A Burning Issue: How UK demand for biomass is harming communities and forests around the world

Written by Sophie Bastable, a graduate of Ecological Science at the University of Edinburgh (graduating class of 2009). Sophie now works for Biofuelwatch as an energy campaigner in Edinburgh.

The UK’s big biomass demand

Demand for biomass is sky-rocketing in the UK, with 42 new biomass power stations proposed across the country. Energy companies have announced plans to burn over 82 million tonnes of biomass, more than eight times the UK’s total annual wood production.

Burning biomass for large-scale electricity generation is a key element of the UK Government’s  renewable energy policy.  Their 2012 UK Bioenergy Strategy states that bioenergy could provide between 8% and 11% of the UK’s primary energy demand in 2020 – i.e. the majority of the country’s overall renewable energy target of 15% by that date. Although bioenergy includes biofuels for transport, the bulk of that figure would come from burning wood. 

The biomass chain of destruction

While biomass is currently classed as “renewable” energy, it is anything but sustainable or carbon neutral. Already, with just a small fraction of the biomass plans implemented, the UK relies on 80% net imports for all of the wood and wood products used across the country. This new and increasing demand for biomass is encouraging logging of wildlife-rich forests around the world, as well as the planting of monoculture tree plantations at the expense of native forests and the people who depend on them. Then, when the biomass is finally burnt in power stations in the UK, harmful pollutants are emitted which have serious health impacts on surrounding communities. These disastrous implications prompted Biofuelwatch to publish a report last month, entitled “Biomass: The Chain of Destruction.” In it, we investigate the very real effects of the UK’s demand for biomass from point of extraction to point of use.

Communities forced off their land in Maranhão, Brazil

In the Brazilian state of Maranhão, one of Brazil’s largest pulp and paper companies, Suzano Papel e Celulose, is taking land off traditional communities and replacing them with eucalyptus plantations for wood pellet production, in reaction to anticipated demand for biomass from the UK. Rich forest vegetation, home to countless plant and animal species, is being bulldozed and communities are experiencing the lost of their livelihoods, land and traditional way of living as a result.

Community meeting in São Raimundo. Photo credit to Ivonete Gonçalves de Souza

The people affected – A community meeting in Sao Raimundo. Photo by Ivonete Gonçalves de Souza

Forest destruction in the Southern U.S and Canada

At present, virtually all wood which is imported for bioenergy is being burned in coal power stations, primarily by Drax in Yorkshire. Nearly all of it comes from Canada and the southern US. The southern US wetland forests are the last refuge for large numbers of species. Indeed, they are one of the most biodiverse freshwater ecosystems in the world. These forests are now being clear-cut to make pellets, including for Drax.

Portugal’s plantation deserts

According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FOA), 38% of Portugal’s land area is forested and forests have been slowly increasing in size since 1990. However, this figure is distorted by the fact that industrial pine plantations are falsely classed as ‘forests’ rather than defining them as ‘planted forests’. Such plantations, according to the FAO, have increased by 14,000 hectares since 2000. Significantly, pellet production in Portugal has also increased from a small­-scale industry in 2005 to one with a total production capacity of around 850,000 tonnes a year. Almost all of this production is exported elsewhere in Europe, with only 9% remaining in Portugal. There are concerns that eucalyptus plantations could expand in response to an increasing demand for woodchips and pellets from the UK.  A spokesperson of the Portuguese environmental NGO, Quercus, describes the ecological implications of the plantations: “Our fauna can’t feed on it; they can’t find refuge in it. Our insects can’t eat eucalyptus, so there are no birds…In a native oak forest you’d find, in one hectare of woodland, at least 70 or 80 species of plant. In a eucalyptus forest, you would hardly find more than 15.

The local impacts of burning biomass

The most serious local impacts of biomass electricity are those on air quality and public health, resulting from the emissions released when biomass is burnt in power stations. Although waste wood (much of it chemically treated) is widely seen as a particularly ‘sustainable’ source of biomass electricity, burning it results in particularly high levels of toxic air emissions. And it is not just residents living close to power stations who are affected but also ones living close to wood recycling plants, which increasingly supply energy companies with woodchips. The report “Biomass: The chain of destruction” contains a series of testimonies from community activists, which illustrate the lack of any effective regulation, planning policies and mechanisms which would protect public health from dangerous and harmful levels of pollution. There is a substantial amount of research which shows that these polluting industries often have a disproportionate impact on more deprived communities. Biofuelwatch undertook an investigation, which looked at the levels of deprivation in communities located near to biomass power stations in the UK. The findings show that biomass power stations in England are located in areas which are relatively more deprived than other parts of England. And in Scotland, all of the larger planned biomass power stations (of 50 Mega Watts in size and over) are in relatively deprived areas. To our knowledge this is the only study of its kind to have been attempted for biomass power stations in the UK and there is a great need for more research to be done into this important area of environmental justice.

EnvivaAhoskieNCfromGround (2)

Enviva Ahoskie pellet mill in North Carolina. Photo credit to Dogwood Alliance

An alternative vision

The evidence shows that not only is large-scale biomass electricity not environmentally sustainable, but that it also has negative impacts on people around the world. As a result, it is imperative that biomass is no longer seen as the solution to our urgent need to stop using fossil fuels. Only a major policy change, away from large-scale combustion (be it of fossil fuels or biomass), towards sustainable and genuinely climate-friendly renewable energy and, crucially, towards much lower levels of energy use in the UK, can prevent the impacts described here from escalating.

Support communities fighting eucalyptus plantations in Brazil. Sign the petition here: http://www.biofuelwatch.org.uk/2013/maranhao-petition/  

Links to References and Resources

To read the full report and access all references: http://www.biofuelwatch.org.uk/2013/chain-of-destruction/

For a full Biomass FAQ: http://www.biofuelwatch.org.uk/2013/biomass-faq-2/

To access the Biofuelwatch website: www.biofuelwatch.org.uk


6 responses to “A Burning Issue: How UK demand for biomass is harming communities and forests around the world

  1. Now all the waste can be converted into energy. There are nine biomass plants that are counted to be the largest biomass power plants that are till operational. I think it now time for change.


  2. Incredible. Everything starts from one person that had a wrong concept and was in a decision power? Is it possible to change that idea? A power plant can be changed from one type of fuel to another.
    Using other nation forests for immediate benefits of one country is wrong. This is a path to destruction. And those that decided are few.


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