UK and Europe heading for biomass sustainability crisis

The UK is heading for a sustainability crisis in its pursuit of bio energy.

That was the warning given to the Energy and Climate Change Committee in Parliament today by a panel of experts.

David Kennedy of the Committee of Climate Change – an independent body set up to advise the government on emissions – said that while there is a vital role for bio-energy in meeting the UK’s renewable energy targets, Britain and the rest of Europe was heading into a grey area over sustainability.

“The European demand is much greater than the supply globally. That raises the question: ‘where are you going to get the biomass from’? The worry is that we get biomass from unsustainable sources. We can’t be confident that everything going forward will be sustainable.”

Harry Huyton, head of climate change policy at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, said that there were 44 small or large scale biomass plants planned for the UK, which would require a total of 40m tonnes of wood. However, the current UK wood production is just under 10m tonnes a year.

He said a solution was to “focus on unlocking domestic supply”, adding that half of the UK’s woodlands are not managed at all.

Alena Buyx, of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, also offered a pessimistic view. “There is no way the UK can produce all of the renewable energy it needs. There is no land use policy in the UK or internationally. This is something that will not get better but will probably get worse. Now is the time to get a policy off the ground.”

With it taken as-read that the UK and the rest of Europe will be importing the bulk of its biomass feedstocks – with the US, Canada, Brazil and Russia the most likely sources – there was a difference of opinion on how to secure a sustainable supply.

Kennedy claimed that there were 500m hectares of abandoned agricultural land in the world that could be used to grow bioenergy crops and suggested that cultivating this land for biomass offered a “benefit to developing countries”.

But Duncan McQueen from the International Institute for Environment and Development cautioned over the use of the word ‘abandoned’.

“A lot of abandoned land actually has claims to it. There are lots of reasons why people who have claims over land don’t use it. People don’t plant tress because they take a long time to grow. We have to be careful with this abandoned land argument because it can lead to the ‘land grab phenomena’.”

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