Two Missed Opportunities To Protect The World’s Forests

January is often a time for looking ahead, for positive thinking and resolutions. But for me, so soon into the year, disappointment has struck. 17th January 2018 will go down in my memory as a series of missed opportunities to protect the world’s forests.

The UK and the EU currently rely heavily on burning wood to generate ‘renewable’ energy. But burning millions of tonnes of trees every year is actually bad news for the climate: it seems obvious, but burning wood releases carbon, just like fossil fuels. It sends carbon dioxide straight up into the atmosphere at around the same rate as coal, sometimes at an even higher rate. And it can take years, decades or even longer for this carbon dioxide to be recaptured by regrowing trees. After all, it has taken these trees years to absorb the carbon dioxide that’s released when they’re burned. Such a strategy makes little sense when we urgently need to bring emissions down in order to tackle climate change. Hundreds of scientists expressed this to European politicians in the days running up to a key vote on the future of renewable energy, and urged them to act to protect forests.

This practice is also putting precious forests at risk in Europe and the US at a time when other pressures on them are growing too. From illegal logging in old-growth forests in Poland to climate change increasing the risks of forest fires in the southeast US (forests from which the UK imports millions of tonnes of wood every year to burn in its power stations).

But back to 17th January: first came a crucial vote in the European Parliament on the role of bioenergy from 2021-2030. Politicians in Brussels had a critical opportunity to ban the burning whole trees (often called ‘roundwood’) and stumps (the foot of a tree) for energy. Unfortunately, they missed the chance to do so, ignoring very clear scientific evidence that these types of biomass can increase (instead of reducing) emissions.

These scientists know that burning millions of tonnes of trees for energy every year makes little sense if your objective is to reduce emissions in the short term (which we urgently need to do) or to protect biodiversity. Europe’s and the US’s forests, and their wildlife, are suffering as a result.

Later that day came an announcement from the UK Government on the financial support they provide to power plants that convert from coal to using wood for energy. This decision is important as the UK plans to phase out coal altogether by 2025, and plants may be examining the possibility of converting to biomass.

The UK Government’s decision regarding changes to subsidies was clearly not enough to put the brakes on the harmful use of wood for energy. Later that day, Drax power plant, which has already converted three of its six units to biomass, announced that it will continue with the conversion of a fourth unit. In 2016 Drax burned 1.2 million tonnes of roundwood (whole trees), with 850,000 tonnes of this imported from the US. This industry is having a huge effect on forests and wildlife in the southeast US.

In the consultation on these proposed subsidy changes the Government itself acknowledge that compared to other renewables, biomass co-firing or conversion from coal provides little or no carbon savings (skip to page ten of the linked document). This begs the question of why they didn’t opt for much more stringent changes that would deter further use of woody biomass. Instead the changes that were designed to restrict this type of biomass have put the wind in the sails of a further conversion at Drax.

If politicians continue on such a course, then they’re putting the world’s forests at further risk from harvesting for energy. And the emissions released by burning these trees are undermining the strides made in reducing emissions by booming technologies like solar power.