring this factor “directly contradicts the UK Bioenergy Strategy.”

Almuth Ernsting of Biofuelwatch says there are many other negative impacts from biomass energy than just carbon dioxide emissions. Since many of the trees that the UK would burn would come from monocrop tree plantations, such as fast-growing eucalyptus in the southeastern US and the global south, “the destruction of biodiversity, the impacts on the livelihoods of local communities, on land and human rights, freshwater, and soil will be very severe."

Ernsting warns that “if the biomass debate gets reduced to one solely about carbon debt then there is a real danger that energy companies and their consultants will produce enough dubious reports to convince or at least confuse the public and policy makers and thus to ensure that subsidies remain in place.”

Not just environmentalists are condemning the UK government’s biomass boosting. The Wood Panel Industries Federation, an organization representing “industrial manufacturers” of wood chipboard, oriented strand board, and medium density fiberboard in the UK and Ireland launched a campaign—Stop Burning Our Trees—to push back against burning trees for electricity.

The campaign’s goal has been to remove subsidies for tree-fueled biomass due to its impact on the wood panel business, stating that “burning trees will eventually cost hundreds of UK jobs.” Their petition reads that subsidizing tree burning for energy means that “energy companies can afford to pay more for trees than anyone else,” which spikes the price of “timber and hurts businesses that make useful things with wood.” 

The Renewable Energy Association (REA), a trade association representing “renewable energy producers” in the UK, issued a statement rebutting Dirtier Than Coal. REA claims that an expansion of logging for biomass power incineration would result in “less neglect of forests,” insisting that forests and the climate benefit more from logging than preservation. The REA also advocates for an increase in old growth logging to fuel biomass power incinerators.