Biomass and biofuels: Making the climate crisis worse, not better

Take action to stop burning trees for UK power

We've long campaigned alongside our friends in Biofuelwatch and the Stop Burning Trees coalition against the destructive practice of importing of vast quantities of wood to burn in UK power stations - subsidised by billions in public money.

Write to your MP asking them to stop the new subsidies for burning trees in UK power stations

The UK Government has just announced proposals to use our energy bills to give huge new subsidies to fund tree burning at power stations like Drax in Yorkshire and Lynemouth in Northumberland.

So far Drax power station alone has been paid a total of £6.5 billion in government subsidies for burning imported wood for energy, claiming this is environmentally sustainable. But lifecycle analysis debunks these claims as does evidence from communities where the wood is sourced and processed - much of the wood comes from the clear-felling of some of the world's most biodiverse forests in the Southern USA, Canada, Estonia and Latvia.

Back in 2018, the government seemed to be cooling on biomass, halting new subsidies for new biomass burning. Existing subsidies to Drax are due to end in 2027. However, Drax has found a means to keep the money flowing, by promising to deliver Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS) - burning wood and capturing resulting emissions underground. 

BECCS is unproven, has not been demonstrated anywhere at scale, is unlikely to reduce carbon in the atmosphere and would be extremely costly. But after a year-long planning process, the government has given the green light to Drax’s carbon capture proposal for two of its large biomass units.

Now the government wants to extend subsidies for biomass burning after 2027. This could cost the public over £4 billion (if extended for only 3 years) or £12 billion if extended to 2035. The ‘transitional’ subsidies are supposed to be temporary until carbon capture technology is available, but there is no end-date for the subsidies and no binding obligation for generators to develop carbon capture. If approved, Drax, and Lynemouth could receive subsidies just for promising to build BECCS in the future, regardless of whether they follow through with those plans

We will always campaign about the inadequate ambition or urgency of climate action, but it is just as important that subsidies and support are directed to real action and not greenwash.

Further reading:

Our greenwash campaign page

Photo credit: Crispin Hughes

Burning trees: worse than coal for the climate?

Burning wood for fuel is often seen as 'renewable' energy but in fact the climate impacts are significant. When cutting down trees to burn, the rate of CO2 emissions are not matched by forest regrowth: it can take between thirty five to fifty years for new trees planted now to offset the carbon released by harvesting and burning the forests that preceeded them, nor is this regrowth guaranteed in many cases.

The largest burner of biomass in the UK, and in fact in the world, is Drax power station in Yorkshire, which burnt pellets made from 16.6 million tonnes of wood in 2021 - a million more tonnes than the UK produces in a single year. Far from being offcuts, as Drax claims, most of the wood pellets are imported from North America, with a significant proportion coming from clear-cutting highly biodiverse coastal wetland forests. Others come from pine monocultures which have replaced what were once biodiverse and thriving forests.

Drax is only able to survive due to large renewable energy subsidies of over £2 million each day, which enable it to continue being the largest burner of coal and emitter of CO2 in the UK. Through their #AxeDrax campaign, Biofuelwatch are working to end these damaging biomass subsidies, campaigning for proper support for truly renewable technologies such as wind and solar, and energy efficiency.

Find out more about the UK biomass industry.and about Drax.

BURNED: Are Trees the New Coal? (30-minute broadcast version, cc English & German) from Marlboro Productions on Vimeo.

Below is the discussion from the Campaign against Climate Change webinar, 9 June 2020, with two of the film's US filmmakers, Lisa Merton and Chris Hardee. Along with Biofuelwatch campaigner Pete Deane and Sam Mason from PCS Union and host Suzanne Jeffery from Campaign against Climate Change, they discuss what we can learn from the film, and how campaigners can help redirect the massive subsidies currently being diverted from true renewables to an industry that damages the climate.

'Sustainable Aviation Fuels'

These are promised to be the solution to the aviation industry's growing carbon footprint. But the claims don't stack up. This useful factsheet from Stay Grounded provides context to plans to use biofuels to power aircraft.

Biofuels and the global food crisis

Agrofuels (biofuels from intensive agriculture) are increasingly being burned as a supposedly 'green' alternative to fossil fuels. However, because of emissions from deforestation and intensive agriculture, they can be even more damaging to the climate as coal, oil and gas.

Palm oil is one of the most notorious - as well as an ingredient in food, it is also being used in biodiesel in the EU, ironically in an attempt to lower carbon emissions, despite the devastation palm oil plantations have caused, being linked to mass burning of Indonesian forests which have made Indonesia the third largest carbon emitter in the world.

There is currently a global food crisis, with Russia's war on Ukraine pushing up prices, particularly of wheat and vegetable oils. This is hitting hardest in areas already affected by conflict, economic crisis and climate change. However about 18% of the world’s vegetable oils – nearly all fit for human consumption – are used for biodiesel. According to recent calculations, if the land used to grow UK's bioethanol alone were instead used for food crops, an extra 3.5 million people a year could be fedMore than half of rapeseed oil consumed in Europe is burned to fuel vehicles.


You can also view our past biofuel campaigns page here.