As world leaders gather in Paris for the first day of the United Nations climate change talks, people’s minds will be on mitigation, their rhetoric will be about renewable energy.
Forests, and the energy some countries get from them, don’t usually spring to mind when people think of the international climate negotiations. Renewable energy usually bespeaks wind turbines and solar panels, but many don’t realise that, particularly in Europe, the majority of our renewable energy comes from biomass, and in large part forests.
Across the world, countries are increasingly turning to biomass to meet a need for low carbon energy sources. Biomass is already the largest source of renewable energy in the EU, and this dependency is predicted to persist in coming decades.
In some cases, bioenergy can be good for the climate and for wildlife. The RSPB has been trialling the use of vegetation from our nature reserves, generated by managing the habitat, for energy.
But beneath the surface, deep in the woods, there lurks a dark secret to much biomass.
The European Union has recently recognised the risks and problems associated with different kinds of bioenergy. A cap has been placed on the percentage of their renewable transport targets that countries are allowed to meet from food-based biofuels.
Biomass has become a popular choice because it has been assumed that it is carbon neutral. This assumption is now increasingly understood as wrong; often it is only true when emissions are looked at over decades or even centuries. In fact, many studies now demonstrate that in some cases biomass from forests can, over the medium term, be even more polluting than fossil fuels like coal.
Given this growing understanding, it is more important than ever that its emissions be properly accounted. But there’s a mystery – lots of biomass emissions are going missing.
Where can they have gone? Are they being hidden away in some sort of carbon-based offshore account?
Well, the solution to this mystery is complicated but not all that hidden.
New analysis, by the independent think tank Chatham House, reveals that the way that biomass is accounted for at an international level could be resulting in lots of emissions from it going missing. Chatham House have released some analysis in time for the UN climate talks in Paris, but the full report will be published early next year.
Under the UN climate change system countries are supposed to account for emissions released when they harvest trees. They’re supposed to try to make savings relative to a baseline.
When countries account for their energy emissions they do so against a baseline in the past – 1990 in most cases. When it comes to land use, lots of countries have been allowed to account based on their predicted emissions in the future.
This means that only emissions exceeding their predictions are accounted for. Anything that’s built into their prediction is ignored. In fact, if you come in under your prediction, that’s counted as a credit. So you’re still allowed to emit, but if you emit less than you predicted you’re doing well!
This is crucial, because lots of biomass will be based on increasing forest harvests. But if countries have built these increased harvests into their predictions then these emissions won’t ever be counted.
There’s a second problem too. Some countries, such as the US, don’t account for their emissions at all right now.
If wood to be burned for energy is imported from, say, the US to the UK, the emissions from it will never be accounted. The UK doesn’t account for biomass emissions in its energy sector (that’s standard practice) and the US doesn’t account for any of its emissions.
So, lots of emissions, affecting our atmosphere, are just disappearing – they’re being sucked into a black hole of faulty accounting.
The Chatham House analysis shows that the quantities of emissions that are going missing are likely to be substantial. For example, in 2014 the UK imported 3.8 million tonnes wood pellets from Canada and the US. Assuming that all these pellets were used to produce energy, then as much as 5.4Mt CO2 are missing from the UK’s accounts and was not accounted for by the US and Canada, which are not part of the Kyoto Protocol.
France accounts for emissions from biomass against a future baseline, but does not take into account biomass policies from before 2009. In 2012 it emitted 51Mt CO2 from solid biomass. It has built in an additional 5 million m3 of forest harvests to its future assumptions, meaning that any emissions caused by biomass from this additional harvest will also not be counted.
The US emitted 194Mt CO2 from wood biomass for energy in 2012. However, because the country is not party to the Kyoto Protocol, none of these emissions were counted, nor were the emissions from any wood pellets it exported that were then burned for energy.
This has serious implications. It could be perversely incentivising more countries to choose biomass – if they never have to account for the emissions, then, compared to other energy sources where they do it looks like a cheap option from an accounting viewpoint.
Second, there is only a very limited supply of sustainable biomass available. The US imports of wood to the UK aren’t a hypothetical example – they’re a reality. The UK currently imports most of its biomass from the US. In the southeastern US the production of wood pellets for bioenergy in the UK and EU is putting increasing pressure on forests that are extremely important for wildlife. Increasing demand for this scarce resource is going to put wildlife at risk.
So, what can be done? The UN rules which result in these problems are fixed until 2020. But, the rules after 2020 are still to be decided, and rules outside the UN system can be changed. The talks in Paris provide a crucial opportunity to set some basic principles that can lead to rules which resolve these problems.
– Between now and 2020, countries should account properly for emissions in the energy sector. Recent research has also showed that because biomass is rated carbon neutral in the EU’s Emissions Trading Scheme, lots of emissions are going missing.
– The land use rules at the UN level need cleaning up for the period after 2020 – all countries need to be made to account for land use in order to avoid the import-export emissions problem. Ideally accounting would have to be against a historical baseline so as it was done in the same way as the energy sector, making the two sectors more equal.
– It would be useful if countries had to provide more information on the type, source and country of origin of their biomass, in order to provide a clearer picture of emissions and their scale.
– Policies and subsidies for renewable energy should be altered so as only biomass which delivers genuine emissions reductions is supported and all emissions are fully accounted for.
– Instead of accounting for biomass in the land use sector, biomass emissions could be counted in the energy sector.
By Olly Watts, Senior Climate Policy Officer
Will the Government pull the rug from under the solar industry, or will it adjust its support commensurate with an industry finding its feet in the UK energy market?
The consultation proposal for revising the solar Feed-in Tariffs (FiTs) looked very much like the former – a rug being rudely whipped out from beneath an industry.
With recent developments, such as the scrapping of funding for carbon capture and storage projects stations announced in the Chancellor’s autumn review, there is increasing need for the solar industry to play its full part in an energy mix for the UK that is climate – and nature – friendly.
London took to its feet on Sunday with a climate march that marvellously demonstrated how much ordinary citizens want a solution to climate change. The pivotal Paris climate negotiations are now underway, with calls for a genuine solution to climate pollution supported by global citizens of every rank and file – including an A-list of celebrities who are helping their fans and supporters to understand the very serious situation we have now arrived at.
Both the Met Office and World Meteorological Organisation have recently announced that the world is now 1° Celsius warmer than before the industrial revolution kicked off climate pollution. Not merely symbolic, that’s halfway to the threshold of dangerous climate change. This would usher an era of extreme difficulty not just for our way of life and people and communities across our Earth, but also for the natural environment. Both the RSPB and BirdLife have recently published reports showing how much climate change has already affected wildlife. It’s a worrying picture that’s not just for the future – impacts are apparent right now.
If the UK wants to see ambition on the global stage to tackle climate change it needs to back that up with action at home. If its words begin to ring hollow then the UK’s international credibility on climate change will begin to crumble from the inside. Unfortunately, right now, the Committee on Climate Change, the Government’s independent scientific advisory body, has made clear its concerns that without intervention the UK could be on course to miss its carbon budgets. Deciding to continue support our growing renewables industry would be a significant intervention of exactly the kind that is needed.
A healthy UK solar industry should be part of our contribution to avoiding the worst impacts of climate change. Our solar industry is growing, but still finding its feet as a mature, market-ready contributor to the UK’s electricity production. That’s not surprising - just about all UK energy production receives some form of financial assistance from the Government. Solar’s share of this support needs to be fair – such as the Solar Trade Association’s £1 plan – and able to steer the industry to a secure future of continuing investment that benefits investors, consumers and a healthy climate.
So we await with interest what DECC and Amber Rudd will decide as the outcome of their consultation. With 55,000 responses to consider we appreciate this is no simple task, and we hope that the level of interest maintains UK solar on its path to clean, green, nature friendly energy. What do you think the Government should do?
Following RSPB's own recent report on the impacts of climate change on nature, Finlay Duncan, Birdlife Communications and Media Officer, brings news of a brand new report published today.
Birds are among the best studied species in the world, making them great messengers for the effects of climate change. As world leaders gather in Paris to negotiate a global climate change agreement at the UN COP21 summit, a new report, jointly published by BirdLife International and US Partner the National Audubon Society, details the severity of the threats of climate change. The Messengers, released today, gathers hundreds of peer-reviewed studies illustrating the many ways climate change threatens us and birds. The fact climate change will result in more losers than winners is an overriding theme. It is likely that twice the number of species will be worse off from a changing climate than the number of species that will benefit. Most bird species are expected to experience shrinking ranges, which will increase the risk of extinction for some. Population declines may also be felt more widely where species are not able to shift their distributions as quickly as the climate is changing. It’s not just birds who’ll be affected in this way. Ecological communities and interactions between species will be disrupted overall. We too face many threats, with a rise in the number of extreme weather events and greater prevalence of disease. By the year 2100, it’s expected that an additional 52 million people in 84 different countries will be vulnerable to coastal storm surges. Lower crop yields will impact the amount of food we can produce, increasing the risk of malnutrition for many. But the report also includes a strong message of hope. It details examples in which BirdLife Partners, leaders in nature-based solutions, are helping birds and communities become more resilient in a warming world. Examples include the creation of a new mainland colony for the African Penguin, with climate-induced shifts in fish stocks partly responsible for their dramatic decline in numbers in South Africa. In Europe too, conservation efforts are helping species to adapt to a changing climate; for example, with core breeding sites for Eurasian Bittern under threat from rising sea levels in the south coast of the UK, the creation of new habitats is leading to population increases. The Messengers report hopefully demonstrates that solutions from nature can deliver a series of benefits to people and to biodiversity, whilst at the same time offer an effective and accessible response to climate change. The report is available to view in full here: http://climatechange.birdlife.org