Policies aimed at limiting climate change by boosting the burning of biomass contain critical flaws that could damage attempts to address global warming, according to climate scholar Professor John Beddington.
He said cutting down and burning trees as a replacement for fossil fuels could rebound dangerously.
Beddington, a former chief scientific adviser to the British government, said there was now a real risk that increasing wood-burning to help EU members reach renewable energy targets could backfire.
“These policies may even lead to a situation whereby global emissions accelerate,” the professor of natural resource management at the University of Oxford wrote on the Carbon Brief website. He said wind and solar projects should instead dominate EU renewable policies.
The bloc is currently considering a renewable energy directive that would raise the requirements to use renewable energy from around 16 per cent of final energy demand in 2015 to 27-35 per cent by 2030.
Beddington said biomass, meaning wood or other renewable organic materials like farmyard manure and waste food, absorbed carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and then burning it released carbon in a relatively brief life-cycle.
Outside the EU, biomass is now Switzerland’s second-largest source of domestic renewable energy after hydropower.
And researchers at the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research say that the amount of sustainable energy obtained from biomass could double in the next few years.
Power stations, including Britain’s Drax generators, have been abandoning gas or coal and are instead burning wood, which is often pellets imported from the US and Canada.
Biomass covers a few areas: wood can be burned to produce heat, plant residues can be chemically processed into liquid biofuels and manure digested by bacteria to release biogas, which can be used to generate electricity.
But Beddington warned of the “unintended consequences” of using biomass.
“The flaw is this: the directive will use an expansive classification of bioenergy products, allowing countries, factories and power plants to claim credit as renewable fuel for using trees harvested specifically for use in power plants and not merely residues and wastes,” he wrote.
“Burning wood by-products – that is, residues and production wastes – has been long practiced in Europe. This can benefit the climate thanks to a two-fold displacement effect.”
But he called for EU legislation to prevent the felling of trees for burning. Beddington argued: “Shaping the directive to allow trees themselves to be harvested for the sole purpose of energy means that several other science and policy complexities come into play.
“First, the alternative fate of trees that are harvested directly for bioenergy, unlike the fate of wood residues and production wastes, is to remain standing as living biomass for decades, locking up their carbon for that period.
“If the trees are actively growing, they will also be actively absorbing CO2 … If bioenergy uses trees or portions of trees that would otherwise be used as sawn timber or for paper products, then trees elsewhere must be harvested to replace those products.”
Chilton Biomass Energy Centre, County Durham. Picture credit: Wikimedia