Forest biomass has been mislabelled as a carbon-neutral energy source, said speakers gathered at a COP 26 side meeting who urged governments to stop subsidizing power plants that say they have gone green by replacing coal.
“Forest biomass is criminally harmful in so many ways,” said Maya Menezes, senior forests campaigner with Stand.earth. Public energy from forests “must not be used by major fossil fuel companies looking to turn a buck and trying to manipulate the public panic (over climate change) into a subsidy scheme that it will take precious years to disentangle ourselves from.”
“Standing and intact forests are the best offence and defence for climate catastrophe,” she added. “Betting our lives on potential carbon capture systems that are not yet operational but hypothetical” is not a path forward.
Speakers at the session on “Beyond Burning, Beyond Biomass” directed criticism at the 4,000-MW Drax power station in England, which uses biomass to reduce its carbon footprint by 80% compared to coal, with the company claiming to be the largest source of renewable energy in that country. It shuttered its two coal units in March, 2021, and continues to insist that it will become carbon neutral, although it burns 25 million trees per year and receives an annual subsidy of £1 billion, according to statements during the session.
Investors have dropped the company from their clean energy listings, added Toby Aykroyd of Wild Europe, who noted the growing public awareness of the climate, biodiversity, and health impacts of burning biomass. Taxpayer groups are also concerned that government subsidies are “misspending scarce resources on high-carbon energy that actually worsens climate change.”
Sweeping government agreements to protect forests at COP 26 “ring hollow when, in reality, forests are more at risk than ever” from the expansion of forestry biomass, explained moderator Tegan Hansen of Stand.earth. Calling biomass a renewable energy represents an enormous threat, elevating a false climate solution that receives major subsidies from many countries, she said.
Forests in the European Union are in dire condition despite misleading land use statistics which show more tree coverage, said Zoltan Kun of Griffiths University. The data capture only the size of forest, not the quality of the trees. Scientific reports show that only 14% of EU forests are in favourable conservation status, with only 2% of boreal forests in good shape.
The session concluded with questions on how to reduce the import of biomass into the EU, reduce the level of corporate and government greenwashing over the impact of biomass energy, and plug loopholes in the definition of carbon neutrality. “We are fighting an absolutely expert executive public relations campaign that has been funded by millions of taxpayer dollars,” Menezes said, adding that the biomass and fossil fuel industries are using the same approach to sway public opinion on their value.
“It may take years to convince governments to remove their funding from this industry, which will take us well past 1.5°, and we do not have that time,” she stressed.