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Biomass Strategy

Volume 826: debated on Wednesday 14 December 2022


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government when they plan to publish their biomass strategy; whether it will take into account the time it takes for trees to sequester the carbon released from burning wood pellets; and what are the emissions associated with land use change in deforested areas.

My Lords, the Government have committed to publishing a biomass strategy, due in quarter 2, 2023. The UK source of woody biomass for energy predominantly comes from managed forests, which are managed for conventional forestry products such as timber. Where biomass is sourced from forests, the land criteria include requirements around regeneration rates and sustainable harvesting in the sourcing regions, thereby ensuring that the carbon stock of the forest from which biomass is derived is not decreased.

I thank the Minister for the Answer. However, reports, most recently from “Panorama”, have concluded that the pellets we are burning are not exclusively from waste wood, so we are actually causing deforestation of virgin forests. Natural Resources Canada states that, in a best-case scenario, biomass is worse for atmospheric CO2 levels than coal for the first 85 years after use due to the time it takes to be recaptured by the trees. Therefore, biomass is not renewable in the timeframe we have to avert the worst consequences of climate change. I know that the Government are currently considering what to do post the subsidy agreements that run to 2027. Will they please remove the renewable classification biomass enjoys, and with it the billions of pounds in subsidies it receives from the taxpayer?

As the noble Baroness is aware, the UK supports only biomass that complies with very strict sustainability criteria. Following the programme to which she refers, government officials engaged extensively with forestry experts and Canadian officials, and we are confident that wood pellet production in the region is sustainable and does not lead to destruction of forests in those regions.

My Lords, how can it possibly be in the interests of the environment to cut down trees in North America, then use energy to turn them into pellets, then put them on a ship powered by diesel to transfer them across the Atlantic, then land them on the west coast of this country and then transport them in a refrigerated container to Drax, and for the taxpayer and the consumer to pay for all this in the name of saving the planet?

My noble friend has a direct way of putting these things, as always. As I said, there are very strict sustainability criteria that production is monitored against. What I would say in defence of this system is that they are not virgin trees; it is by-product from commercial harvesting. The wood, of course, is used for normal wood processes and the pellets are produced from the waste products associated with that.

Could the Minister say whether there is a difference with coppicing as opposed to pellets? I recall that back in 1999, when I was a MAFF Minister, I opened a school in Herefordshire where the fuelling system was a contract with, I think, eight local farmers who would coppice wood to fuel the boilers. What is the difference in the biomass rules for that, as opposed to the wood pellets?

They are two different systems, but the noble Lord is essentially correct. As I said earlier, the UK supports only biomass which complies with strict sustainability criteria. Where that biomass is sourced from forests, the land criteria include requirements around regeneration rates and sustainable harvesting to ensure that the carbon stock of the forest from which the biomass is derived is not decreased.

My Lords, will my noble friend look again at the question of growing crops to produce artificial fuel? That creates CO2 all the way through the process, and when it is burned at the end. Surely, we should have an assessment of the amount of CO2 that is used up doing this, compared with other fuels.

My noble friend makes a good point and there is clearly sometimes a difference between crops that are used for fuel and those that could be used for food, and we always have to make sure that we get the sustainability balance right.

My Lords, when the Energy Prices Act was introduced, the Government said that dispatchable low-carbon technologies such as biomass were being considered as part of a policy designed to reduce the impact of higher gas prices on the energy market, but that higher input costs were the main drawback. Is there a timeline for this consideration and has any progress been made since this was said in October this year?

I cannot give the noble Lord a precise timescale, but, of course, we always keep these matters under review and we will look at it very closely.

My Lords, all biocrops are low-density forms of energy and we are missing this point here. As a result, they have a significant land utilisation demand and impacts that are much wider than just the crops themselves. Can the Minister confirm that, in growing biomass for fuel, there will be no ancillary loss or impact on other natural capitals, in particular biodiversity, water and healthy soils?

Most of the forests from which these supplies come are of course commercial forests. They are established for the purposes of growing wood for construction and other methods, and the pellets that are then produced are from waste products. But the noble Baroness is ultimately correct: we need to make sure that diversity is guaranteed, as well as the sustainability criteria.

My Lords, one of the objectives of the Government under the Environment Act was to rationalise local government collection of waste, part of which is food waste. We have a real opportunity to collect that food waste and put it into anaerobic digestion, thereby having positive environmental biomass production of renewables. Where have the Government got on that? It seems that there is a complete pause and no action.

I am afraid the noble Lord is completely wrong; we are acting on that. There are already food waste collections from many local authorities around the country. We have the green gas support scheme, which is rolling out support across the country for anaerobic digesters, many of which are using waste food. We await with interest the food waste strategy coming from Defra—I spoke to a Defra Minister about it the other day—which should be out early next year, to ensure that all local authorities are rolling out food waste collection. On his ultimate point, the noble Lord is correct that anaerobic digesters offer a fantastic opportunity for the production of green gas—but many already exist and are being rolled out in this country as we speak.

My Lords, having heard my noble friend talking about where these wood pellets come from, if it was found that wood was being taken from primary forests rich in biodiversity to make those pellets, would he join me in condemning that practice?

“Yes” is the short answer to my noble friend’s question. We want to make sure that it comes not from proper indigenous forests but comes as a by-product from commercially managed forests. We need to be sure that it is environmentally sustainable and we have strict criteria that are monitored to ensure that that is the case.

My Lords, following the earlier question from the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, does the Government’s assessment take into account the travel costs and the cost of bringing those materials to the UK?

These are factors that are taken into consideration when the overall sustainability of the procedure is looked at. They are monitored by Ofgem to make sure that all the pellets that are sustained, both from UK forests for use in biomass boilers and so on in the UK and those that are imported, all have the same sustainability criteria.

Does my noble friend agree that it is more environmentally friendly and helpful to British farmers if we encourage the growth of fast-growing willow coppice and miscanthus to feed into biomass production?

That is one potential source for biomass production; my noble friend is right in that respect. But, as I said, there is also the ultimate decision that we need to make about what we wish to use available agricultural land for. Should it be for food production, biofuel production or biomass? These are all things that will be taken into account in the strategy.

Does the noble Lord recognise, in the context of his last answer, that the recently published report from the land use Select Committee says that we need a land-use framework for England in order to make decisions about where the most appropriate siting of different crops and energy generation materials should be? If that was in existence, it would become abundantly clear that biomass is probably not one of the best uses of our scarce land resource.

Is the Minister concerned about the development of so-called “carbon capitalism”, whereby investment trusts and UK and overseas corporates are buying up land to take advantage of commercial opportunities in the carbon credit space? I cite as an example that the price of land in Scotland has now risen by over 30%, and that a third of those sales are taking place off market.

I am not aware of the factors that the noble Lord is referring to. It is the first time I have heard of “carbon capitalism”, but I look forward to reading more about it.