Environmentalists applaud UK Government decision to restrict subsidies for new biomass power stations

Decision is key to protecting forests in the US Southeast, which are being cleared to fuel UK wood pellet demand

Environmental advocates welcome a UK government decision, announced today, to eliminate subsidies for biomass plants burning fuels with “lifecycle” greenhouse gas emissions that exceed 29 g CO2/MWh, an 85% reduction from the 2020 standard of 200.4 kg CO2/MWh that existing biomass power stations must meet. The new standard will apply to plants commissioned between 2021 and 2026. UK biomass plants import millions of tons of wood pellets from North America, a practice that has been condemned by scientists and environmental advocates as damaging to forests and the climate.

Biomass burned in the UK must meet a greenhouse gas emissions standard to receive lucrative renewable energy subsidies. The UK standard only counts emissions from fossil fuels burned during biomass harvesting, processing, and transport, and does not include carbon dioxide emitted by actually burning the wood pellets. Independent analysis, including by UK government scientists, has determined that net CO2 emissions from wood-burning power plants exceed emissions from coal-fired plants, but this finding has not been incorporated into the carbon-counting methodology. The consultation published today acknowledges the “limitations” of the UK methodology, which include that it “assumes GHG emissions at the smoke stack from biomass to be zero.” The Government states that the convention of counting CO2 emissions as zero may be revisited in a future consultation.

The world’s largest wood-burning power facility, operated by Drax, is located in the UK. Drax imports millions of tons of pellets made from US and Canadian forests each year, and receives about $2.5 million a day in subsidies for burning imported wood. In response to today’s announcement, Mary Booth from the US-based Partnership for Policy Integrity stated, “None of the wood pellets currently imported by Drax and other large wood-burning power plants come close to meeting the new UK standard. This decision thus appears to close the door on new subsidies for burning imported wood for electricity. Although the UK continues to ignore the greatest source of emissions, the CO2 coming from the smokestack when wood pellets are burned, it has at least acknowledged that fossil fuel emissions from turning trees into pellets and shipping them across the Atlantic are excessive.”

A coalition of UK and US NGOs had called for a tighter greenhouse gas limit in the UK government’s consultation on the new standards, and for extending the standards to existing plants. Neither Drax nor two other already approved UK biomass power plants, each of which will burn 1.5 million tonnes of imported pellets per year, will be affected by the new standard. The decision could however ultimately constrain markets for pellets manufactured by US-based Enviva, the world’s largest pellet manufacturer, as well as other companies shipping to the UK like Pinnacle Pellets in Canada.

Almuth Ernsting from the UK-based Biofuelwatch stated: “We are relieved that the Government has at last closed the door on new subsidies for burning imported wood for electricity because of the climate impacts. This comes after years of warnings by scientists and environmental organizations alike that burning pellets sourced from logging forests in North America and elsewhere is no better for the climate than burning coal. However, the Government must now go further and redirect existing biomass subsidies to low-carbon wind, solar and tidal power.”

Rita Frost, from Dogwood Alliance in North Carolina, US, adds: “Southern US forests, and the communities that depend on them, have suffered from the UK’s misguided policy to subsidize biomass power stations. For the health and safety of our planet and communities, it’s imperative that we stop the unchecked growth of this dirty industry. Today’s decision is a positive signal for Southern forests, communities, and the climate. Now, we need to see an end to massive handouts for destructive forest burning by the biomass industry.”

Partnership for Policy Integrity