The UK does not need to rethink its strategy on Biomass
In a recent article for Business Green entitled “The new UK government needs an immediate exit strategy from bioenergy”, the argument was made that biomass provided a false sense of hope when it came to reduced carbon emissions. This claim, however, is patently false, being debunked by the recent data from European emissions, scientific consensus surrounding biomass, and environmental economics research.
The UK, as the article admits, is the world’s largest importer of biomass. The use of biomass from wood pellets imports has been essential in the UK’s transition away from coal-powered stations. This transition was paramount in keeping UK emissions lower than many of its European counterparts. The UK’s remaining coal-powered station, Drax, which has begun its final transition towards biomass, is currently one of the highest polluting power stations in Europe.
Despite this, the UK managed to be one of the 11 out of 23 member states to meet its 2015 emissions targets. Out of those 11, it is the only large European economies on track to stay relatively close to target for 2020, while states such as Germany and France, who have failed to embrace biomass, are far off target. Some member states have started to understand the benefits of biomass in hitting clean energy targets, most notably Belgium, which increased its consumption approximately 65% in 2016.
In criticising this move to embrace biomass, the piece’s author asked “What do UK taxpayers get in return? More carbon pollution, dirtier air, and devastated forests.” These claims, however, fail to hold up to scrutiny. One of the studies cited in the article was conducted by Chatham House, whose report received a rebuke by the International Energy Agency. In their criticism, they highlighted the misconception about the production of biomass that makes it seem as if it has an effect on carbon emissions.
Whereas the burning of fossil fuels releases CO2 that has been trapped for a considerable amount of time, the use of biomass releases CO2 from the wood that accumulated as the plant grew. The wood pellets used in biomass production are the excess of forestry, that cannot be profitably used in other industries. As a result they would have been discarded, releasing the CO2 captured back into the air either through biodegradation or through the specific disposal technique employed by the forest. This means that when these wood pellets are used to produce energy, there is no net release of CO2 if the foresting techniques used in the wood pellet production are sustainable.
Wood pellet producers have economic incentives to invest in these sustainable forestry techniques, as they increase their profitability as they become more reliable and trustworthy suppliers. If the concern is shifted then, not to burdening biomass, but to oversight over the techniques used in production, this can have positive externalities for the forest producers. The wood pellet waste that these producers sell can turn into a profitable venture, and if those profits are tied to sustainable foresting practices, this means those practices will be taken up by those producers whose main income source is not from biomass.
The empirical data of the effects of the biomass trade on forests supports this conclusion. The wood pellet export market has resulted in more forest area, more forest investment, and a large reduction in greenhouse gasses throughout the Southeast United States. This all being a result of the economic incentives to biomass adoption, which has increased the value of investing in sustainable forestry techniques. In turn, the EU energy sector has gained access to more affordable and cleaner sources of energy.
In pointing out particular flaws in management of certain forests, the article seeks to make the case that biomass investment should be abandoned in favour of solar or wind. Given that these particular examples do not reflect the general trend, a more modest and forward thinking solution would be to remedy the specific cases of unsustainable forestry techniques, such as those undertaken by Enviya. Ruining the economic incentives for cleaner energy created by the biomass market as a whole due to the issues with a single supplier does not make sound environmental policy.
This is the point on which the anti-biomass thesis fails most heavily in that it ignores the reality of feasible alternatives. The article does not seek to criticise the consensus that biomass is much cleaner than coal, with the evidence suggesting the emissions totals of biomass plants are 80% less than coal plants, but seeks to contrast it with solar and wind. This is not a feasible short run alternative scenario, given the reliance on coal plants presently.
While solar and wind are sustainable forms of clean energy, their cost relative to output makes them difficult immediate transitions. While these technologies have falling costs, their current means of implementation cannot make them reliable primary sources of energy. If current trends continue, however, it will not be unfeasible to expect low-cost, high-output transitions within a decade.
In the interim period, Biomass, costing only marginally more than coal, is a much more realistic alternative scenario. It should be judged then on its relative merits in improving the emissions in the UK. Continuing on the downward emissions trends in a cost effective way thereby increases the long-term incentives for clean energy. Switching to economically burdensome alternatives at present would reduce output and raise the costs of energy on the average household, something that needs to be weighed into the feasible alternative calculus.
Nobel Prize Winning Environmental Economist Elinor Ostrom once remarked that “there is no reason to believe that bureaucrats and politicians, no matter how well meaning, are better at solving problems than the people on the spot, who have the strongest incentive to get the solution right.” The incentives currently at play for biomass producers decrease emissions relative to the feasible alternative of doing nothing. These improvements incentivise further investment away from fossil fuel dependency, until a point of innovation is reached in solar and wind power that can provide high output for manageable costs.
As a result, such anti-biomass sentiments lead to one of two possible alternative scenarios: one in which a transition to solar and wind is done faster than economically sustainable; harming working households by increasing their energy bills substantially; or one in which no alternative to the status quo is possible, and coal dependency continues. Developing environmental strategies requires this holistic look on the impacts of the decision, otherwise negative consequences are sure to occur.
The article states that “[i]n 2015, the United Kingdom was the first country to commit to coal phase-out. The new government can now lead the world into a new energy age.” Relative to its European peers, the UK already is taking this lead. Supporting a sound energy policy on biomass requires an understanding of the economic implications of environmental policy, as well as an honesty about the benefits of biomass. On both these counts, it is clear that biomass is a very “21st century” solution to the world’s current energy needs.
Picture: Creative Commons Department of Energy and Climate Change
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