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Biomass Electricity Subsidies: Deforestation

Volume 812: debated on Thursday 20 May 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the impact of their biomass electricity subsidies on deforestation (1) in the United States of America, and (2) elsewhere.

My Lords, the UK supports only biomass which complies with strict sustainability criteria, and electricity generators receive subsidies only for compliant biomass. The criteria ensure that the carbon stock and area of the forest is not decreased, irrespective of its location. The sustainability criteria require that biomass fuels are sourced from forest waste wood and residues from commercial forestry operations, and that the forest owner adheres to the relevant legal requirements to protect biodiversity and the environment.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his reply and congratulate the Government on their commitment to renewable energy. However, as he is probably aware, the UK is now the top subsidiser of bioenergy in Europe. It spent more than £1.9 billion in 2019 on bioenergy subsidies, primarily to burn wood imported from overseas forests at Drax power station. Despite what he said, I have serious concerns that the wood pellets supplied for burning come from primary forest in both the US and Europe. This has a potentially devastating effect on important bird species and biodiversity in general. Does he agree that we should be cutting carbon, not chopping down carbon-reducing forests?

I understand my noble friend’s concern about this and know he takes a close interest in birds and wildlife, but I emphasise once again that the UK supports only biomass that complies with strict sustainability criteria, which take into account impact on the biodiversity of the forests. I refer him back to the Answer I gave earlier: biodiversity is top of our list of priorities.

My Lords, Drax in the United States is subsidised by the Government until 2027 to supply biomass energy to the UK. In view of this, will the Minister confirm what discussions have taken place with Drax about its dependence on biomass, which puts some of the world’s ecologically valuable forests at risk and impacts on our environment through higher levels of greenhouse gas emissions?

I really do not think the noble Baroness is correct about this. Let me make the point once again that our sustainability criteria, which are some of the most stringent in the world, also take into account the greenhouse gas emissions from collecting, transporting and turning the biomass, which predominantly comes from waste products from the forest, into a viable energy source to deliver a carbon saving compared to fossil fuels.

My Lords, my noble friend Lord Randall is absolutely right: virgin forests are being cut down. How is this being policed? Other countries are cutting down woodland, and what penalties are there on firms, such as Drax, which breach these conditions, if they are discovered to be in the wrong?

The sustainability criteria are policed by Ofgem and, if firms do not meet them, the subsidies are withdrawn.

My Lords, I declare my interests as recorded in the register. This is a contested topic with opposing views. The devil is in the detail, and rigorous scientific analysis is crucial. In this context, is the Minister aware of the independent analysis published in March 2021 by Resources for the Future showing that, in the south-eastern United States, demand for forest products such as biomass is associated with an increase in the area of forest in the region, as well as with a 30% increase in carbon storage in those forests over the past few decades?

Indeed. The noble Lord is an expert on this topic and is of course correct. He is also correct to say that this is an area of ongoing debate among the scientific community, and it is one that my department is following very closely by gathering the evidence. The latest scientific data will form part of our forthcoming biomass strategy.

My Lords, the Minister has confirmed that the Government accept the principle that a scheme designed to reduce emissions needs to account fully for all emissions generated by it and must not cause environmental destruction, and therefore a loss of biodiversity. As there appears to be credible evidence to the contrary, and as he has assured your Lordships’ House that UK production of biomass meets that standard, will he publish the evidence, including the data that supports the assessment that he just made?

Many of these studies are published and the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, referred to a previous study that supports the assertion that forest is actually increasing in the area. But yes, the noble Lord, Lord Browne, is quite right—we need to act on the basis of proper, validated scientific evidence and our forthcoming biomass strategy will explore that further.

Will the Minister publish information about the inspection, monitoring and enforcement of compliance with the criteria he set out in his initial Answer? Will he put that in the public domain and explain exactly how that enforcement takes place?

Instead of razing American forests would it not be a better use of our subsidies to stimulate the development of a coppice harvesting service in the southern UK? Coppiced woodlands are rich ecologies that need regular felling but they are not getting it because there is currently no economic outlet for the timber.

My noble friend makes a good suggestion. We did try that, of course. Subsidies have been available for more than a decade but we have seen a lack of uptake because they cannot compete with the use of waste products in huge commercial forestries in the US.

My Lords, we await a biomass strategy due in 2022 and the Minister can confirm that this will assess the link between biomass electricity subsidies and deforestation. The Drax plant is investing in carbon capture in order to be a “carbon-negative company” by 2030. Does he think that that is achievable? When will the Government decide on a development consent order for Drax?

In the biomass strategy, we will explore all the factors to which the noble Lord referred. I do not have a date for when a development consent order will be agreed but all this and the relevant factors will be explored in the strategy.

My Lords, given the need to rapidly decarbonise and the impact of pellet production on forests, will the Government review the decision to class biomass as carbon-neutral under the UK ETS and stop subsidising new biomass projects? I should say here that I own a biomass boiler.

As I said, the biomass strategy will review all those factors. We want to continue subsidising biomass only if there are genuine carbon savings, if it does not contribute to deforestation and if it is produced in a sustainable way.

I hate to disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, but my reading of the science is that it is uncertain. There is little science looking at the impact of biomass extraction in Europe, particularly in Estonia. In America and Estonia, we have clear evidence of declining numbers in protected species and biodiversity. Is the Minister aware that 500 scientists have written to protest to President Biden and the European Commission about those continued activities? Does he agree that the comparison between biomass electricity generation and other technologies should be made not with fossil fuels, which we know are poor in their performance, but with other green technologies?

The different contributions from noble Lords in this debate have illustrated that this is a contentious subject. There is much debate in the scientific community. The noble Baroness referred to the 500 scientists who have written to the US Administration. Other scientists take different points of view. That is part of the nature of the debate but it is our view that biomass, when compared to fossil fuels, is considered to be a renewable, low-carbon energy source. The carbon released from the organic material was sequestered recently from the atmosphere, compared to fossil fuels where the carbon was sequestered hundreds of millions of years ago. We will continue to follow this debate and explore the issues further in the biomass strategy. If we continue with policies supporting biomass—it is an if—we will take all these factors into account. We want to make sure that there are genuine carbon savings, that biomass is sustainable and that there is no long-term damage to the areas referred to.