Britain will need a massive expansion of wood-burning stoves, wooden houses, wood-guzzling power stations and other similar technologies if greenhouse gas targets are to be met, the government's advisers on climate change have warned.
But green campaigners said strong safeguards were needed if such a high target was to be met, to ensure that biomass use did not put pressure on forests, mainly in the developing world.
Palm oil trees. One-tenth of the UK’s total energy should come from biological sources – wood, energy crops, palm oil, waste and others – by 2050, the committee says. Photograph: Tengku Bahar/AFP/Getty Images
One-tenth of the UK's total energy should come from biological sources – wood, energy crops, palm oil, waste and others – by 2050, compared with the 2% today, said the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) on Wednesday, the statutory body set up to advise ministers on meeting the UK's climate targets. It is the first time such a big target has been proposed.
Biomass is regarded with suspicion by many environmental campaigners because growing it can displace natural forest and land that would otherwise be used for agriculture, pushing up food prices for the poor. Burning biomass cuts carbon emissions compared with burning fossil fuels, but the reductions are often small because of the energy needed to produce the crops and transport them to the incinerator.
Kenneth Richter, biofuels campaigner at Friends of the Earth, said the government should look to small-scale biomass sources rather than the the large power stations envisaged by CCC. He said: "Big industrial power stations burning huge quantities of imported wood pose a real threat to the world's forests – they should not be supported by taxpayers' money. Instead ministers should back small-scale UK biomass sources like slurry and food waste – and focus on meeting our energy needs by developing clean energy from wind, sun and waves."
Doug Parr of Greenpeace said biomass could be part of the answer, but stronger safeguards were needed. He said: "We have to avoid sprinting towards a bioenergy industry that relies on chopping down forests that will damage the ecosystem. Nor will the solution to our clean energy needs be found in mass imports impacting communities in both developed and developing countries. The government must have an ethical and sustainable approach to the expansion of bioenergy, without it all we will end up doing is transferring our problems to other parts of the world."
The committee also insisted that new biomass-only power plants built from scratch should not be eligible for public subsidy. If this advice is taken up by government, it would effectively mean a halt to the current plans being brought forward by several companies to build such plants.
David Kennedy, chief executive of the CCC, said the reasoning behind the advice was that building new biomass plants from scratch would not make economic or environmental sense when there are many existing coal-burning power stations that will need to be taken out of service in the next few years. If these are converted to burning biomass – a relatively straightforward process – then that would save the emissions involved in building new ones.
A spokesman for Drax, the UK's largest coal power station which is hoping to convert 100% to biomass, said: "Drax welcomes the fact that the Committee on Climate Change has concluded that biomass is a cost effective renewable, but the extent to which Drax and others in the industry are actually able to make use of biomass depends on the outcome of the Renewables Obligation Banding Review. We note the Committee's stance on new dedicated biomass plant, and are disappointed that it does not envisage a role for this technology, but again deployment will depend on the outcome of the Banding Review."
The advice is likely to be seen as a blow to the small operators of existing and planned new dedicated biomass power plants around the country, whose business model depends on a sizeable flow of subsidies.
Kennedy also warned that the UK should not seek to derive more than 10% of its energy from biomass, because exceeding the target would lead to the use of unsustainable sources of energy. He called for stronger safeguards on bioenergy, to ensure that it comes from sustainable sources where it is grown on spare land and from well-managed forests.
The CCC report also made clear that biomass power plants would need to be fitted with carbon capture and storage technology in order to meet the UK's target of cutting emissions by 80% by 2050. The fledgling technology has suffered a series of setbacks recently, chiefly the collapse of plans to build a demonstration project at Longannnet power station. Longannet was the front runner in a six-year-old government competition to allocate funding to a pilot project, and although the Department of Energy and Climate Change has insisted that £1bn of funding will still be allocated, it remains unclear what the future of the CCS competition will be.
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