How screwy is European green policy? Policymakers are holding up wood as an energy source of the future. Sure, it’s renewable, but its green pedigree is very much in doubt. Nowhere is that more evident than in the UK, where government subsidies have encouraged companies to buy wood pellets from foresters in America and burn, baby, burn. Matt Wridley writes in an op-ed for the London Times:
A year ago I wrote in these pages that it made no sense for the consumer to subsidise the burning of American wood in place of coal, since wood produces more carbon dioxide for each kilowatt-hour of electricity. The forests being harvested would take four to ten decades to regrow, and this is the precise period over which we are supposed to expect dangerous global warming to emerge. It makes no sense to steal beetles’ lunch, transport it halfway round the world, burning diesel as you do so, and charge hard-pressed consumers double the price for the power it generates.There was a howl of protest on the letters page from the chief executive of Drax power station, which burns a million tonnes of imported North American wood a year and plans to increase that to 7 million tonnes by 2016. But last week, [chief scientist at the Department of Energy and Climate Change Dr David MacKay’s] report vindicated me. If the wood comes from whole trees, as much of it does, then the effect could be to increase carbon dioxide emissions, he finds, even compared with coal. And that’s allowing for the regrowth of forests.
In fact, biomass is “green” only insofar as it includes the prefix “bio.” In a perfect system, if you replanted one tree for every one you burned, you would come out carbon-neutral in the long run. But consider: it takes energy and effort to chop down these trees, process them into the pellets most biomass facilities require, and transport them to their final destination. (And in the case of the UK, that includes a trans-Atlantic boat ride.) All of those steps produce emissions. Moreover, some 90 percent of the forests in the southeastern United States that source British biomass are privately owned, and lax regulatory oversight means there is no guarantee that felled trees are replaced in some sustainable manner.Biomass has been held up as an earth-friendly solution in the UK, but closer scrutiny lays bare this wishful claim. 10 Downing take note: Burning wood for energy may have seemed like a breakthrough at some point in our history, but we’re long past it now.