Latest News - BBC coverage of sustainability concerns about biomass heating

BBC coverage of sustainability concerns about biomass heating
Thu, Mar 10, 2011
On 10th March 2011 Radio 4's Today Programme interviewed its environment analyst Roger Harrabin on the launch of the renewable heat incentive (RHI).


The RHI is the Government’s attempt to reduce the carbon emissions attributable to heat production, which analysts say are greater than those attributable to electricity generation. Providing long-term financial support to renewable heat installations, it is hoped the scheme will encourage the uptake of renewable heat. However, although the aims of the policy seem environmentally credible, the Today Programme’s coverage of the RHI announcement highlighted crucial sustainability concerns.


Government says it has sustainability rules that will apply to this scheme, so as not to take out virgin land, but Roger Harrabin raised an additional problem. Double-counting of land when assessing potential biomass availability is currently confusing understanding of just how much land there is available. In turn, the multiple counting of the amount of land that we have to grow forests for heating or other energy needs is starting to mirror anxieties over ‘peak oil’.   Mr Harrabin questions whether the matter is becoming a question of reaching ‘peak land’. Of equal concern is the prospect of reaching ‘peak wood’, the mainstay of biomass demand.


Biomass plants are proliferating across Europe, subsidised by governments reaching for ambitious energy targets. The combined biomass demand for EU member states – declared in their national renewable energy plans – is just short of a 1 billion tonnes of wood every year. This level of demand would require the total global harvest of wood to increase by a third. The Wood Panel Industries Federation (WPIF) questions whether such an increase in the global harvest is possible. If not, the UK Government and its counterparts should take a long hard look at whether their investment in big biomass is sustainable. 


It is worth considering the lessons learned from first generation biofuels. Environmentalists now question whether biomass demand will turn out to be as unsustainable and environmentally damaging as the Government’s foray into biofuels, where the clearing of rain forests to fuel cars with palm oil proved highly controversial.




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