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Biomass: the future of green energy or greenwashing? 

Updated: Jul 3, 2023

Merry investigates the impacts of the controversial use of biofuels on communities, public health and the environment, and assesses whether it can be the future of sustainable energy.

Internationally, biofuels have been presented as a solution to the energy crisis. Biofuels encompass any liquid fuel that comes from biological matter (trees, agricultural waste, crops etc). Governments and corporations around the world have offered them up as a sustainable energy solution that can aid a transition to renewable energy whilst providing jobs to local communities. However, they are also a highly controversial fuel, with NGOs, scientists and local communities opposing them around the world. Reasons for opposition include harmful impacts on health, local and indigenous communities, biodiversity, increased flood risks, land grabs, food insecurity and high carbon emissions.

If much of the UKs transition to ‘green’ energy is based on biofuels, and these are the consequences, how sustainable is this? Are biomass solutions fundamentally based upon displacing harm to other communities? Can they play a role in the transition to green energy?

Drax Power Station in Selby, Yorkshire. Image credits: Andrew Whale

Located in Yorkshire, Drax Power Group is the world’s largest biomass burning plant, reliant upon wood pellets, and one of Britain’s key suppliers of renewable energy. Biomass alone makes up 20% of the UKs renewable energy supply. In the last year Drax received £832 million in renewable subsidies from the UK government, which works out to roughly over £2 million per day, or over £10,000 every 10 minutes.

Proponents of the biofuel industry argue this is a step in the right direction towards a carbon neutral future. However, Drax’s own stats suggest they’re the UKs single largest carbon emitter and NGOs, indigenous and local groups have argued that Drax is in fact further contributing to climate and ecological breakdown. Their supply chain logging practices have also been linked to environmental racism and harmful health impacts on local communities and workers. This is to say that their wood pellet production facilities are primarily located in environmental justice communities: where the poverty level is above the state medium and over 25% of the population is non-white. Biomass is also one of the highest carbon emission forms of biofuel; however, due to a carbon counting loophole, emissions from the supply chain are not counted in their emissions allowing them to be counted as carbon neutral and receive renewable subsidies.

In 2021, in a move widely opposed by NGOS, forest and indigenous communities, Drax purchased Pinnacle Pellets: a logging group based in Canada. Land Pinnacle Pellets intend to, or is logging, lies within Canada’s boreal forest which is highly biodiverse and home to over 600 Indigenous communities. Pinnacle Pellets is known for clear-cutting boreal old growth forests in Canada, which are part of unceded indigenous lands and heavily linked to indigenous cultures. Biofuels have been linked to the displacement of indigenous and local peoples for many years. It is important to note the UK government’s role in this: their subsidies are effectively funding these activities.

At COP26, hosted in Glasgow, one of the key policies that came from it was governments committing to halting deforestation and engaging in reforestation by 2030, seen by many as the most encouraging part of COP26. However, ‘legal logging’ was excluded from this declaration – a prime mode of biomass creation that Drax and Pinnacle Pellets rely on. Alongside this, Drax held its own series of events at COP26 centred around biomass as the future of sustainable energy, with the CEO of Drax Will Gardiner speaking on COP26 panel events. This led to the ‘Glasgow Declaration on Sustainable Bioenergy: Sustainable Bioenergy at the Heart of Global Net Zero,’ signed by major players in the biomass industry including Drax. Meanwhile, Drax is being prosecuted in the UK after allegations that dust from its wood pellet production is harming workers’ health.

Clear-cutting of old growth forest in Canada. Image credits: TJ Watts

Research suggests that biomass logging sites and processing plants, including those used by Drax’s suppliers, are disproportionately placed in environmental justice communities. These processing plants are linked to a wide range of health concerns particularly due to the high levels of air pollution caused by them. The clear-felling of forests (such as by Pinnacle Pellets in Canada) results in biodiversity and habitat loss, job losses from those working in the forest, an increase in flood risks and harm to local communities reliant on those forests – particularly when their cultures are entwined with that land.

This is not to say that all forms of biomass energy are inherently harmful. Research from Stand.Earth has shown that on a community level Indigenous-led projects use biomass for fuel in a more sustainable way; which is combined with forest management and stewardship. This suggests that biomass use and production is not inherently ecologically destructive: it is when it is done on a global scale that it causes harm to local and Indigenous communities.

The UKs heavy reliance on biofuels as its main source of ‘renewable energy’ suggests it is important to interrogate the impacts of the UKs transition to renewable fuel on both people and planet and place this within a wider international context. On a global scale governments are claiming that they are moving towards a net-zero future, however, there are questions that must be asked about the harm caused by this transition – and whether it is as ‘green’ as they claim. The production of biomass, seen here in relation to Drax, appears to rest upon encroachment of Indigenous land and harm to local communities.

If biofuels continue to be Britain’s main method of decarbonization this will inevitably lead to an increased demand for biomass: pushing corporations to engage in more logging and clear-felling of primary forests. The UK must come to terms with the fact that our modes of decarbonization have dubious environmental credentials. If we want to move towards an environmentally just future, surely this cannot rest upon harm to indigenous people, local communities or workers.

About the author: Merry is a community organiser and activist involved in a variety of campaigns across the North, with a particular interest in climate and justice. She is currently studying a Masters degree in Political Ecology and is the News and Politics Editor for WILD.

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