Converting coal plants to biomass could fuel climate crisis, scientists warn

  16 December 2019    Read: 1027
Converting coal plants to biomass could fuel climate crisis, scientists warn

Plans to shift Europe’s coal plants, including the giant Drax complex in North Yorkshire, to burn wood pellets instead could accelerate rather than combat climate crisis and lay waste to forests equal to half the size of Germany’s Black Forest per year, according to campaigners, the Guardian reports. 

Climate thinktank Sandbag said the heavily subsidised plans to cut carbon emissions will result in a “staggering” amount of tree cutting, potentially destroying forests faster than they can regrow.

Sandbag found that Europe’s 10 largest biomass conversion projects will alone require 36m tonnes of wood pellets every year, equal to the entire current global wood pellet production. This would require forests covering 2,700 sq km to be cut down every year, the equivalent of half the Black Forest in Germany.

The majority of wood pellets to be used at Drax, and much of the plants in the rest of Europe are imported from the US and Canada, “meaning that there’s a huge added environmental cost in transporting the wood from the other side of the Atlantic,” said the report’s author, Charles Moore.

The planned biomass conversions – with Finland, Germany and Netherlands leading the way – would emit 67m tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere which would be unlikely to be reabsorbed by growing trees over the timescales relevant to meeting the Paris agreement, warned Sandbag.

In return, the forest-hungry power plants would produce less than 2% of the EU’s electricity needs, the same generation capacity built in Europe every year by wind and solar farm developers.

“It’s impossible to believe coal companies when they argue that the switch burning forests could be good for the climate,” Moore said.

EU regulators consider biomass as a carbon neutral renewable alternative, saying that the growth of new trees can absorb as much carbon as wood pellets release when they are burned to generate electricity.

Drax has used this logic to underpin its plan to become the world’s first “carbon negative” company within 10 years by burning biomass in conjunction with technology which can carbon capture from its power plant flues.

Drax robustly defends the sustainability record of its biomass supply chain. Its wood pellets, shipped from the US, are made mostly from sawmill residue and forest overgrowth, which is carefully cleared to improve the quality of forests. Drax has pledged never to source biomass from farming practices that lead to deforestation.

But Alex Mason, from WWF’s EU office, said burning forests is “literally the opposite of what we should be doing” to help tackle the climate crisis.

“As 800 scientists pointed out last year, converting coal plants to biomass will increase emissions for decades, if not centuries. This new report is yet more evidence that the EU must use the new EU Green Deal to fix EU bioenergy rules before this ticking time-bomb of a policy does any more damage,” he said.

Prof Michael Norton, a director at the European Academies Science Advisory Council, said large-scale forest removal to meet the demand for biomass would be “horrifying from a climate perspective” and already risks overshooting the Paris agreement targets.

He said European countries are moving ahead with plans for giant biomass plants despite reports showing “the counter-productive nature of biomass” and the urgent need to stop deforestation.

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