A new report revealing that using wood pellets to generate electricity can actually speed up global warming should be the final nail in the coffin for the flawed policy of biomass subsidies. Policies designed to incentivise green energy use are not only having a dubious effect on climate change, they are destroying biodiversity and even killing many thousands of people.
Wood (or to use the technical term covering wood, wood pellets and other burning matter like animal dung, biomass) is by far the most significant renewable energy source. In both the US and the EU, biomass is the single largest source of renewable energy. Owing to poverty, around three billion people globally cook and heat their homes with wood, twigs and dung. More than four million die prematurely each year because of the resulting indoor air pollution.
And yet, in rich nations we have the bizarre notion that burning biomass is ‘green’ and eco-friendly. Governments, including in Britain, have deliberately promoted greater biomass dependence. The Drax power station in North Yorkshire generates seven per cent of the U.K’s electricity, predominantly burning biomass, supported by government subsidies. Seventy per cent of the electricity produced – enough to power Leeds, Manchester, Sheffield and Liverpool – is made using compressed wood pellets felled in the US and imported by ship.
But a new report from Chatham House suggests that this policy is very problematic when it comes to its goal of cutting CO2. It finds that the government’s view of biomass as a carbon neutral energy source is a ‘flawed assumption’ that is based on ignoring the emissions from the burning of wood. The problem is that the European Union policy holds the fictitious position that biomass produces no CO2 whatsoever. ‘Emissions from the fuel in use shall be taken to be zero’, says a 2009 directive. New Scientist rightly calls this assumption a ‘scam’.
The assumption underpins the EU’s 2020 renewables goal and its €8 billion (£6.84bn) annual spend on biomass – which has led to reports of protected forests being cut down in places like Italy and Slovakia. The EU now gets 65 per cent of its renewable energy from biomass. The effects on biodiversity of this practice are also troubling. Environmentalists point out that some manufacturers harvest whole trees — including hardwoods from bottomland areas — that can take a long time to regrow. A European Commission report found that the policy risks from transatlantic wood energy trade include ‘biodiversity loss, deforestation and forest degradation’ in the U.S.
The increase in biomass goes far beyond power stations, and reaches into our own homes. Policy-makers are using subsidies and tax policies to make fossil fuel-based energy more expensive and wood and pellets cheaper. Northeastern US states have seen 50 per cent to 150 per cent increases in wood as the main heating source since 2005. The UK is using financial incentives to ensure 700,000 homes convert to biomass heating, and biomass boilers are increasingly being installed to meet renewable energy requirements.
As we have seen on a vast scale in the developing world, burning biomass is far from benign. Even in the rich world, burning wood – encouraged by rising energy costs from green policies – is becoming a leading cause of death. In Prague, 27 per cent of the dangerous air pollution in winter today comes from wood smoke; in southern Germany it can reach 59 per cent. In London, it constitutes more than ten per cent.
Outdoor air pollution is the biggest environmental challenge in the rich world. Smoke from wood fires now constitutes 10-30 per cent of the total outdoor air pollution in Europe, meaning it conservatively claims 40,000 lives each year, and possibly many more. These are deaths from renewable energy. To put this into perspective, 26,000 people die each year in traffic accidents in the EU.
It will get worse. It is estimated that in Europe, small-scale domestic wood and biomass combustion will become the dominant source of the most dangerous particulate air pollution by 2020. In other words, it will be a bigger source of killer pollution than cars or industry and much bigger than power generation. During the Paris climate summit, former Californian Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger claimed that fossil fuels cause 19,000 deaths each day. He was far off. Around 3,900 deaths every 24 hours can be attributed to fossil fuels, whereas 11,000 deaths daily are caused by our reliance on biomass.
The problem comes from a governmental desire to transition to renewables before they are ready. We use biomass to cover for inefficient solar and wind, which need backup power when it isn’t windy or sunny. We will only solve global warming when solar and wind can compete with fossil fuels on their own merits. To achieve that, huge investment in green energy R&D, including batteries, is needed.
But in the meantime, biomass is a terrible short-term answer to global warming. In incentivising its use, policy-makers are having a dubious effect on climate change, likely destroying biodiversity, and killing tens of thousands from air pollution.