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Biomass Strategy 2023: Cross Sectoral Sustainability Framework

Volume 834: debated on Wednesday 15 November 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government when they will publish their consultation to implement a cross sectoral sustainability framework for biomass, announced in the Biomass Strategy 2023.

In begging leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper, I draw attention to my registered interest as vice-chair of Peers for the Planet.

My Lords, the Government will consult in 2024 on the sustainability actions set out in the Biomass Strategy, including developing and implementing a cross-sectoral sustainability framework to enable greater consistency across sectors and to further strengthen our sustainability criteria.

I thank the Minister for the Answer, but I draw the House’s attention to the fact that the UK’s single largest source of CO2 emissions is a biomass power station. That fuel generates only 4% of our power and creates 13.1 million tonnes of CO2, which is about 20% of the total that we emit as a country. But, as a nation, we subsidise it with our taxes. We call it renewable, so apparently it does not count. The recent task and finish report that the Government commissioned, looking at whether biomass could be called carbon-neutral, could not confirm that this was the case. Seeing that the evidence is pointing in the wrong direction, will the Government commit to moving away from this assumption that biomass is carbon-neutral, unless proven otherwise? Will they issue no new licences for generation and end their classification of this as a renewable power source?

The noble Baroness knows that I do not agree with her on this. The biomass that is used for generation in the two main plants is sustainable. There are very strict sustainability criteria attached to it, and the generators are measured against those criteria by Ofgem.

My Lords, I welcome the commitment to the cross-sectoral frame- work, provided that it is statutory rather than voluntary. Does the Minister regard this as a significant change from the Government’s previous position, when they decided to appoint a senior member of Drax management to the Climate Change Committee that advises government on biomass policy at a time when Drax had received £11 billion in public subsidy for biomass?

There has been no significant change in government policy. The sustainability criteria for biomass have existed for a while now, in concert with other biofuel strategies across government. Of course, if we can take the opportunity to make those criteria even better and even more sustainable, we will do so.

My Lords, surely the answer to the noble Baroness’s question about Drax is to reduce the barriers to increasing domestic production of biomass in this country. Can the Minister say something about the biomass feedstocks innovation programme? Is it one that he feels strongly about, and is it actually going to be taken forward and have more money put into it?

Indeed, my noble friend makes a very good point. We have currently awarded £32 million of funding to projects as part of the Government’s £1 billion net zero innovation portfolio, because there is an awful lot that we can do to improve the availability of biomass feedstocks and look at deploying it more effectively.

My Lords, the “Panorama” on Drax offered vivid and compelling evidence that fatally undermined Drax as a renewable proposition. The Minister has previously asserted that that was an accurate presentation, but as yet has offered no evidence to support his claim. Drax wrote to me almost four months ago, also claiming that the programme was a misrepresentation, and offered to present me with evidence. Despite prods from me and further promises from Drax, I have yet to receive that evidence. Is it possible that the “Panorama” was an accurate representation?

To slightly correct the noble Lord, I think I said it was an inaccurate portrayal, rather than an accurate one, as he said. We have debated this matter before, and the noble Lord has tabled a number of Parliamentary Questions to me on it. I cannot go any further than to repeat what I have already said: government officials have engaged extensively with forestry experts and Canadian officials following the “Panorama” programme, and we have found no evidence that wood pellet production in the region is unsustainable. We continue to believe that the narrative would have benefited from a much fuller picture of how harvesting decisions are made in practice.

My Lords, I declare at the outset that I have a biomass boiler, which came with the house I live in—but, honestly, we are trying to get rid of it. It takes trees between 44 and 115 years for sequestration of carbon. The lower estimate takes us well beyond 2050, the upper beyond the lives of anyone born today. So clearly biomass is not renewable within the timeframe needed to tackle climate change. Will the Government take that into account and ensure that the UK applies the precautionary principle and ends the ridiculous classification of biomass as a renewable power source?

I am pleased to hear that the noble Baroness has a biomass boiler. In fact, she does not need to get rid of it, because if she sources her pellets from the appropriate sources, that is a renewable resource. These are not pellets from virgin forests but by-products from the timber production process. There are very strict sustainability criteria attached to them and, even if those pellets were not used for biomass production, they would be a waste product because the timber would still be harvested for its other uses. So the noble Baroness does not need to feel so guilty.

My Lords, will my noble friend look favourably on taking fast-growing willow coppice and miscanthus from local growers right across Yorkshire to give a constant stream of reliable, sustainable farm produce to Drax going forward?

I did not quite hear the start of my noble friend’s question, but if she is asking whether we want to source more sustainable biofuels from UK sources, the answer is yes, absolutely.

The transition to clean power will require a massive expansion of alternative energy sources right across the board, whether biomass, onshore wind, solar or others, which will also deliver energy security and hundreds of thousands of good green jobs. This cannot be achieved without reviewing the sustainability and economic competitiveness of each energy source and accelerating carbon capture and storage. How are the Government working comprehensively towards these two vital functions?

I absolutely agree with the first part of the noble Baroness’s question. She is right that there needs to be a variety of sources of power: renewable sources, biomass linked to carbon capture and storage, and long-term hydrogen production. Of course, in the net zero strategy we look at all these things in the round, linked to a long-term analysis of how the power needs of the UK are best met going forward.

I think it does, but I am not going to get into a scientific debate about it. It certainly does when it is burned, but of course it absorbs CO2 when it is growing; that is the nature of it being sustainable.

My Lords, so far my noble friend the Minister has talked a lot about wood pellets and other things, but can he enlighten us on the Government’s strategy on third and fourth generation biomass and how they intend to encourage domestic producers in those two areas?

I am not sure I know what third and fourth generation biomass is. I will have to have a cup of coffee with noble Lords afterwards and we can have a chat about it.

I suppose, if we want to get into a debate about that, they absorb CO2 when they are growing. If they are felled and just rot on the ground they emit CO2, but also when they are burned.

Following on from that, does the Minister agree, particularly thinking about not just the products from Drax but local production, there is an alternative use of biomass, which can be put back into the soil to increase soil carbon and soil health? There is a real benefit there that needs to be considered when thinking about whether it is better to use that carbon or simply burn it.

I shall ruin the noble Baroness’s social media portfolio and agree with her this once: of course, we need to look at these things in the round and there are lots of alternative uses. It is the whole basis of the biomass strategy, because there are different uses that we can put it to and we need to look at what is most effective both for the environment and for UK power production.