Biomass and Biofuels: Making the climate crisis worse, not better
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 fed. More than half of rapeseed oil consumed in Europe is burned to fuel vehicles.
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.
You can also view our past biofuel campaigns page here.