7 March 2013, 16:14

Burning biofuels could be worse than coal

Burning biofuels could be worse than coal
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The increasing use of biofuel to help meet the UKs commitment to renewable energy - is being hotly debated. Members of the Department for Energy and Climate Change are considering whether to accept plans - for new subsidies to burn trees in British power plants. But some scientists believe renewable energy products may add to the causes of climate change - rather than solving it.

The Department for Energy and Climate Change is responsible for devising a plan to reduce greenhouse gases by 20% by 2020 in the U.K. In the meantime, a European Union directive that comes into action in two years' time will ensure all coal burning plants must shut or start burning renewable energy supplies like woodchip by 2014. Dr. Jeremy Woods is from the Center for Environmental Policy at Imperial College, London. He says there are concerns over the scale of current renewable energy demand under the current E.U. directive:

“The scale of the biomass demand for coal firing for electricity production is not so much being driven by climate change objectives, as by changes through a directive called Large Combustion Plan Directive, the E.U. directive which is looking at old coal-fired power plants and trying to move that old estate towards a more efficient estate. That directive comes really into action by 2014 and that means that a lot of the U.K.'s older coal-fired power plants have to be either shot down or switched to a substantial amount of coal-firing to meet the targets.”

Dr. Wood says there're also concerns about the sustainability of the source of wood stocks set to be burnt in former U.K. coal plants.

“There's also a real need for control of where this feedstock comes from and a need for a lot more focus in governments across Europe on the policies to stimulate the supplies of biomass, ahead of demand has been generated from things like Large Combustion Plan Directive and the Renewable Energy Directive.”

But there aren’t just concerns over the origin and sustainability of woodchip. Using palm oil and biodiesel has become a controversial issue. More than 80% is grown in Indonesia and Malasia with vast areas of natural forests cleared each year to make way for new plantations. Recent research published in the journal Nature suggests growing palm oil trees to make biofuels could accelerate the effects of climate change, adding further weigh to claims that crop is not environmentally sustainable and shouldn't be used as an alternative energy supply. Pr. Chris Freeman is from the University of Bangalore and was involved in the study.

“The real problems with palm oil come from the fact that a lot of new plantations are being introduced into places that were previously peace forests. And these peace forests have huge stores of carbon dioxide for thousands of years and when you drain them and you plant oil palm on these sites, you actually being to release that carbon back to the atmosphere and that’s a serious problem for the future global warming - the very problem we're trying to resolve by addressing this with biofuels. It threatens valuable natural resources, cut a huge biodiversity associated with that and for short term gain you can lose something that is not only fascinating from an ecological point of view, but actually contains carbon dioxide - the very thing that we really want to avoid introducing into the atmosphere.”

Kenneth Richter is Policy Adviser at Environmental Campaign Charity Friends of the Earth. He says burning imported trees is worse for the climate than burning coal and that the government should stop subsiding power stations.

“A lot of research and also the government’s own research has shown that actually burning trees, cutting down trees and burning them in power stations is not that benefiting the climate, it’s quite the opposite. The overall effect on the climate can be worse than burning fossil fuels like coal and the reason for that is that trees are storing large amounts of carbon in them. So if you cut them down and burn them you're releasing all this carbon into the atmosphere. And this carbon dioxide is absolutely one of the main drivers of climate change. So what the government is doing is absolutely complete perverse the subsidizing this burning of trees as green energy, even though it's doing the opposite of what they're trying to achieve.”

It seems in order to cut carbon emissions in the future, the source of the renewables is as important as the way they're used.

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