Responding to the Biomass delusion

Introduction:

With the COP 26 conference currently being held in Glasgow coming to a close sustainability has been a topic at the tip of many industries tongues. The word ‘COP’ stands for ‘Conference of the Parties’. In the climate change sphere, ‘the Parties’ are the governments which have signed the UN Framework Convention of Climate Change (UNFCCC). The COP brings these signatory governments together once a year to discuss how to jointly address climate change. The global aim of this conference has been to accelerate action to tackle the climate crisis through collaboration between businesses and civil society.  Countries are being asked to come forward with ambitious 2030 emissions reductions targets that align with reaching net zero by the middle of the century. One issue that is being regularly discussed in order to achieve these goals surrounds sources of heat and energy production.

Fossil fuels comprise 80 per cent of current global primary energy and heat demands, and the energy system is the source of approximately two thirds of global CO2 emissions. This why alternatives are being constantly discussed and reviewed to replace this reliance on C02 producing fuels. For the duration of the COP 26 conference renewable resources such as wind generators and solar photovoltaics have been highly praised and hydrogen and nuclear alternatives are also being highlighted as future solutions. Although each of these substitutes has faced opposition and criticism, we have noted that Biomass solutions have been particularly targeted.  Activists such as Greta Thunberg have publicly stated that they believe the concept of Biomass is Green Washed. We believe the misconception and generalisation of these claims could negatively impact a very viable green solution.

What is the Green Washing and how this linked to Biomass?

Green Washing is a term usually used in the world of business defined as the ‘behaviour or activities that make people believe that a company is doing more to protect the environment than it really is.’ At its worst, this means companies making straight-up false claims about the sustainability of their products. At best, its brands misunderstanding the science of sustainability, or the reality of things like their supply chain. Greta and other activists have likened this to the sustainability impact of Biomass. Their claims cast doubt that forests can be replaced quickly enough to absorb the carbon emissions required to slow the climate crisis. Resultingly, they believe it should not be considered an applicable solution to improve our climate standing.

In response we understand that like any solution, Biomass is not without its own shortcomings. This is especially the case when utilising it as a fuel for energy production at sites such as Drax’s Selby power plant. In principle the burning of biomass to generate electricity is “carbon neutral” because the emissions from incinerating wood pellets are offset by the carbon dioxide absorbed when the trees they are made from grow. Also, by using new technology to capture the carbon emissions from the biomass power plant, the company could effectively create “negative carbon emissions”, according to Drax. However, as activists have identified this is flawed. The flaw is not fundamentally owing to the burning of the biomass itself but how Drax source their Biomass pellets. In 2020, 63% of the pellets burned by Drax were imported from the south-eastern US. In addition to those 4.68 million tonnes, Drax also burned 1.23 million tonnes from Canada and 836,542 tonnes from the Baltic States, as well as smaller quantities from Portugal, Brazil, Belarus and Russia. This is where green washing comes in. We have highlighted in a previous article that this process fails to be carbon neutral owing to the amount of fossil fuels utilised to import these pellets.

Tackling the misconception

Although we agree at time’s Biomass is not as efficient as it could be, we disagree that Biomass should not be considered a future green solution. The UK’s climate change committee has reinforced this by identifying that Biomass will play a role in reaching climate targets, but only with strict safeguards in place to ensure its sustainability. Systems such as ours for the Woodworking industry can have a massive impact on reducing carbon emissions and unnecessary waste, therefore the positives of Biomass should not be overlooked and disregarded. Especially if we are to work together to reach our national net carbon goals. Unlike Drax the source of the fuel for our Industrial Biomass Burners comes from waste produced on the site they are situated. Millions of tonnes of this waste are still being lorried off to landfill sites and unnecessarily disregarded. Our aim is to move away from this wasteful approach and instead move closer towards a circular economy. A circular economy is a vision of a sustainable society, demanding greater responsibility for sustainable production and the recovery of material value from products at end-of-life. The important change in mindset that comes with a circular economy is that waste management becomes a process of returning resources to use, not just nullifying waste. And this is what our system achieves by utilising the by-product to heat the factory, replacing the need for further combustion of fossil fuels. As well as utilising the by-product effectively it also cuts down on transport of having to take away waste from a manufacturing site for disposal so cutting out emissions from lorries in doing so. Effectively we can not only achieve a carbon neutral result but potentially carbon negative.

What we hoped to achieve through this is to highlight that generalising and negatively reporting on a fuel source such as Biomass could be limiting the good sustainable impact it currently has and the continued positive impact in the future. Hopefully we can strive together to build on this circular economy and help reach our COP 26 targets.

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  • 11 November 2021
  • Fraser Smith