Why are we paying people to burn trees?

The inconsistencies between policy, carbon capture, and forestry biomass leading to ‘deforestation’.

Rebecca Lardeur is part of the first cohort of researchers for Climate and Cities. Since the beginning of 2020, she has been exploring urban trees with a focus on London.

I was at a friendly dinner when I started chatting with Henry*, an ex-employee of an energy company. As I told Henry about my current research on Trees in London, the conversation took an unexpected turn. He told me a story of Russian and Canadian forests being cut down and turned into wood pellets to sell to the UK. He then informed me that the UK government is supportive of this and provides the financial incentives for this to happen. Why? Because of a loose definition of the term ‘green energy’ within governments policy. While a lot of grants are being given to sustainable energy companies, the context and circumstance are currently under-regulated. With incomplete carbon estimations, significant subsidies, cheap supplies, and an ‘eco-friendly’ etiquette it leads to malpractice, paving the way to millions of tons of mature trees being cut down and burned to ashes.

Photo by Rebecca Lardeur

I have been wondering: how could cutting down trees be considered a green source of energy? Why is the UK government paying for it? As my personal work looks at the value of urban trees, this broader mechanics around trees worldwide picked my interest. I started investigating.

The problem seems to originate from language and policy. Deforestation is defined by Forest Research (a UK government body) as the act of “felling woodland to use the land for a different purpose.”. This, in turn, permits the felling of trees without changing the ‘purpose’ of the land, allowing play on the definition of ‘deforestation’. After all, a park is still a park, even if you cut half of its trees.

Biomass energy needs something to burn, and wood is cheap. In my reasoning, the time and benefits involved in the growth of a tree could only be of higher value than providing wood to get charred and leaving behind bare land. But in practice, the time involved in the growth of trees has no financial value. Some commercial foresters might replant young trees, but these will take decades to arrive at the same carbon storage capacities as their elders. It seems contradictory with the goal of green energy supplies to remove or reduce carbon from the atmosphere. In fact, burning wood emits more CO2 per unit of energy than fossil fuels.

You might ask: what is biomass and why is it considered ‘green’ in the first place?

Biomass energy burns down matter such as food waste, leaves, and other organic material to create energy. Its ‘green’ label seems to mostly originate from the perception that it’s less harmful than fossil fuel. The technology itself is ‘sustainable’ until you ask: what gets burned? Where does it come from? How do you define waste?

Photo by Mauro Tandoi on Unsplash

Please let me go into detail about the example my dinner companion shared with me. His example is the Lynemouth Power Station, next to Newcastle Upon Tyne, England. The energy plant is owned by EP UK Investments, part of the EPH Czech-based group. Lynemouth announced that from 2018 it will be purchasing 800,000 tonnes (!!!) of pellets a year from Enviva, a US/Canada-based company. My new friend goes on to say this example is far from unique. For a start, Drax and Grangemouth biomass plants use a similar pattern. Drax is the biggest plant in the UK, burning more imported pellets than any EU country each year.

Let’s note here that the clear demand for cheap biomass sources is led by the British: the UK is the world’s biggest importer of wood pellets for a few years in a row.

Two problems emerge from this. First, the wood pellets themselves, leading to the harvest of healthy and mature trees and damages inflicted to forests. Secondly, the true carbon emissions linked to these mechanisms put into reasonable doubt the ‘green’ energy certificate of biomass energy in practice.

The wood pellets in the Lynemouth case originate from Enviva who log forests in the USA, Canada, the EU and Russia. Different policies apply in each country with the wellbeing of forest’s ecosystems not accounted for. The soil, insects, and birds living in this ecosystem are all part of the carbon cycle. They all live in coexistence with one another, each bringing unique benefits to the forest. In his book, The Hidden Life of Trees, Peter Wohlleben explains the importance of old forests for carbon storage, including all life within it, and warns of the inability of recently-planted forests to cope with climate stresses, endangering the future of forests as we know them (please do read the book if this is of interest to you).

Cutting down healthy trees to ship them across the Atlantic for a cheap price can be considered shocking.

The biodiversity and wellbeing of whole forests are put at risk because of a financial incentive created by policy. Is policy considering the bigger picture?

Photo by gryffyn m on Unsplash

Besides, the calculations of biomass emissions, which have allowed its ‘green’ energy labels, do not take into account the smokestack emissions from burning the fuel and the reduction of the carbon storage capacity of forests. The law only focuses on fossil fuel CO2 emissions from manufacturing and transporting wood pellets. This represents a fraction of the carbon value of burning wood.

Estimations change, capacity fluctuates, and the law is slow to update the numbers it is based upon.

What this tells me is that the ground for considering biomass energy ‘green’ has been overlooked and simplified to the point that this scheme can harm the environment more than it protects it.

I will now share with you what I have learned regarding financial incentives for this biomass energy.

The UK government has put in place funding support for green energy supplies, which biomass falls under alongside solar and wind energy. Lynemouth, for example, is ensured of a fixed megawatt fee by the government through a Contract for Difference (CfD). This contract, to help ‘green energy’ thrive, guarantees the station £105 per megawatt-hour generated, which will increase with inflation (currently £122/MWh). The contract runs for 10 years until 2027. To give you a comparison, the average baseload power price has averaged around £45/MWh across the last 10 years.

If you take the difference between the average power price of £45/MWh and the average guaranteed price for the Lynemouth CfD which is around £125/MWh, the government is agreeing to a subsidy of £80/MWh purchase power from Lynemouth versus the marginal supplier of power on the market. A massive bonus for people cutting trees in the US or Canada to produce energy for the UK while the same UK government has launched a campaign asking citizens to not burn wood in their chimneys during the winter.

Indicatively this means the UK government commits to Lynemouth Power receiving around £277m cash in hand each year, paid for by the taxpayers. There is then a whole other round of complexity with levies and the Low Carbon Contracts Company that I would gladly explain further if, dear reader, you are interested.

What this means is that the government is paying big money to respect sustainable energy goals without questioning in-depth the definition of ‘sustainable’ in the first place. After all, this is ultimately a burden on consumers.

To understand this more fully, I researched the EU policies which the UK has followed. What loophole allowed this?

(Brexit note: the UK has shown interest in continuing with this policy as seen in the England Tree Strategy).

This loophole is made possible through the RED II biomass sustainability criteria. To learn about this, I interviewed Mary S. Booth, the director of Partnership for Policy Integrity, currently working on the EU Biomass Case.

Mary tells me within minutes of our call: ‘the EU claims that the measures (RED II) are protective, are false’. I asked how it was possible for trees being burned to be considered worthwhile. ‘The wood used for biomass is claimed to have a low value’, Mary continues to explain. I am a designer, so hearing this is a hard pill for me to swallow. Material wise, trees have so much to offer. They give out food, wood, and matter (such as leaves) whose decay is key to healthy soil.

The legal case Mary is participating in, argues that wood shouldn’t be counted as renewable energy if the EU’s target for lifecycle assessment costs is taken seriously. This practice is environmentally destructive, as seen above because it destroys whole forest ecosystems and adds more carbon than the calculations disclose.

Mary summarises her argument: ‘Logging and burning forest wood for energy are destroying forests and adding CO2 to the atmosphere. We’d like to see the EU, and other countries promoting bioenergy, stop falsely counting forest wood as ‘zero-carbon’ energy, and reallocate the billions this industry gets in clean energy subsidies to truly clean energy like wind and solar.’

I wish Mary all the best with her legal case. Please click here to read her full report on this.

Why do I care about trees being burned?

My interest started when I took carbon capture as the topic of my master project. I researched the technologies for about a year and arrived at this conclusion: trees are the best carbon capture tools we have. Physically, they require nothing more than soil, sun, and water compared to the metal heavy machinery currently recommended. I am tempted as a designer to focus on wood as a material, but Mary taught me that I couldn’t over-simplify this either. Why would a tree be cut in order for me to design fancy objects? I would prefer to focus on the waste products of trees, such as leaves or needles. I would want to leave as few traces behind me as possible. Or perhaps I could focus on Christmas trees, which will soon be all over our streets after a two weeks usage. We need to remember that trees need time and a lot of it. They grow slowly but surely, easily outliving many human lives.

About two years ago, I met a tree surgeon cutting down a beautiful old London plane tree in White City, London. The tree was big enough to become striking planks of wood, but instead, I could see the tree being shredded down. I asked why, and the tree surgeon told me ‘It is being sent to a biomass plant.’

I was, and still am, astonished. Astonished that this is ongoing even in our cities. I want this to change. I want fewer trees being cut down, starting in the city. This sparks my curiosity and desire to act. I deeply believe we, as a society, need to first fundamentally change our relationship with trees.

The idea of care is something that always seems present. Why do I care, I have been asked. Why should someone else care, was asked as well. And what about trees? In the city, trees need care too. They need to be watered during the hot seasons as cement doesn’t allow for water storage. They need support when animals attack them because the usual protection network they rely on in forests is not present. Peter Wohelleben refers to urban trees as orphans. So these are now the questions I want to get down to: Why and how should care be present? Is care also a form of control?

I look forward to replying to these questions. Until I do, I hope the above will intrigue you, dear reader.

*The identity of this friend will be kept private

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Climate and Cities

Climate and Cities

Climate and Cities is a creative collective, established in 2019, focused on crafting new narratives to directly engage the public with the climate emergency.