1:00 AM 22nd January 2024
Taxpayers Subsidising Carbon Emissions, Highlights New IEA Paper On Wood Chip Burning
Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay
The government is undermining efforts to tackle climate change by subsidising the burning of wood pellets for electricity, according to a new briefing paper from the free market think tank the Institute of Economic Affairs. Media reports indicate the government could announce plans soon to extend the subsidies by three years.
Image by moses from Pixabay
Since 2005, several British power plants have been converted from coal to biomass, requiring millions of tonnes of imported wood pellets. This wood chip burning is Britain’s least green energy source, producing more carbon emissions per megawatt hour produced than coal and pollutants such as sulphur dioxide.
However, biomass smokestack emissions are officially credited to the country where the trees are grown, primarily the United States and Canada. This means wood burning is officially considered ‘zero carbon’ in the United Kingdom and attracts large taxpayer subsidies. Critics have labelled this situation an ‘accounting trick’.
Christopher Snowdon, report author and the IEA’s Head of Lifestyle Economics, writes:
“Current carbon accounting practices create perverse incentives and allow governments to boast about reductions in carbon dioxide emissions that only exist on paper. It is difficult to imagine the British government permitting, let alone subsidising, the incineration of imported wood chips to generate electricity if the emissions were counted on its own balance sheet.”
The wood-burning emissions are meant to be recaptured through tree planting. However, the time it will take for new trees to absorb emissions from the burnt trees is estimated to be between 44 and 104 years. This lag is too slow to help the government’s net zero by 2050 target. The burnt wood chips are also meant to be waste products, but there is evidence that primary forests are being cut down for wood pellets.
Biomass is expensive compared to wind, solar, gas and nuclear. It also risks becoming even more costly with proposals for further subsidies linked to carbon capture technology. The Department for Energy Security and Net Zero has said carbon capture is ‘unproven at scale’.
The briefing concludes by highlighting the greener and cheaper alternatives to biomass, including natural gas in the medium term and nuclear power plants in the longer term.
Sir Peter Bottomley, MP for Worthing West said:
“Burning wood for energy will make global warming worse for decades to come. Anyone who claims biomass at-scale can be ‘renewable’ is ignorant at best, fraudulent at worst. Government subsidies must end.
“Over the last two years over one hundred backbench MPs have, through signing letters or applications for debates, indicated that they have severe reservations about biomass. Christopher Snowdon offers a sensible and judicious contribution to this important discussion.
“We should leave trees in the ground and instead focus on increasing tree cover and backing wind, solar and nuclear energy – genuinely clean technologies that will create jobs, end our reliance on expensive fossil fuels, and cut our emissions.”
Selaine Saxby, MP for North Devon said:
"This paper rightly raises serious concerns about the sustainability of woody biomass, and whether supporting the burning of wood pellets and the impact on consumers’ energy bills can be justified.
"Instead of agreeing to further subsidies for woody biomass the Government should focus on supporting cheaper and proven clean technologies such as solar, wind and nuclear. The Institute of Economic Affairs' rigorous look at this issue is very welcome at a time when we have the opportunity to reconsider our level of investment into woody biomass and its role in reaching net zero."
Kitty Thompson, Conservative Environment Network's Senior Nature Programme Manager, said:
"This report highlights important concerns about the sustainability of bioenergy, the carbon accounting methodology, and the value for money of subsidising this industry further. With questions from a broad spectrum of experts mounting, ministers should look first to alternative, cheaper, and proven sources of clean power and negative emissions before they award new subsidies to biomass plants."
Craig Mackinlay, MP for South Thanet said:
"The huge level of subsidy that Drax biomass power station receives is a national scandal. As Snowdon explains, electricity from Biomass is neither cheap or green. I hope that ministers will turn away from this dirty technology and prioritise gas and nuclear instead."