John Randall: The Government should back away from bioenergy. It’s expensive, harmful – and there are better, greener alternatives.

20 May

Lord Randall was MP for Uxbridge and South Ruislip until 2015, and is a former adviser on the environment to Theresa May.

As we prepare to host COP26, the Government is pulling out all the stops to bring about a green industrial revolution. We’ve heard a drumbeat of positive news: bans on polluting vehicles, no more finance for foreign fossil fuels, legally-binding emission targets.

But the Government’s buy-in to the experimental bioenergy industry is a rare false step – and Conservatives must be willing to ask difficult questions about whether it’s worth huge amounts of taxpayer subsidy.

Biomass power plants burn natural matter, such as wood pellets, animal waste, or crops, to create heat or electricity. Its supporters claim that it’s a cleaner, greener way to generate electricity that replaces fossil fuels and supposedly cuts emissions. An emerging technology called BECCS – bioenergy with carbon capture and storage – uses the same principles: burn natural matter to convert it into usable energy, then capture the carbon emitted by the process and store it underground.

Though the science behind it is disputed, the Government seems convinced, and that means bioenergy is booming across the UK, thanks to plenty of public money. Drax power station, the biggest biomass plant in the country, received £4.1 billion between 2012 and 2019. Recent suggest that BECCS will require an additional £31.7 billion in subsidies and add £16 to the average consumer’s energy bills each year.

The Government is now considering redoubling its efforts, consulting on the future of biomass, and is due to bring out a new Bioenergy Strategy next year. It’s easy to see why Ministers are pinning hopes on bioenergy. Its proponents argue that it’s carbon neutral: the idea is that as trees grow, they absorb carbon dioxide, effectively cancelling out emissions when they’re cut down and burned.

But despite intense and expensive lobbying, there are still major gaps in the argument for bioenergy: serious evidence that calls into question how effectively it cuts emissions at all. There are also flaws in the accounting rules for emissions from forests which mean that, in many cases, no one is responsible for these emissions, even if the atmosphere feels their very real impact.

If we invest billions into technology that turns out to be just as polluting as fossil fuels, we’ll be saddling the next generation with two vast national debts to repay. First, the financial burden of replenishing a pot emptied by wasted government subsidies. Then, the crushing carbon debt we’ll accumulate if we continue to pump out greenhouse gases under the guise of ‘clean bioenergy’.

BECCS underpins the majority of UK and global models that get us to net zero, including the Government’s latest Carbon Budget. In other words, if it doesn’t work – and it’s not yet clear that it does – our hopes of reaching net zero will be severely diminished.

When I sat in Parliament after 2010, our Party was willing to ask awkward, sometimes unpopular questions to protect the interests of the next generation, facing today’s problems head on to avoid passing them on to our children. We need to be willing to do that again, and keep asking until we get straight answers from the people trying to sell us bioenergy as the fantasy solution to climate change.

The first thing we need to know: where is the wood really from? Some wood pellets burned by biomass power plants come from residue from the sawmill industry, but there’s mounting evidence that biomass plants are burning wood from whole trees chopped down from old forest.

An investigation into where a wood-pellet manufacturer called Pinnacle – owned by Drax – sources wood found that its ‘haul zones’ in Canada have serious overlap with primary forest. Drax claims that pine beetle infestation had produced residue material that can be used for biomass. But on-the-ground investigations in some biomass clearcuts have found that 75 per cent of trees had no infestation. Logging for wood-pellet manufacture is rife in Europe’s old growth and primeval forests too. 

The next question to ask: can the biomass industry guarantee it has no adverse impact on nature? At this time of the year in Canada, three billion individual birds will be heading back north towards the boreal forest, the largest unbroken forest in the world, where birds will attempt to breed and rear young.

But as forests come under pressure from increased logging – including from the biomass industry –  that ancient forest is becoming more inhospitable by the day, for birds and other creatures. Woodland caribou are now listed as a nationally threatened species thanks to logging’s impact. If projections about the world’s reliance on BECCS play out in reality, many more of the world’s forests will come under pressure.

The final question is the biggest. What value for money is the taxpayer getting from huge public subsidies to bioenergy projects? In other words, does it work? We already know that when burned, biomass can emit more carbon per kilo than coal. On top of that, the damage done to forests, and the time it can take for them to recover from the intensive logging that goes along with bioenergy, can create a ‘carbon debt’ that takes years or decades to repay.

Primary forest is one of the most effective tools we have to capture and store carbon and slow down climate change, and cutting it down is the very last thing we should do. In many cases, bioenergy may not be helping us to tackle climate change at all: it might be making it worse.

There are better bets than bioenergy: direct air capture technology, rolled out at scale, could capture greenhouse gases directly from the atmosphere without needing to wait for forests to re-grow, or burning them in the first place. Wind and solar are reliable, tested sources of genuinely renewable energy – and a study from Imperial and Vivid Economics found that combining this with smart resources like battery storage and demand response is enough to generate reliable electricity, even in cold, dark, windless periods.

Recent elections have shown that environmental policies are a vote-winner, and the electorate won’t forgive the Government for selling them false solutions. We know the traditional values of our Party are what win us support: protecting nature, celebrating our country’s achievements, preserving our world for the next generation. That means Conservatives need to be brave enough to ask the difficult questions about a technology that has more than a whiff of the emperor’s new clothes – and does very little to protect the future of the earth, our only home.