Biomass in Zero Carbon Britain: Breaking the Chain of Destruction?


Biofuelwatch, a campaign organisation against large-scale bioenergy (using biomass to produce energy) have launched a new report – Biomass: the Chain of Destruction – focusing on the human and environmental costs of biomass-focused UK renewable energy policy.

The report states that:

“Large ­scale electricity generation from biomass is a key element of the UK Government’s renewable energy policy. Their 2012 UK Bioenergy Strategy states that bioenergy could provide between 8 and 11% of the UK’s primary energy demand in 2020 […] Although bioenergy includes biofuels for transport, the bulk of it would come from burning wood.

Biomass electricity is supported by generous subsidies and energy companies have announced plans to burn […] more than eight times the UK’s [current] total annual wood production.”

In conjunction with their report released last year – Sustainable Biomass: A Modern Myth – the organisation highlight the pitfalls of trying to meet greenhouse gas emissions reductions targets by converting to baseload biomass electricity generation plants. That is, burning large quantities of biomass (usually wood pellets) around the clock to produce electricity, similar to how we currently generate electricity from coal.

Burning biomass instead of, for example, coal, is seen as ‘carbon-neutral’ because the carbon dioxide (CO2) released in its burning has been taken in already as the wood has grown – there are no net greenhouse gas emissions over the life cycle of the biomass. Coal, in comparison, emits greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, contributing to climate change.

CC. Andy Polaine, Flickr.


Most of the issues surrounding biomass use for energy derive from concerns about whether or not policies surrounding biomass growing and use will, or do work. For example, do they:

  1. Count all the carbon in the biomass life cycle properly, and take into account the ‘carbon-payback’ time. For example, if an older, carbon-rich forest is cut down and replaced by a short-rotation (comparatively carbon-poor) stock of biomass, then the energy produced using that biomass would not be carbon-neutral in absolute terms.

  2. Stop deforestation and the ruining of natural landscapes, communities and cultures in the process of growing biomass or establishing new plantations.

  3. Keep biomass usage to a sustainable and non-exploitative level. Is it right to use precious land (often not in the UK) to cater for our high energy demands, when it could be used for food production or supporting biodiversity? Catering for all UK electricity demand would require tens of millions of hectares of land for growing biomass according to the report (the area of the UK is about 24 million hectares in total, as a comparison).

Encompassing all of these things, key questions are: ‘is biomass sustainable?’, and ‘is it really carbon-neutral’? And even if it is both of these things, is it actually a good option for low carbon energy provision in the UK?

The argument goes that if policy does not work, then energy from biomass is no good from many different, not just climate-related, perspectives. This means biomass use hinges on good policy mechanisms, their strong implementation, and objective and impartial verification. Are we capable of this?

It would appear that currently we are not. The new report includes the first ever study of a land-grab in Brazil for eucalyptus plantations directly linked to UK demand for wood pellets, and documents the impacts of a UK power station’s pellet demand, sourced from the destruction of ancient forests in the southern US and Canada.

Biofuelwatch member Oliver Munnion said: “This is just the tip of the iceberg, and what we’re seeing is the impacts of a rapidly growing industry and the speculative investments of irresponsible companies, spurred on by generous subsidies and non-existent sustainability standards.”

However, whilst biomass is not, and cannot be the solution to all our energy needs, it is useful in some cases, though its use should be kept to a minimum, as a ‘last-resort’. Baseload biomass (for example replacing coal with biomass in large power stations) is not sensible when biomass resources are limited, can have detrimental impacts globally, and especially when we have so many other ways of generating electricity.

Biomass in ZCB

Throughout the Zero Carbon Britain project we ask, what resources do we have for energy provision in the UK? In other words, where are our strengths? We end up with a good mix of renewables in our scenario, but we are dependent on wind (both onshore and offshore) for about half of our energy on an annual basis because we are fortunate enough to be one of the windiest countries in the world. With relatively small per-capita land area, building up our capacity to produce electricity from wind resources, rather than biomass, makes much more sense.

Furthermore, Zero Carbon Britain hourly modelling of our electricity supply and demand shows that baseload power (i.e. burning biomass instead of coal, or nuclear power) does not help cater for shortfall in electricity demand in a system that has a high degree of renewables in it. When our supply and demand for electricity go up and down at different times, what we need is a flexible back-up energy supply, not one that runs constantly – we only need to fill the gaps, not produce more energy all of the time.

And this is where careful use of biomass comes in handy. In Zero Carbon Britain, there are some energy demands that can’t currently be met with electricity (the type of energy produced by renewables) – some transport and industrial demands. Furthermore, we need to be able to store some energy over long periods of time (weeks or months). Electricity isn’t very storable on the scale necessary to cater for even the much reduced UK energy demand in our scenario. Converting biomass and hydrogen into synthetic liquid and gaseous fuels helps with these issues. In Zero Carbon Britain, we keep biomass use to a minimum. We use hydrogen produced using excess electricity (when supply from renewables exceeds demand) in chemical processes to get more out of our biomass, so that we need less of it.

But how do we ensure the biomass we require is sustainable, and actually carbon neutral? In Zero Carbon Britain:

  • We grow all the biomass we require for energy in the UK. In total, we use about 4 million hectares of land to produce grasses, short rotation forest and coppice. We think that providing our own biomass for energy offers us the best chance of being able to be in control of good policy implementation surrounding its growing and use, and verification schemes that keep the production sustainable and carbon neutral.

  • We mostly grow this biomass on ex-grazing land meaning no old forests are cut down. In fact, at the same time we plant an additional 4 million hectares of forest, providing more wood products for the UK, and leaving more space for biodiverse woodlands. There are no knock on effects for the food industry either.

  • Changes in diet in the Zero Carbon Britain scenario mean we can do all this, and still provide a healthy, balanced diet for the UK that needs to import less food.

  • The impact the UK has on land overseas in our scenario would be less than it is today.

There can be (and are currently) many serious and dangerous issues with the growing and using of biomass for energy. However, with a sensible (and limited) approach to its use, strong policy backing, and independent verification, we can make sure the biomass we use is sustainable and carbon neutral.

One of the things Biofuelwatch calls for is “a major policy shift away from large ­scale energy generation through combustion, towards our energy needs being satisfied through a combination of genuinely climate ­friendly renewable energy and a substantial reduction in both energy generation and use.” And providing that there is still some room for use of truly sustainable and carbon-neutral biomass in appropriate places, then we’d agree.

  • Iver Salvesen

    Hi Alice, thanks for the blog.      The proposal in Zero Carbon Britain is to change the livelihood and farming practices of over 3/4 of grass land farming in the uk. Which disproportionately affects Northern England , Scotland and Wales. This will change the landscapes from open country supporting an active population who are living closer to one planet living within small rural villages with good support networks , resilient communities. Than anyone else in the uk. 
    Instead of these resilient communities the people will have to be cleared from the land to make space for slow growth forestry , which will support less workers. The lifecycle of a tree being somewhat longer than grass and cows, sheep and other grassland animals. ( economically large areas of slow growing trees require less work than sheep or grass crops on the same land area thus less people and a new economic local downturn)
    It will change farming practices ( land uses) which have largely continued economically since the 1800’s-  practices which as mentioned before support resilient communities and live within the planets means.
    So Zero Carbon Britain is supporting a new version of highland clearances, clear the marginal activities of landowners and tenant farmers, possibly without full reimbursement for the displacement. After all how can you reimburse a tenant farmer for having his home and land repossessed and then moved to what,  a small flat or house in a growing city ? This to make room for all these 4 m hectares of trees.
    The policy aims to support the ills of growing population, it supports the continuing problem of overuse of energy in urban areas, areas that do not live within their one planet living means.
     It suggests a large-scale destruction of UK animal populations to the advantage of humans, humans that will largely become vegetarian, or continue to import large quantities of cheap meat from abroad, where there are lower welfare standards…… But a larger population of these humans will be supported.
    Surely we should not attack the living practices of those not contributing the problem but attack the problem itself. The problem is excessive use of energy and growing urban centres, where populations continue to grow unchecked by any policies.
    Perhaps the Zero Carbon Britain approach should look at the ever growing population …. the current economic trajectory where the importation of more and more of the worlds population to this country to support an economy is flawed, that ever continuing growth is the incorrect policy. 
    We agree that there is  a problem with more than one planet living,……. to return to one planet living world population must drop, and this resultant population must use less energy… I.e stop living in cities where they cannot support their own  food and energy needs. 
    It may be that the developed worlds native populations are stabilising , but to compensate for this they import developing countries populations to support them . This encourages further population movement certainly does not discourage population growth abroad. Bringing people here shifts them from a low energy use economy to a higher energy use economy thus increasing carbon emissions.
    Quite apart from that Zero Carbon Britain is at fault for not engaging with the very communities it aims to change with it’s land and re-forestation policy. ( foresting land cleared before Henry 8).  I do not believe that any engagement with the soon to be former resilient communities has been undertaken. While discussions with farming groups such as NFUS are quite easy , I.e talking to farmers members groups and their representatives. Discussions with the communities that they live in and with, whom they support economically, the car repair shop, the grocers, pub and post office, tea room and in our village the four rural artists and potters are much more difficult.  But even engagement with farming groups has not occurred.
    Rather than have us all eat GM soya and a return to land clearances of the 1800’s perhaps we should look at slowing economic growth and becoming happy with what we can support in terms of energy and food ….rather than like India trying to reach Mars while their population starves.
    P.S. Still quite happy to arrange with Peter Harper to meet with Nigel Millar of NFUS to discuss this. I’m sure this could further the debate

    • Freya

      Hi Iver,

      First off – thanks very much for your comments. You are right in that our approach would have a large impact on many people in the UK – but not just those in rural locations. What we do in ZCB however, is try to compare different futures and make choices that direct us more closely to positive ones.

      Business as usual is not an option – the future will be different from today. Even if we do not make changes to our lives to mitigate climate change, climate change will force us to change eventually – though the impacts of ‘change’ may be felt by different generations. We also argue that these kinds of forced changes would be much more severe, much larger, and would last much longer than the ones we propose in ZCB.

      A couple of ‘ZCB and’ papers may of interest to you. ‘ZCB and Rural Britain’ describes the differences between rural and urban populations in terms of energy use and greenhouse gas emissions (measuring ‘per capita’ we find in many cases that urban populations are actually more efficient), and also identifies a number of improvements to rural living that could be supported through a ZCB-like transition – better transport links for example. ‘ZCB and farmers’ highlights some of the personal points of view of farmers about the types of changes we propose in ZCB. We also share many of your concerns about farming and rural communities (we live in one!), but believe there are significant opportunities for rural communities in ZCB, and that we needn’t ruin rural lifestyles and communities and that we must be careful of this in the transition. We do not, in any way, propose a mass land clearance of the countryside. Some jobs would remain in food production and even livestock rearing, but we also believe that other jobs would emerge to support local communities – a more diverse range of jobs even, including those in energy production (see ‘ZCB and wind energy in Wales’), for example. Different, yes, but we might argue more supportive of rural communities than destructive.

      With regards to population, hopefully the following examples will straighten out a couple of misconceptions. We do not import meat (or feed for meat) in the ZCB scenario, or use GM crops. In fact, food imports are decreased in the scenario in total. We feed our population using much less land than we do currently because plant-based protein sources use so little land in comparison to meat. Our research shows that if we all ate a healthier and more balanced diet, then our environmental impact would be lower, and the amount of land we’d need would also be lower. It is likely that if we in the West consumed just what we needed, then there would be more than enough land to feed even a growing population. The same applies to energy use. The project ‘Energy Futures’ uses the reduced energy demand of the UK in ZCB (about a 60% reduction in energy use for the UK through insulation of buildings and electrification of transport, for example) as a proxy for ‘energy required for a decent standard of living’. Multiplied up to the global population, and comparing to analyses of how much renewable energy could be supplied globally, then we find, again – if we in the West are more sensible – that there is more than enough to go around, even with a growing population. So, it is more the inequality in distribution of resources that we find to be the problem, rather than the sheer population itself. Just as you highlight the difference between rural and urban communities, we also have to be aware of the differences between Western populations as the other parts of the world.

      There are lots of other things I would be happy to discuss with you, but I don’t think there is enough space in a blog post comment I’m afraid! It might be better to continue the discussion by email – info[@]

      Also, we would very much like to work more closely with the NFUS – please do put us in touch.

      Alice (ZCB Research co-ordinator and Communications officer)

  • energy

    Firstly, disclaimer: am a biomass researcher, so expect such bias!

    I will decline to comment about alleged climate change and the proposed benefit of burning biomass compared to fossilised biomass.

    What are the definitions of “carbon-rich” and “carbon-poor”?

    The UK developed on the basis of deforestation; to tell poor countries that they should remain economically poor is not realpolitik. One could argue that agriculture ruins natural landscapes; who should starve?

    Unfortunately, biomass usage is inherently exploitative. Is it right to use precious land beyond the UK to cater for British food demand?

    Biomass is the most complicated of renewable energy resources, because it is at the centre of the land-water-food-energy nexus. Most analyses of biomass fail to account for this, usually being biased towards one aspect of this nexus depending upon the author/audience.

    For the UK, electrical power sources should most probably derive from marine: wind and tidal technologies; what is the most sustainable source of power to balance intermittency?

    Agree that the first source of baseload electricity supply should be indigenous biomass. Sustainability criteria should be freely published for periodic review and scrutiny. The sustainability criteria should then be compared to other international measures; criteria for UK is most likely to be not appropriate for others. However, should this biomass be reserved for other uses such as feed to livestock, or timber for sustainable construction? What takes priority? Should priorities be fixed or dynamic?

    Biomass electricity should only be provided in the form of at least cogeneration, and in trigeneration infrastructure within cities. Electricity-only biomass generation should be prevented.

  • toe knee bart feld

    UK Pennines were once forested until 3,500 years ago so why are the unemployed NOT being given a future in this world and replanting & maintaining the forests & helping avoid the fires ( whenever some nut wants infamy Greece , States Oz , Indonesia etc ) They are doing a great job for the Curlews ,Grouse etc but where is the CO2 being turned into WOOD that makes homes , sheds etc . When @ skool misandrysts etc taught us TREES make Oxygen from Carbon Dioxide , well they don’t , Trees / plant life turns CO2 into Hydrocarbons / carbo-hydrates while the OXYGEN comes from rain water so if your not reforesting your not stopping the run off & floods & building the carbon store / peat ! Wutz the game saving the work for mo’ money ?