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Study exposes green failings of wood fuel power plans

Last modified: 02 September 2011

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The rush to build new power stations in the UK which rely on imported wood fuel will destroy forest habitats overseas and add to climate chaos, a new report reveals.

The RSPB report Bioenergy: A Burning Issue has analysed the emerging UK biomass sector which uses wood and organic waste to generate energy. Biomass has been hailed by the Government and the energy sector as a ‘renewable’ fuel of the future.

The results paint a picture of an impending environmental disaster, with swathes of forests overseas being logged as the industry exploits renewable energy subsidies.

There are currently 31 biomass power stations operating in the UK with 39 more in various stages of planning and construction including the conversion of Tilbury B in Essex which will be the biggest biomass plant in the country. If all of these are approved and built, the total amount of biomass being burnt per year will increase tenfold from 5 million tonnes, to nearly 50 million tonnes.

But the statistic which is causing conservationists the most concern is the rise in imported wood. Analysing the detailed proposals for new power stations reveals that the percentage of biomass fuel which will be sourced from imported wood will rise from 13 per cent to 68 per cent. This would lead to imports at levels more than three times higher than the UK’s total current wood production.

Martin Harper, RSPB Conservation Director, said: “Our research has shown that biomass power generation is set for a meteoric rise – and one that could have a major impact on wildlife and the climate.

“This massive expected increase in wood imports has been fuelled by ‘green’ subsidies. Ministers must act now and cut these subsidies in favour of supporting genuinely sustainable bioenergy and other sources of renewable energy, such as wind power

“Biomass power stations should be using wood fuel produced in the UK from better management of our forests and woodlands. We must also use the large amounts of unused waste and agricultural by-products the UK produces.

“Instead, the biomass power stations currently being planned across the UK will require up to 33 million tonnes of imported wood which will come from forestry markets in Canada, Russia and the US.

“We are looking at an extraordinary situation where the UK will be encouraging a major increase in logging of wildlife-rich forests overseas.

“It is essential that we find renewable sources of energy in order to wean ourselves off fossil fuels like coal and gas – but the figures in our report clearly show that when it comes to the rise of bioenergy from burning imported wood we are being led blindly into an environmental con.”

As well as the threat to wildlife, the rise of biomass power will also add to our greenhouse gas emissions. Flawed international carbon accounting rules mean the UK Government will not have to declare emissions from biomass when it is burnt in power stations – and neither will logging countries like the US which have not signed up to the Kyoto agreement.

The report concludes by proposing an increase in the use of domestic wood fuel as a result of thinning out poorly managed and overly dense woodlands. This would have the additional benefit of improving habitats for woodland birds like nightingales, willow warblers and marsh tits as well as woodland butterflies.

There is also a major potential for an increase in the use of domestic waste wood as well as food and garden waste and agricultural by-products such as straw and manure in order to help reach bioenergy targets. In 2009 alone 6 million tonnes of waste wood and 9 million tonnes of waste food ended up in landfill sites.

The RSPB is urging Government ministers to use an impending review of renewable energy subsidies to avert this potential disaster and cut back subsidies for bioenergy using imported wood, whilst increasing support for biomass fuel sourced from within the UK. There must also be a new set of sustainability rules covering the import of wood fuel and a better system of accounting for carbon emissions from biomass plants.

The study was based on data published by the energy companies behind current and proposed biomass energy plants in the UK.

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