Sustainable Energy Generation: Burning Trees Debate

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Sustainable Energy Generation: Burning Trees

Sally-Ann Hart Excerpts
Tuesday 6th December 2022

(1 year, 7 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Sally-Ann Hart Portrait Sally-Ann Hart (Hastings and Rye) (Con)
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It is a pleasure to speak under your chairship, Mr Grey. Burning trees for energy generation in the UK has been somewhat disguised as a sustainable and climate-friendly practice that will help us achieve our 2050 net zero goals. I therefore congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby) on bringing this important matter forward for debate, because the sad reality is that the UK burns more wood in large-scale electricity production than any other country in the world, even though burning forest biomass actually emits more carbon than burning coal per unit of energy produced. Forests and ecosystems across the globe, including protected nature reserves, are being harmed by our demand for wood pellets. That is devastating for our planet and runs counter to our nature and biodiversity commitments.

As we are all aware and as many have mentioned, the recent BBC “Panorama” documentary on the sustainability of biomass power generation discovered that Drax, a UK-based company that apparently engages in renewable power generation, bought licences to cut down two areas of environmentally important forest in western Canada for wood pellets. That is a tragedy, as much of those forests is old growth and cannot be replaced. They store massive amounts of carbon and they have never been logged before. They are not regarded as a sustainable source for energy, and any replanted trees will almost certainly never capture as much carbon as the previous forest. Cutting down British Columbian rainforests is just as bad as what is happening in the Amazon. I know British Columbia very well; I have family there. The rainforest and the sea-to-sky highway are magnificent. It is the wildest environment possible, and it needs to stay that way.

The UK is Europe’s top subsidiser of biomass energy, giving over £1 billion a year to large biomass-burning power stations. Drax receives more biomass electricity subsidies from the UK than from any other country. That prompts the question: should the UK Government really be subsidising that, when we are supposed to be setting an example to the rest of the world in our fight against climate change?

Currently, the CO2 released from biomass energy is released into the atmosphere. In future, infrastructure may be added to power stations to capture and store the CO2, in a process known as bioenergy with carbon capture and storage. However, the level of BECCS set out in the net zero strategy could cost an estimated £78 billion by 2050. That is a staggering figure for a source of energy that is harmful to our planet, even with carbon capture technologies. There are clearly far cleaner, cheaper and sustainable sources of energy, such as wind and solar, that the Government should be using that money for instead.

It is clear that burning trees for energy generation in the UK is not economically sensible or environmentally friendly. However, I believe that in some circumstances burning wood is a sensible practice. Many people in my constituency burn logs for heating in open fires or wood-burning stoves. It is a vital form of heating for many, especially those in rural areas. Wood burners are cheaper to run than oil, gas and electricity, and can reduce a home’s heating costs by 10%. As long as the wood is not from primary woodland—as those trees are more efficient at sequestering carbon than newly planted trees—and the wood itself is unsuitable for wood products, I believe that wood-burning stoves are a viable option for homeowners, especially if they live off grid.

There is no doubt that we need to protect our forests, such as the ancient woodlands of Ladywell wood, Guestling wood and Brede High woods found in beautiful Hastings and Rye. However, coppicing is necessary. Coppiced wood can be used locally in rural areas to heat homes, as long as the logs are kiln-dried or hard wood. It is therefore vital that people who use log burners stick to the wood-burning stove regulations and use the right wood.

In the medium to long term, we need to move away from burning wood, especially for energy generation. Climate Minister Lord Goldsmith stated at COP26 that the UK has “real problems” with burning wood for electricity. Similarly, in August this year, when my right hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne (Kwasi Kwarteng) was Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, he admitted that it makes no sense to import US pellets to burn, and that the Government have not fully investigated the sustainability of burning wood pellets.

We depend on forest and woodland for our survival, from the air we breathe to the wood we use. Besides providing habitats for animals and livelihoods for humans, forests offer watershed protection, prevent soil erosion and mitigate climate change. It is crucial that we protect our forests. We should not cut them down and allow them to disappear, no matter where in the world they are.