Future of Biomass

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 10:15 pm on 20th February 2012.

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Photo of Graham Stringer Graham Stringer Labour, Blackley and Broughton 10:15 pm, 20th February 2012

I start from the assumption that biomass is a promising technology that could, if handled correctly, help to reduce our net carbon emissions in the context of Government policy. My reservations relate to the air pollution emissions from biomass and to whether we have sufficiently robust sustainability criteria.

In response to a parliamentary question that I tabled, the previous Government revealed in a written answer on 26 September 2009, at Hansard columns 695-96, that the then target of 38 TWh of biomass risked causing £557 million of annual social costs. In blunt terms, that means people dying early because of polluted air. That was supplemented by a written answer to Mr Tyrie on 10 November 2009, at Hansard column 219, that made it clear that the mortality bill would be 340,000 life-years in 2020 alone. By my maths, using those figures, I reckon that a small, 20 MW, biomass plant running at 85% efficiency would kill roughly 17 people a year—and that is just the mortality impact. The Government have made no estimate of the cost of ill health consequent on polluting the air. If the Minister or his Department can find fault with my figures, or perhaps find more precise ones, let us hear them. However, I do not think that one can get away from the central, appalling fact that unabated biomass emissions will kill significant numbers of our fellow citizens, and this as a result of deliberate—or, if not deliberate, negligent—public policy.

A recent report by the Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants, “The Mortality Effects of Long-Term Exposure to Particulate Air Pollution in the United Kingdom”, published on 21 December last year, estimated that the 2008 burden of particulates cost

“an associated loss of total population life of 340,000 life-years…a greater burden than the mortality impacts of environmental tobacco smoke or road traffic accidents.”

That figure is remarkable: it is exactly the level of extra burden to be inflicted on the UK atmosphere by 2020 under originally intended biomass targets. It cannot be right that public policy risks effectively doubling existing mortality rates. In contrast, currently at least in the UK, the mortality and morbidity caused by carbon emissions is presumably nil.

Near my constituency, at Barton, we have had planning permission turned down for a biomass plant that would have contributed significant amounts of particulates—ammonia, oxides of nitrogen and arsenic—to an area already under stress as an officially designated air quality management area. To be fair, the amount of arsenic to be emitted would have been restrained, because the amount of CCA—chromated copper arsenate—wood would have been limited to small quantities contained in demolition rubble. I doubt that constituents were greatly reassured on that count, but why are we allowing such toxic material to be burned in biomass at all? The bigger point is that if we can improve automotive exhausts supposedly to the extent that they can be “cleaner than the air we breathe”, it should not be beyond the wit of man to design a biomass burner that screens out the majority of particulates and therefore does not bring early death and disease to the population at large.