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UK bioenergy industry - good news or bad?

Last modified: 23 November 2011

Woodland sunrise taken at RSPB Headquarters, The Lodge

Today, four of the UK’s leading environmental organisations have launched a report that highlights the significant benefits of avoiding a rush to bioenergy which otherwise risks causing environmental damage across the world.

The report produced by the IEEP, Securing biomass for energy – developing an environmentally responsible industry for the UK now and into the future identifies a number of ways that the UK could enhance its own production of bioenergy sustainably and avoid the need for imports. This would deliver both jobs and growth in sectors such as waste management, agriculture and forest management.

Key concerns around imports include:

  • Proposals to build 39 new bioenergy plants in the UK that will import around 40 million tones of biomass without any mandatory standards being placed on the sourcing or origin of the material. If these are all built it will make UK one of the largest importers of biomass in the world.
  • That there is no nationally or internationally agreed standard of what constitutes sustainable bioenergy fuel and current sustainability safeguards are weak and ineffective.

As highlighted in the new report, despite the environmental risks of a high level of imports we currently have:

  • No plan to maximise sustainable domestic bioenergy production
  • No incentive for UK farmers to produce environmentally sustainable bioenergy for energy plants
  • Insufficient support for generation of new biomass through sustainable management of existing UK woods, and creation of new ones, which could lead to substantial biodiversity benefits.

Securing biomass for energy – developing an environmentally responsible industry for the UK now and into the future highlights how positive changes can be made to policy to make this happen.

'Do we invest in burning imported wood, or towards creating a sustainable, UK-based bioenergy industry?'

Commenting on the report Martin Harper, RSPB's Director of Conservation said: 'In the UK there are already 31 operating biomass power stations with around 40 more proposed or in various stages of development – they will require millions of tonnes of wood and will be heavily dependent on overseas imports.

'The Government faces a stark decision about where our renewable energy subsidies go to in the Renewables Obligation, currently being reviewed. Do we invest them in burning wood imported from forests across the globe, or do we direct them towards creating a sustainable, UK based bioenergy industry that benefits the climate and wildlife?

'We think the answer is clear and this report sets out the reasons why.'

Dr Doug Parr from Greenpeace said: 'We are all looking for solutions to the world’s addiction to dirty fossil fuels, and undoubtedly bioenergy has the potential to be one of them. But it can’t be bioenergy at any cost and right now there is a rush to expand biomass plants importing wood with no mandatory standards, which could make climate change worse not better.

He added: 'Government should insist on higher environmental standards for any biomass we use and halt the rush towards massive new bioenergy plants until there is a comprehensive plan in place to deliver sustainable bioenergy.'

Sian Atkinson, Conservation Adviser at the Woodland Trust, said: 'Bioenergy is in danger of being a missed opportunity for woodland conservation and forestry in the UK. We need resources to be put into developing bioenergy in a way that stimulates sustainable management of woods where this will benefit biodiversity, and an increase in the UK’s woodland cover, which is still much less than most areas of Europe.'

Kenneth Richter, Friends of the Earth’s biofuels campaigner said: 'Burning large amounts of imported wood leads to ever more forests being cut down overseas, with devastating consequences for the climate, wildlife and habitat.

'Instead of creating new environmental problems elsewhere, the UK Government should harness our domestic renewable power potential.'

The four Environmental NGOs have also written to the Minister responsible for the bioenergy Charles Hendry and asked to meet him to discuss the conclusions of the report.

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