Sustainable Energy Generation: Burning Trees — [James Gray in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall at 9:30 am on 6 December 2022.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of James Gray James Gray Conservative, North Wiltshire 9:30, 6 December 2022

We will start the debate in a moment. However, as I think Members know, there will shortly be a fire alarm test or something to that effect. When that occurs, I will simply suspend the sitting, and we will then take the instructions of the Doorkeepers and process out into Westminster Hall proper.

I adjure everyone to get back into the Grand Committee Room as soon as we are allowed to do so by the authorities so that we can resume the debate, because there will be no injury time at the end of the debate and therefore we will have to pack, I think, 12 or 13 speakers into the hour or perhaps hour and a quarter that will be left to us.

That said, we have now gone 45 seconds beyond the time at which I was told the fire alarm would occur, so the Doorkeepers might like to advise us. Perhaps the fire alarm is not happening. In that case, I call Selaine Saxby to move the motion.

Photo of Selaine Saxby Selaine Saxby Conservative, North Devon 9:31, 6 December 2022

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the sustainability of burning trees for energy generation.

It is a pleasure to serve under you in the Chair, Mr Gray. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for finding time for this important debate.

In my mind, today’s debate is about changing scientific understanding as we decarbonise our energy supply. The burning of wood as a renewable energy source has been adopted by the UK and the EU as a sustainable option to replace coal. In the UK, we subsidise the use of biomass to generate energy by £1 billion. However, in recent years, scientists and industry have raised serious concerns about the actual benefit of burning wood for energy. I secured this debate so that we can have a discussion about how taxpayers’ money is being spent and whether, at this time of global energy disruption, we are investing in the best forms of energy generation for our planet and for our energy security.

Biomass became prominent when coal-fired power stations were converted into biomass power stations. That was subsidised to aid the phase-out of coal and originated at a time when biomass was cheaper than renewables such as wind and solar and had perceived additional benefits, such as providing consistent, reliable power. Now, however, Drax is the UK’s biggest single-point source of carbon dioxide emissions. Because of the technology installed, the power station must run predominantly on wood pellets and has only limited capacity for non-woody biomass such as energy crops and organic waste.

The whole lifecycle emissions of CO2 per kWh are 41 grams for solar, 11 to 12 grams for wind and 948 grams for coal. For forest biomass, they are 1,079 grams. That is far from the assumed carbon-neutral outcome. The UK produces roughly 12% of its energy from biomass and 3% from coal. The UK’s carbon emissions have not dropped at the same rate as our reduction of coal would indicate. The reality is that more carbon is being put into our atmosphere currently than when we were burning coal.

The difference between the idea that burning wood for energy is renewable and the reality comes from two misrepresentations. Both come about from the wrong approach to the accounting for the carbon output. The emissions from cutting down trees are attributed to the land-use sector rather than the energy-generation sector. As we import the majority of our wood pellets, we are exporting our carbon emissions. Although that may look good, it does not achieve anything, as we all share our atmosphere and the effects that carbon emissions cause.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change allows such zero-rating of emissions based on the idea that every tree will be replanted and its replacement will harness the same level of carbon as its predecessor; unfortunately, that has proven not to be the case. Many studies have shown that the carbon payback times for forest biomass are decades or centuries away, depending on the type of forest cut down to produce the wood pellets.

We are entering a crunch point in our work to limit the effects of climate change, with tipping points in the melting of sea and glacial ice, sea-level rises, ocean acidification, permafrost melt and the Amazon biome. We do not have the time to wait decades or centuries for the carbon to be reabsorbed and sequestered; nor does such an approach fit in with the goal of carbon neutrality by 2050.

Trees only grow in their carbon-storing potential as they age. There is a very minimal decline in their efficiency as they photosynthesise and store CO2 from the atmosphere, but that decline is far outweighed by their sheer size and capacity. A study carried out by 38 researchers across 15 countries measured 400 species across six continents. It found that 97% of trees grew more quickly as they aged and absorbed more carbon year on year. If a tree’s diameter grows 10 times as large, it will undergo a hundredfold increase in leaf mass and an increase in leaf area of between fiftyfold and a hundredfold.

Our forests are still the largest remover of carbon, and one study found that, across forests of all ages and types around the world, half the carbon is stored in the largest 1% of trees when measured by diameter. As trees age, they also store more carbon in the soil, so we are looking at not just our canopy but the carbon stored in the earth itself, much as we need to consider our peatlands and the blue carbon stored in the seabed.

The other issue with the accounting of emissions from the burning of biomass for energy is the carbon associated with the supply chain for sourcing the wood pellets required. The industry sources wood pellets from North America, eastern Europe, the Baltics and, historically, Russia. Covid and the war in Ukraine have significantly disrupted supply chains and put more pressure on available forests. Drax sources most of its wood pellets from North America. A BBC “Panorama” documentary has cast doubt on the claim that it just uses waste wood and has suggested that primary forests are harvested and timber- quality wood burned as biomass.

The Dogwood Alliance in Mississippi has been tracking the logging of forests in the south-eastern United States and the conversion of whole trees into wood pellets. The south-east is one of the most biodiverse areas of the United States, and another downside to the burning of wood for energy is the fact that such older and more mature forests are home to a greater diversity of flora and fauna. The wood pellets are shipped to the United Kingdom on enormous vessels that are in transit for 21 days. Drax receives 17 wood pellet deliveries a day, and the plant operates 24 hours a day, six days a week. The energy required to transport the pellets adds to their lifecycle emissions and uses up the very fossil fuels the pellets are supposed to replace.

This is not an attempt to discredit one company; it is about us better understanding what is going on in the name of renewable fuels and asking that a more rigorous analysis of the carbon cost of this form of power production be fully conducted—at one level, it makes sense because trees grow back—before we assume that we really are moving to a lower-carbon-generating fuel supply and that any subsidy that supports that reflects the true carbon cost of what is supposed to be carbon neutral.

I want to raise concerns about the industry’s efforts to store more carbon in an attempt to deliver negative emissions and remove carbon from the atmosphere. Although that is a laudable goal, and the bioenergy with carbon capture and storage—BECCS—system is included in the United Kingdom’s net zero pathway, it is important to note that it is based on the flawed accounting that calls burning biomass carbon neutral. It involves a number of risks and barriers.

BECCS is the process of capturing and permanently storing underground the carbon emitted by biomass energy generation. The carbon capture rate is not 100%. Research from Chatham House indicates that it is about 76%, and energy needs to be expended to maximise capture. The options are to maximise power generation or to maximise carbon dioxide capture.

The process would also be incredibly expensive—power stations are seeking new subsidies to develop BECCS, and it is projected that it would require £31.7 billion over 25 years, which is equivalent to £500 per person in the United Kingdom—and incredibly land hungry. It would require an area roughly 1.5 times the size of Wales to grow enough bioenergy crops to meet BECCS demand. That is 17% of the United Kingdom’s arable land.

Recently, global events have shown how important a reliable food supply is, and the United Kingdom must not reduce its domestic production of quality produce. There is already the challenge of finding the right balance of land for farming, living, energy production and industry, so using such a large percentage of our land for a form of expensive and unsustainable energy generation would be the wrong approach.

The Climate Change Committee has called on the Government to support domestic biomass supply to meet expected carbon-removal requirements for the industry; however, is that the answer? The United Kingdom is about to face a severe shortage of wood and is one of the least densely forested countries in Europe, at only 13% of land area. The idea that rather than using that wood in industry we should burn it flies in the face of the basics of reducing emissions. At the heart of what we are aiming to do is reducing our use of virgin products, reusing where possible and recycling where not, and looking at using such products for energy generation only once they have become waste.

When we log forests for wood products, the carbon remains sequestered for however long those products last—possibly decades or longer. I declare an interest as chair of the all-party parliamentary group for the wood panel industry. The industry is a UK success story, with gross value added in excess of £850 million per annum and an ability to meet 65% of the UK demand for wood panel products. It supports approximately 7,500 jobs across the UK and has an average salary of £36,000, which is significantly above the UK average. The industry has made great strides in supporting our net zero by 2050 targets and has had some success with efficient and carbon-negative processes.

The wood panel manufacturing sector uses more than 25% of the 11 million tonnes of wood delivered from UK forestry every year. The rise of the wood fuel sector, which itself consumes about 25% of the UK annual wood basket because it is subsidised, has distorted the market and created shortages in domestic supply. Manufacturing operations rely on the sustainable supply of wood materials such as forest roundwood and thinnings, sawmill products, and recycled wood, supplies of which are increasingly restricted, given the fact that the UK will reach peak wood availability in the early 2030s, followed by a forecast sustained drop soon after. We need to plant more trees, especially if we carry on relying on biomass for our energy generation.

The closure of the renewable heat incentive scheme to new entrants in 2021 was a welcome decision. Now is the time to transition to future support schemes that most strategically target taxpayers’ money and ensure a level playing field for all wood users. Will the Minister ensure that when the biomass strategy is released it does not contain a new tariff-based incentivisation scheme similar to the renewable heat incentive? Will he also clarify whether biomass is supported by the contract for difference subsidies? In 2020, the Government announced that they would exclude coal-to-biomass conversion projects from future rounds, starting with allocation round 4.

Photo of Wera Hobhouse Wera Hobhouse Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Transport), Liberal Democrat Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Energy and Climate Change)

Does the hon. Lady agree that it is extraordinary that the biomass industry is asking for a combined CfD that would combine biomass production and carbon capture and storage?

Photo of Selaine Saxby Selaine Saxby Conservative, North Devon

I agree that that is part of the confusion in the entire strategy; we need urgent clarification. In AR4, dedicated biomass with combined heat and power were eligible to compete, although no contracts were awarded. The announcement of AR5, which starts in March 2023, has not come with any clarity on whether biomass will be eligible for that round.

The Government have done great work as we transition to net zero by 2050, but further investment in biomass is clearly the wrong strategy. It not only continues to contribute carbon to our atmosphere when we can now invest in significantly cleaner energy, but takes away from flourishing British businesses and exports our problems overseas. When the biomass strategy is released, I hope that the mounting evidence will be considered and that we can continue to increase investment in more sustainable energy sources rather than pursuing this path.

Photo of James Gray James Gray Conservative, North Wiltshire

I am advised that the fire alarm that may have to occur does not affect Westminster Hall, and our debate can therefore continue as planned.

Photo of Charlotte Nichols Charlotte Nichols Labour, Warrington North 9:43, 6 December 2022

I am glad to be here with you in the Chair, Mr Gray, and I commend Selaine Saxby for securing this important debate.

I do not agree with much that the former Chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng, says, but I could not have put it better than him when he stated that importing US-made wood pellets to be burned for energy is “not sustainable” and “doesn’t make sense”. Rather than talk about biomass, I would rather call it what it is: burning imported forests. It is increasingly clear that this method is expensive, causes pollution and encourages deforestation. At a time when we are waiting for the Government’s delayed consultation on the technical screening criteria that underpin which technologies will be classified as green under the UK taxonomy—and, indeed, for a biomass strategy—it is important that we state clearly that biomass is not a green option at all.

Drax power station is the single largest source of CO2 emissions in the UK. Its entire justification is that the pollutants it releases are matched by equivalent plant and tree regrowth. Some biomass options, such as burning chicken manure, can swiftly be classed as carbon neutral because they would have swiftly decayed anyway, but replenishing burned trees and forests takes many years—even decades. The operating assumption that the trees are replaced as they are destroyed is a false accounting trick. In effect, it greenwashes a destructive and polluting process that will take us dangerously past the ecological tipping point.

Drax burns 27 million trees a year. The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy plans to burn 120 million trees a year by 2050. That is far more than the amount of chicken waste that will be burned and will take much longer to replace. By comparison, the New Forest has 46 million trees; that shows the scale of the importation the process requires. It will add to the carbon cost before the wood is even burned. The wood itself is especially harmful: the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says that burning wood creates 18% more CO2 than burning coal.

We increasingly recognise the damage that centuries of deforestation have done to our planet, environment and biodiversity. The Government’s net zero strategy envisages a bioenergy with carbon capture and storage technology that depends both on burned trees regrowing immediately and on the carbon released being captured from Drax’s chimneys. If both were possible, accountants could tally these as negative emissions, but the calculations do not adequately weigh the costs of deforestation and transport or the opportunity cost of other energy alternatives. It is foolish to lean on an energy source that depends on the mass importation of raw materials from thousands of miles away, especially when doing so is likely to drive up the commodity price of the wood involved.

One of the dangers of investing in such technology is that it may spur other countries to follow suit, which will mean even more rapid deforestation. Biomass is already the most expensive renewable power source, and Drax has received £6 billion in renewable subsidies. Analysis by the climate and energy think-tank Ember found that retrofitting Drax so that it can capture and store the carbon burned would cost the UK taxpayer an estimated £32 billion—more than the cost of building the Sizewell C nuclear reactor. As an unashamed champion of the nuclear sector, and as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on nuclear energy, I would far rather see investment in nuclear, which is a greener, more reliable technology of the future.

Our energy and environmental needs are great, while our resources are limited. Rather than relying on a monopoly supplier of this polluting and expensive technology, we should promote reforestation, not just replenishment, and invest in truly green energy sources such as nuclear, hydrogen and other renewables. Will the Minister commit to ending the double bookkeeping of the carbon savings of biomass? Will he confirm that if the numbers do not add up, biomass will not be part of the green taxonomy and Drax’s contract will not be renewed?

Photo of Peter Bottomley Peter Bottomley Father of the House of Commons 9:47, 6 December 2022

I congratulate my hon. Friend Selaine Saxby and Charlotte Nichols. I will not repeat what they have said; in fact, I will not say very much, because a meeting of the Ecclesiastical Committee means that I must ask people to forgive me for not staying for the winding-up speeches.

First, my key point is that we have had a great transition and need to go on making that transition. I have a list of 34 former power stations in London alone, nearly all of which were powered by coal or oil. We have found other ways of generating our electricity.

Secondly, from when I started to ask the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy for a meeting about Drax and the absurd way in which it was regarded as acceptable renewable power generation, it took nearly a year before we had an informal meeting, part of which was quoted by the hon. Member for Warrington North.

I hope the Government will pay attention. The Minister will have to say whatever the Minister has to say. Ministers sometimes come to meetings like this with a short bat, if I can put it that way, and they may not be able to announce future policy. However, the practice must be that we do not bring in the 27 million trees a year that have been cited and that we find ways to generate carbon-free renewable electricity, rather than electricity that requires subsidies that are currently too high and will be even higher in future.

Photo of Barry Gardiner Barry Gardiner Labour, Brent North 9:49, 6 December 2022

It is a pleasure to join in the debate, and I pay tribute to Selaine Saxby for introducing it. I feel for her: about a decade ago I was in exactly the same position as a Back Bencher trying to tell my Front Bench team that they were mistaken in going down the biomass road. I think the Government are at the point where they will listen; indeed, I hope that is the case because, if they do not, it will make a mockery of all that we are doing on not only climate change but biodiversity.

I say that in the week that COP15—the Convention on Biological Diversity—is due to meet in Montreal. That is significant because the Drax power station is consuming whole trees from primary forests in British Columbia, in Canada. The Canadian Government should look at that carefully because we are talking not just about the case—ably made by the hon. Member for North Devon and my hon. Friend Charlotte Nichols—for looking at what this practice is doing to increase emissions and at whether it can be sustainable in terms of the lifecycle of the trees, but about what it is doing to the wider environment and biodiversity. That is what is so terrifying.

The hon. Member for North Devon was right to speak about our inability to keep on using land in this way to feed a power station such as Drax. She spoke of an area 1.5 times the size of Wales; the figure I have is three times the size of Wales. Whatever it is, it is clear that this biomass cannot be sourced domestically, if this is to go on. More than that, it cannot be utilised because of the water resource required to produce the pellets for Drax.

The Department has been asked what the natural absorption rate of the emitted carbon would be if we replenish those lost resources—that is, if we replace those trees to absorb the emitted carbon. It gave an answer—it was, “We do not hold this information.” Well, other people have calculated it, and it is 190 years. We have seven years left until 2030, when the whole world must be on a declining pathway of emissions, and 27 years until 2050, when we have to achieve net zero. So the timescale—even accepting the principle that this is only about carbon emissions and that this is a cycle—is just too long.

The Government will no doubt talk about how CCS can be married up with BECCS. They will say that if we can capture those carbon emissions, that will make it all right. However, only 44% of emissions released at the Boundary Dam project in Canada were captured. The Government have not been prepared to say that they would hold Drax to what Ember, at least, has said should be the target—95% of emissions captured.

I want to focus on some of the key lies being told by Drax. I say that advisedly, because I have been to Drax and debated many times with its scientists. Over the years, I have tried to listen carefully to what they have said, and I have given them the benefit of the doubt on occasions. We need to transition away from biomass; I do not think we can simply stop it, and I am not saying that the contract should immediately be cut, but it is certainly not right for the Government to provide the £31 billion of additional subsidies entailed by what is now proposed over the lifetime of the project.

Drax says that its responsible sourcing policy means that it avoids damage or disturbance to primary and old-growth forest. That is not true, and the “Panorama” programme ably exposed the fact that it is not true. Drax said that many of the trees it had cut down had died and that logging would reduce the risk of wildfires, which shows just how little it knows about biodiversity, because many forests, particularly on the western seaboard of North America, require fire as a stimulant to the germination process. However, the fire spreads quickly; it does not kill the tree, but it does bring about new growth.

The trees on the entire area covered by the second Drax logging licence have now been cut down. It is simply not the case, as the company said, that the forests have been transferred to other logging licences. It said it does not hold those licences anymore. Again, that was a lie. “Panorama” checked that claim by going to the Government of British Colombia, who confirmed that Drax does still hold those licences. I understand how things progress, and I have no doubt that the company was set up to try to do good. We all thought at that stage that this was really going to be a sustainable way of tackling climate change, but Drax has got further and further into a reality that is now simply leading it to lie to the public. It is time that the Government distanced themselves from that lie.

The company says it uses some logs to make wood pellets, but it claims that it uses only ones that are small, twisted or rotten. I do not know whether Members have ever seen the process of gathering and taking logs from a forest. The idea that somebody is checking whether they are small, twisted or rotten and that only those are taken back to the power station is complete nonsense. However, when the logs get there, they can be sorted, and surveys at the pelletisation destinations show that only 11% of logs delivered to plants in the last year were classified as twisted, rotten or of the lowest quality, and could be used.

I am sorry the Government are now considering a further proposal from Drax. I really hope—not only for climate change purposes, but because of the wider biodiversity impact—that they will think very long and very hard, take notice of what the hon. Member for North Devon and my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North have said today, and just say no. We have to transition away from burning trees. It is a damaging way of using forests, and it cannot be sustained.

Photo of James Gray James Gray Conservative, North Wiltshire

We have 30 minutes until the winding-up speeches and there are six Back-Bench speakers, so taking five minutes each would be a courtesy to each other.

Photo of Pauline Latham Pauline Latham Conservative, Mid Derbyshire 9:58, 6 December 2022

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I congratulate my hon. Friend Selaine Saxby on securing this important debate, and all right hon. and hon. Members who have contributed so far. This is a crucial issue, and the timing of the debate could not be better. The Government intend to publish their biomass strategy shortly, and I am glad we have the opportunity to make our views known to the Minister in the hope of influencing the soon-to-be-published strategy.

In February, I published an article highlighting the problems with biomass, and I will set out the two key points from it. The first reason why we should avoid continued reliance on biomass relates to the financial and economic sustainability of biomass energy production, which Members have talked about. The current energy crisis, coupled with the climate crisis, means that we need to transition to renewable energy as quickly and cheaply as possible. In the context of rising bills, every pound of taxpayers’ money that goes into subsidising energy production must have the maximum effect. When wind and solar power technology were still prohibitively expensive, we were led to believe that biomass was the answer to all our problems—a carbon-neutral solution that was comparatively cheap. However, things have turned out rather differently: currently, we are subsiding biomass energy prices to the tune of £1 billion a year.

Offshore wind power, on the other hand, has been decreasing in price substantially. Since the 2014 contracts for difference auction, the strike price of offshore wind has come down from £155 per MWh to just £37.35 per MWh in 2022. Biomass, meanwhile, remains at over £90 per MWh, and there is no expectation that its price will fall in the years to come; indeed, adding carbon capture and storage to biomass technology will drive the price even higher—never mind the transportation costs. It was not the wrong economic decision in 2014 to favour biomass and to subsidise that technology—it was the best-value renewable option then. However, it would certainly be the wrong decision in 2022, because of the extraordinary improvements that there have been in wind power technology. From a financial perspective, the Government cannot justify subsidising biomass with public money when that money could instead be used to increase the generation of offshore wind.

The second reason why we should not support and encourage biomass over other renewable energy sources is that its renewable credentials are really very weak. Burning wood pellets actually releases 18% more CO2 than burning coal, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change; we only consider it a renewable source because new, replacement trees can absorb that carbon dioxide. However, as has been said, it would take nearly 190 years for the CO2 released by burning trees to be absorbed. At the end of this month, we will have only 27 years left to meet the Government’s target of net zero by 2050, so creating CO2 emissions that will not be absorbed for two centuries should not count as progress towards net zero.

In theory, biomass is not ideal, although it was acceptable when it seemed cheaper than other renewable sources; in practice, it is far worse. The BBC’s “Panorama” exposed some of the practices at Drax’s biomass generation facilities, including that none of the wood burned is from the UK and that that one biomass power station burns the equivalent of half the New Forest every year—27 million trees. The use of farmland and natural habitats for biomass crops takes away from our efforts to restore nature and halt the decline of species by 2030. The World Wildlife Fund estimates that if bioenergy were produced domestically, biomass production would require 30% of UK agricultural land. We would have to replace the food that that land produces with more from abroad, at a time when we already have a problem with our food security.

It is clear that there are serious problems, as well as financial concerns, with biomass as an environmentally sustainable power source. There is no doubt that biomass was useful and important as part of the energy mix in the 2010s, but it is completely wrong now. I hope the Minister will confirm that the Government’s biomass strategy limits the role of biomass to a replacement for fossil fuels, not a competitor for renewable energy transition funding. That means reducing or stopping the subsidies for biomass and putting that money into continuing to support domestic forms of renewable energy production such as offshore wind.

Photo of Wera Hobhouse Wera Hobhouse Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Transport), Liberal Democrat Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Energy and Climate Change) 10:04, 6 December 2022

I congratulate Selaine Saxby on the very good way in which she introduced the debate and on bringing the debate to the Chamber.

Tackling climate change is the most important issue of our time. The IPCC notes that approximately 3.3 billion to 3.6 billion people live in contexts that are vulnerable to climate change. Between 1970 and 2019 the global surface temperature increased at a higher rate than in any period over the past 2,000 years. Since 1950, the global number of floods has increased by a factor of 15 and wildfires have increased by a factor of seven. This year alone, we have seen floods in Pakistan, drought and famine across east Africa and a heatwave in the UK.

There is still time to reduce the worst effects of climate change. The World Bank suggests that up to 260 million people could be forced to move within their countries by 2050, but immediate action could reduce that number by 80%. That urgency is why I cannot support the use of bioenergy. Bioenergy is not a renewable energy source. The low density of wood means that, when burned, it emits more CO2 per unit of electricity than coal. That CO2 can be offset only when new trees regrow, leading a large carbon debt to accrue over decades.

These timescales are much too long to meet urgent carbon budgets. We do not have the time for these emissions to be paid back. Time is not on our side when it comes to the climate disaster. The idea that bioenergy production can offset emissions is based on pure hope. If greenhouse gas removal techniques are not able to balance global carbon budgets, we risk an extra 0.7° to 1.4° of warming above our 1.5° target. That is the issue. We should not take that risk with people’s lives and the health of our planet.

Like fracking, bioenergy production can also be harmful to local communities. The company that runs Drax power station recently paid up to $3.2 million to settle air pollution claims against the wood pellet factories in the US. Residents in Gloster have spoken of their health declining since Drax began operations in the town in 2014. The health issues include breathing difficulties, dizzy spells, rashes, nosebleeds, occasional burning sensations and irritated eyes when standing outdoors.

Converting land to grow crops for bioenergy puts a massive strain on nature, soil and water. Energy crops can displace food production to other locations, putting forests and other natural systems at risk in other parts of the world. Meanwhile, intensive monoculture bioenergy crops rely on fertiliser and pesticide inputs, which harm soil health and nature.

Despite the clear issues presented, the Government continue to massively subsidise industrial-scale bioenergy. Drax receives more than £2 million a day in biomass subsidy, in spite of there being no obvious long-term climate benefit. Let us imagine the difference we could make if the Government put that money into true renewable energy and net zero adaptation. There are 5 GW of onshore wind currently awaiting planning approval, which could be fast-tracked to lower energy bills this winter alone. The UK could develop up to 11.5 GW of tidal stream by 2050, supporting over 14,000 jobs. Weak grid capacity is now the biggest issue holding back renewable energy development, yet the Government continue to stall plans to improve the grid.

Prioritising true renewable projects over bioenergy solutions is a no-brainer, as is the Government starting to subsidise oil and gas production through their windfall tax. I hope they will start to think straight and not force the people they are meant to serve to pick up the dire consequences of their policies.

Photo of Sally-Ann Hart Sally-Ann Hart Conservative, Hastings and Rye 10:08, 6 December 2022

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 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 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.

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Treasury), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Brexit) 10:13, 6 December 2022

I apologise for being about 30 seconds late to the debate. There are a number of reasons why I am interested in the topic. First, the cost of the renewable energy initiative in Northern Ireland was £25 million, yet it led to the collapse of the Executive, no Government for three years and a public inquiry that, in the end, did not come up with any negative recommendations. Yet here we are discussing the initiative as it applies in England—burning wood pellets at a subsidy of £1 billion per year. I ask myself why, if it led to the collapse of Government in Northern Ireland, a public inquiry and a long period of no Government, are we not jumping up and down at the cost of a £1 billion per year subsidy for an RHI scheme?

Secondly, I am keen on protecting the environment yet, as we have heard from speaker after speaker today, we have here a form of renewable energy that destroys the environment. It destroys woodland and the habitat of the animals, birds and flora that rely on that woodland. When we look back at a number of the renewable schemes that we have today, we will ask ourselves why we did not see their environmental impact. I know it is not the subject of our debate today, but if we look at the environmental damage done, for example, to provide windmills in Scotland, some 13 million trees have been torn down already to provide the sites and peatlands have been dug up and huge concrete bases and roads have been put in those upland areas, destroying many of the drainage systems there. In my own constituency, I noticed 3 metres of peat being taken off a hillside at a time when curlew and other birds will be nesting in those hillsides. Many people genuinely believe that we have to go down the road of having renewable energy, but, very often, the focus on it simply being renewable means that we ignore the environmental consequences of such energy provision.

The third reason that we should be concerned about such energy generation is the billions of pounds of subsidies that we have talked about. Who will eventually pay for the increased cost of electricity? It will be the consumer. At a time when we are talking about energy crises and the difficulties people are having in paying their energy bills, many of the schemes we are introducing are adding to the bills of households and industry for energy production. That is why the debate is important.

As many people have pointed out, there is an irony in that if we had produced a similar amount of electricity from coal at the Drax station, we would have had 18% less carbon emissions. Had we used gas, we would have had 50% less carbon emissions. This obsession with moving away from fossil fuels sometimes obscures the very fact that we are not actually achieving our goals.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet

One thing that does not seem to have been taken into account yet is the carbon cost of moving so-called renewable products across the world. Is it not an irony that we are shipping stuff across an ocean into the United Kingdom at a time when we are trying to control the use of domestic carbon products?

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Treasury), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Brexit)

That is another of the ironies in this debate that is being ignored. We ignore the fact that we are taking a forest from one country and bringing it over to burn it in our country, and we are paying the cost of that. I will conclude at this point, but I hope that today generates a wider debate on the whole use of renewable energy.

Photo of Derek Thomas Derek Thomas Conservative, St Ives 10:19, 6 December 2022

I commend my hon. Friend Selaine Saxby for securing this important debate. How we create energy is a hot topic, if you will excuse the pun, Mr Gray. It is vital that Parliament, Government and the broader public hear our concern about burning trees to generate energy.

The Government’s own figure put annual bioenergy emissions at 47 million tonnes of CO2, which is 10% of the UK’s annual greenhouse gas emissions. That is four times greater than those from coal, as Sammy Wilson has just said. The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point about the wider debate on how we balance the needs to protect the environment and biodiversity and for energy to keep us warm and feed us. It is a really big debate that we do not have time for today but it must be had.

I want to focus my remarks on where the best home for carbon is. Some people rightly emphasise that keeping it in the ground is the best place. They want it permanently kept in unused fossil fuels. I would accept this if the alternative were more destructive. Many of us here believe that the best place for carbon is in trees. They not only store existing carbon, but capture more. We and our constituents cannot believe the argument that says that burning those trees and releasing huge amounts of carbon into the atmosphere makes sense. I did not know a great amount about this subject until very recently, but what I have looked at over the last few weeks and what has been said today makes me realise how ludicrous and harmful that argument is. We must find a way to put an end to it.

I would like to speak about a specific store of carbon, where carbon is turned into timber for construction for uses such as building frames and furniture. These are long-term uses for carbon. By making building frames out of timber, we reduce the need for cement and steel, which are both highly carbon-intensive. The problem is that burning trees for energy increasingly takes wood away from use in construction, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon made clear.

Two months ago, the BBC’s “Panorama” reported on the quality of wood being used by Drax in its pellet-making plants in Canada. It found that only 11% was grade 6 or grade Z—the diseased rotten wood that Drax’s PR machine says it uses for pellets. The rest was not waste wood. It could have been used for timber, making things out of chipboard, oriented strand board or other essential sheet building material that stores carbon for the long term. The Telegraph reports that the Government’s current plans for bioenergy would need to burn the equivalent of 120 million trees a year by 2050. We have heard that the entire New Forest has only 46 million trees, so that is the equivalent of burning the entire New Forest every five months. No wonder we import all our wood, but what if other countries did the same?

As my right hon. Friend Boris Johnson noted a couple of years ago, we all live under the same sky. Forests destroyed in Canada for burning in UK power stations have a big impact for all of humanity. Given that so much useful wood is being burned by power stations such as Drax today, what would be the situation if global demand for wood pellets grew by 3,000%, as forecast by Chatham House? If there is not enough waste wood today, better and better grades of wood will inevitably go up in smoke in our power stations. Inevitably, that will drive up the price of timber, forcing builders to use cement and steel.

There is another important point. We talked about the use of wood in building. I came from the construction trade before I entered this place, but in recent years I have learned that the people who produce the panels and sheet material also find a way to use pretty much all their waste wood. There is a real debate about how we use trees, where we use them and what we should be focusing on for carbon capture.

Bioenergy threatens to devour huge quantities of wood needed for construction, land needed for farming and water needed for drinking. It is robbing land needed for human homes as well as habitat for countless species. Bioenergy is not a wolf in sheep’s clothing. It is a monster, as we have heard this morning. Those who gave it birth 20 years ago might have had good motives, but today we must pass its death sentence. It is doing our planet and climate no good whatsoever. We must not forget that it cost UK taxpayers £1.2 billion in 2021 alone to subsidise bioenergy production.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health) 10:24, 6 December 2022

I thank Selaine Saxby for setting the scene so well. I welcome the debate on the potential issues of burning trees. Sally-Ann Hart took a balanced approach to the debate, and I support what she said.

We have to look at the issues from both sides. There are some out there, including many constituents of mine, who use log burners and wood as their primary source of heat. I have an obligation as their Member of Parliament to support those people living in rural areas. On the other hand, there are those who use gas and oil for their primary form of heat but also have log burners purely for the effect. We must have that discussion, as it ultimately impacts on our future and the environment.

Today, I tabled early-day motion 668 on National Tree Week. I am sure that Members who have gathered for the debate will be eager to add their names to it. Let me pose a question. If a farmer or someone like that has a wood burner, and a tree falls over in a storm, do they let it lie? No, they do not; I would not, anyway. I would make sure that it was used, and used in the wood burners of my constituents.

I have often said before that as a farmer—I declare an interest—I am very aware of the importance of our environment and our local agriculture. Indeed, I planted some trees, probably about 20 years ago, on a rocky patch of land subject to flooding. It was not incredibly productive agriculturally, so I planted 3,500 trees. Many farmers do that, as they have been more inclined to understand the benefits it creates.

As I stated earlier, some people use log burners solely to heat their homes, and allowances must be made for that. It might not be the most sustainable way of heating one’s home, but for some elderly people and those who live in rural communities, it is simply all they have known. Who of us in this room cannot be encouraged by the warmth of a real fire, from wood or coal? Let us be honest. If someone cannot see the benefit of it, there is something seriously wrong. That is all I am going to say.

Many shops in my constituency still sell logs; there is a major demand for them. Other households will also use a log burner to heat up their main room in the evenings, as opposed to turning the heating on to heat the whole house. There is a practicality to the process that we must be very aware of.

We have seen the benefits that planting trees brings to our nation. Trees help to purify the air, lower air temperature, sustain wildlife and improve soil quality. Some would argue that going to all of the bother of planting thousands of trees just to cut them down and burn them is a waste of resources, but we have made many commitments to COP26 and COP27 and it is about doing whatever we can to ensure that energy is provided in a sustainable way.

The Woodland Trust, which I have a good working relationship with, has been in contact with me. It made me aware of the damaging effect that biomass energy—the energy that we get from plants and animals—has on our environment, which the hon. Member for North Devon mentioned in her introduction. It stated that its view on forest bioenergy is that, given its often ignored high emissions intensity, its combustion is likely to increase overall carbon emissions, despite the real policy to reduce them by 2050.

I am coming to the end, Mr Gray, but I want briefly to mention that nuclear energy has also become a greater part of the conversation around energy sustainability in recent years. When we hear about nuclear, we often think of Chernobyl and the devastations that it can cause, but we must also think of figures such as the fact that state nuclear energy provided 52% of America’s carbon-free electricity in 2020, making it the largest domestic source of clean energy. We should not write off and ignore nuclear power.

To conclude, this will very much be an ongoing conversation. I respect and understand the benefits of growing trees and using alternative sources, but we must also allow consideration to be given to those who do use logs and log burners as their primary source of heating. We cannot ignore them.

Photo of John McNally John McNally Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Environment) 10:28, 6 December 2022

As always, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I thank Selaine Saxby for her role in securing today’s debate on the sustainability of burning trees for energy.

It is good to see the climate Minister ready to explain the Government case. He is now some three months into the job, and I hope that he will explain to us, and to the public watching this debate, the remarks made by the former Secretary of State for Energy, Kwasi Kwarteng, that have been mentioned and quoted by others. In August, after three years at BEIS, the right hon. Member said that the burning of imported wood in our power stations,

“doesn’t make any sense to me.”

He further said it “is not sustainable”, and that BEIS was close to saying that the burning of wood for energy

“isn’t working, this doesn’t help carbon emission reduction and so we should end it”

Those are damning words.

The former Secretary of State is not the only Minister to be troubled by the burning of millions of trees in our power stations. A year ago, Lord Goldsmith conceded that there were “real problems” with ensuring the sustainability of the trees being chopped down around the world. It was for that reason that, in January, the Climate Change Committee told Parliament that the “vast majority” of trees should be home grown, not imported on diesel-belching freighters from across the Atlantic. The question is, how many of the 27 million trees burnt by the Drax power station last year were actually home grown? It was not the vast majority; it was not even a tiny fraction. It was zero. Let us be clear that the Government do not seem to agree with the Government on the burning of trees at Drax.

What is actually going wrong, because properly run bioenergy has the capacity to make a real difference to carbon emissions? Why has Westminster made such a complete mess that Ministers are at war with one another? The fundamental problem is that it has become abundantly clear to academics, journalists and even Ministers that Drax is not burning genuine wood waste but trees with many other uses which, as Members have mentioned, include furniture and material for the construction industry, which lock the carbon away. Drax claims that it is only burning forest residues and for years Westminster has simply been lazily allowing it to mark its own homework.

However, over the past year, reality has intruded. The Daily Telegraph has reported that forests in eastern Europe are being clear-cut for Drax; in the USA, CBS News has reported clear-cutting there; and two months ago, as has been said by many others, the BBC’s “Panorama” programme found even worse behaviour in Canada, as Drax was caught chopping down primary forests. Such ecosystems take centuries to create, but they are being destroyed by Drax within hours.

I urge Members to dwell on that statement for just a second, and dwell on the huge loss in biodiversity. Chopping down primary forests is how species become extinct. Drax claims that it is not destroying primary forests, yet “Panorama” said in its broadcast:

“That is a lie.”

It is an extraordinary situation: the BBC’s flagship news programme has accused the Government’s biggest energy provider of telling a fundamental lie. I note that Drax has not sued “Panorama” for libel—not to my knowledge, anyway—and given that Drax does not think that the courts will believe it, why should Parliament believe Drax?

It is clear how quickly trust in Drax is evaporating in this House. Over the last year, 84 MPs have signed letters to Ministers about Drax, calling this situation a scandal. Furthermore, Drax is just not trusted by the financial markets. I hope that the Minister has a contingency plan in place. However, if the likely failure of Drax is a problem, that problem is not to be feared as much as Drax’s possible success, because if other countries were to buy into the Drax model and copy us by burning trees in our power stations, the environmental disaster that the Drax model is already causing would simply become a catastrophe, as other Members have mentioned. Chatham House forecasts that there could be 30 times the current demand for wood pellets. There is already a shortfall of 400 million trees near the wood pellet plants in the USA. Imagine what happens when forests are stripped at 30 times the current rate—and that is just the forests.

We also need to think about the carbon that is emitted as we burn trees. Drax is by far the biggest emitter of carbon in the UK. That is not surprising, because the IPCC says that burning wood creates 18% more carbon than burning coal—it is even worse than coal. However, of the CO2 produced by burning those 27 million trees, how much was recorded on our national carbon accounts? Zero. Nothing. That is because the Government pretend that all the trees immediately grow back, absorbing the same amount of carbon. That is a fiction, which undermines confidence in the Government’s claim to be reducing emissions. Scientists estimate that where felled trees are replanted, the amount of time it takes for the carbon that has gone up the chimney to be reabsorbed is between 44 and 104 years. We have only 27 years until 2050. Furthermore, the BBC’s “Panorama” disclosed that an official Canadian document showed that only 11% of Drax’s wood was genuine waste that had no other proper use.

What will happen if other countries were to copy our tree-burning behaviour, creating a 30-fold increase in demand for wood pellets? The quality of wood being used for pellets would go up and up, which would push up timber prices and the price of land. The EU’s top think-tank, the European Academies’ Science Advisory Council—or EASAC—forecasts that 482 million hectares of land would be needed, which is an area bigger than India. The competition for land between the wood pellet industry and farming would make food price inflation even worse as a consequence. The global biomass industry would be just as thirsty for water. The IPCC says that the demand for water could push the planetary boundaries for freshwater use. Yorkshire Water already has enough problems supplying the region around Drax.

Last year, 500 scientists signed a letter denouncing the burning of trees for energy. Those who believe that the practice is worsening climate change rather than helping in the battle against it now range from Greta Thunberg to the financial rating agency Standard and Poor’s. We had better take heed.

What can be done? First, the Government need to put Drax’s wood-burning boilers at the top of their list of the next high-carbon power stations to mothball. Improvements in grid connectivity, storage technology and the growth of renewables will combine to give us the opportunity to end our dependence on high-carbon Drax. Secondly, as the right hon. Member for Spelthorne said in August, other technologies are advancing far faster and we should invest in them. Thirdly, when the Government’s paper on biomass comes out, there will be no hiding. The media now know that over the last 10 years BEIS has forced consumers to pay £6 billion of so-called renewable subsidies for energy, which the then Secretary of State said is simply “not sustainable”.

The Drax tax is politically unsustainable. There will definitely be no patience for gifting Drax another £31 billion for the pipedream of BECCS. The UK Government’s experiment with burning trees has failed and has turned BEIS not into a global leader, but a global pariah because it destroys forests, is pouring untold amounts of carbon into the skies and pretends that it is emitting nothing.

Photo of Alan Whitehead Alan Whitehead Shadow Minister (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Energy and Climate Change), Shadow Minister (Climate Change and Net Zero) 10:35, 6 December 2022

I have listened very carefully to the debate and I congratulate Selaine Saxby on securing it.

Overall, we have had a thoughtful debate about the difficult issues facing UK energy production, including what sources it is right or wrong to use, subsidies that might be put in place, and arrangements for the production of comparatively low-carbon energy that could provide power more cheaply and efficiently, as well as, most importantly, on a lower carbon basis.

As Mrs Latham mentioned, undoubtedly a while ago biomass was thought to be a simple proposition for power production that was fine in terms of the overall carbon cycle: it uses trees that grow again, thus balancing the CO2 put into the atmosphere through burning. Actually, the same is true of gas power, for example, only carbon has been sequestered in the ground over many millions of years and now we are putting it back into the atmosphere. It is all about cycles and the carbon replacement period, which is an important initial point to consider. The debate has moved on considerably, because people are thinking carefully about what those cycles mean for carbon replacement.

We need to question if it is ever right to use thermal means to produce power. We currently have 200 biomass generators in the UK, producing 88% of UK power. In addition, whether or not we regard burning wood waste and other materials for power as unacceptable, we have 54 energy and waste plants across the country that produce some power, half of which produce a lot of heat that can be used for district heating purposes. They ought to come into the carbon balance equation that we are trying to achieve.

We have heard today an incontrovertible point: taking whole trees, burning them for power and transporting the product of those trees across large parts of the world is clearly not the best use for them. That is particularly the case if those whole trees have not been grown in farmed or managed forests but in primeval ones, where they have captured carbon for many centuries, and are being clear felled and used to fill a hole in energy production.

Photo of Barry Gardiner Barry Gardiner Labour, Brent North

Would my hon. Friend also accept the distinction that a managed forest for production timber and biomass has nowhere near the biodiversity that there is in the primary forests that we have been talking about? It is a matter that we cannot look at simply in terms of carbon emissions; we have to look at it in terms of wider sustainability and the biodiversity of species.

Photo of Alan Whitehead Alan Whitehead Shadow Minister (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Energy and Climate Change), Shadow Minister (Climate Change and Net Zero)

Yes, indeed, we need to take careful account of the points my hon. Friend has made about wider biodiversity issues. However, we have sources of material—starting with the idea of managed forests, under certain circumstances, or energy crops, under other circumstances—that are much shorter in their use and carbon sequestration, such as miscanthus and short-rotation coppicing of willow. Those can be produced with a very short time of burning and resequestration. However, as my hon. Friend has said, there may be other environmental consequences attached to the practice.

Photo of Wera Hobhouse Wera Hobhouse Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Transport), Liberal Democrat Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Energy and Climate Change)

Is it not the outcome of today’s debate that burning wood or biomass is neither low in carbon nor a renewable source of energy—so why are we still subsiding the industry?

Photo of Alan Whitehead Alan Whitehead Shadow Minister (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Energy and Climate Change), Shadow Minister (Climate Change and Net Zero)

That was the case I was trying to pick apart. Is it right that we should ever burn anything for power? If we burn some things for power, what are the circumstances under which we burn them and what are the constraints we have to put on their burning? One of the issues is just how much we pay for that burning. If there are better uses for the subsidies we might put towards that burning, then we should undertake those instead. We need to be very mean in terms of the resource we put into subsidies so that we get the best outcome for those subsidies.

We cannot draw an overall conclusion today about the wide issue of what is waste, whether it is appropriate to burn it under any circumstances and how we manage that waste stream. Clearly, with whole forests—even if they are managed—the production of timber that goes into houses and buildings is a much better way of sequestering carbon from that timber than burning it. Waste material, on the other hand, does not have the same uses, although the hon. Member for North Devon mentioned the wood panelling industry, where there are certain uses for roundwood and other timber that can sequester carbon in a better way than burning it. However, we still have the issue of whether there is a role at all for biomass burning and waste burning in future.

We have also had a discussion about CCS, on the back of burning wood, residual material and waste. That applies to energy from waste just as it does to biomass use. Of course, the Climate Change Committee is quite keen on BECCS. The idea is that the whole process can become net negative as far as contributions to net zero are concerned, and we are producing a net negative contribution to the overall carbon balance, providing that CCS works well and sequesters as much carbon as it is supposed to.

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Treasury), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Brexit)

This is being put forward as another way of trying to deal with the unfortunate consequences of the CO2 emissions from the Drax station. First, carbon capture and storage is expensive. Secondly, it would use about a third of the power that is produced to capture the gas.

Photo of Alan Whitehead Alan Whitehead Shadow Minister (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Energy and Climate Change), Shadow Minister (Climate Change and Net Zero)

This underpins just how wide this debate really is and what we need to think about: for example, is CCS a reasonable way to go forward in sequestering emissions over the long period and how much is that going to cost overall in subsidies? My conclusion is that, yes, there is a role for biomass and for energy from waste, with the proper constraints and the proper circumstances under which we provide that power. It has a role, but not a large role. On the other hand, we need every source of low and lowish carbon energy that we can get at the moment, so we need it to make a contribution, but not a large one, to our overall power arrangements.

I look forward to the rather delayed biomass strategy that the Government are about to publish, which perhaps will give us a much better understanding of these issues as they combine together. I hope the Minister will give us a foretaste of what that biomass strategy will look like so that we can move this debate forward.

Photo of Graham Stuart Graham Stuart Minister of State (Minister for Climate) 10:47, 6 December 2022

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I congratulate my hon. Friend Selaine Saxby on securing the debate and thank all right hon. and hon. Members for their participation.

My first reflection, having heard the tenor of the debate and the contributions so far, is that I have a bit of an uphill struggle to the persuade people in Westminster Hall of my case. It was noticeable in the contribution of Dr Whitehead, given in his classically well-informed but downbeat style, that the position of His Majesty’s Opposition is to support the use of biomass. They think it does have a role, although the hon. Gentleman caveated that by saying that it was “not a large” contribution, which in the overall scheme of our energy use perhaps leaves a lot of unanswered questions. However, I welcome the fact that he said that.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Devon raised important questions about biomass sustainability. I welcome the opportunity to clarify both the type of material and the stringent requirements we have in place to ensure that we support the sustainable use of this valuable resource. Using sustainable biomass in energy generation in the UK’s power sector has helped to reduce the use of fossil fuels. In 2021, biomass made up 12.9% of total electricity generation and the flexible generation provided by biomass technologies helps to support and stabilise the grid. It is not comparable with renewables, which by their very nature are not dispatchable and available as and when they are required—unlike biomass.

The use of wood pellets for bioenergy production has attracted a lot of interest and it is right that operations are closely scrutinised. However, there are claims against wood pellet use for bioenergy from forests that misrepresent on-the-ground forestry practices. That is short-sighted and ignores the environmental and social benefits of sustainable forest practices and the role that forest-derived biomass plays in supporting them.

Policy decisions need to be based on facts and rigorous evidence gathering, not on inaccuracies and misconceptions. The use of biomass from sustainably managed forests in well supported by evidence and experts such as the International Energy Agency, which is the global authority on energy, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which I would have thought that Members present would regard as being particularly well placed to make judgments on the balances that need to be struck in coming up with policy, yet the tenor of today’s debate is to dismiss these global experts and the different organisations that have looked at this issue extensively and come to the conclusion that the use of biomass is sustainable and right.

Photo of Graham Stuart Graham Stuart Minister of State (Minister for Climate)

I will make a little more progress, if I may.

It is important to remember that wood used for bioenergy is not high-quality and high-value timber. Although it has been said repeatedly in the debate that wood used for bioenergy diverts material away from other uses, the opposite is true. In response to my hon. Friend Derek Thomas, who comes from the construction industry, the value of timber for other uses is much higher than the value of timber used for waste, so there is no economic rationale for using it.

Wood pellets and Drax purchases do not compete, because they do not offer the same financial return. The idea—it has obviously been seeded, taken root and taken off, because I hear it again and again—that people are, in a sinister way, diverting excellent wood from uses for which they would get paid a lot more money to a use for which they get paid a lot less has spread, and it has become a conspiracy. In fact, bioenergy use does the opposite: it supports sustainable forestry. It supports the very forests that can supply wood panelling and construction material. We can ensure that it is part and parcel of delivering a stronger forestry industry around the world, and that we can have more wooden-constructed homes, as my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives suggested we should have.

Photo of Barry Gardiner Barry Gardiner Labour, Brent North

I am sorry to interrupt the Minister in his rhetorical flow, but does he accept that two of the licences that Drax has utilised in British Colombia were for areas of primary forest that have been destroyed? Those areas—in one case, more than one square mile of primary forest—have been clear-felled, and Drax has denied it.

Photo of Graham Stuart Graham Stuart Minister of State (Minister for Climate)

I will write to the hon. Gentleman on that specific issue, as it is right that I give him a proper answer. On investigation, we do not find that the allegations that “Panorama” made are fundamentally sustained. The general process involves thinnings. Every managed forest has to be thinned in order to be sustainably managed, and thinnings sometimes include whole trees—that is the nature of forest management. If we do not do it, it does not have the desired effect. It is worth saying again to my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon that young, vigorous stands grow and sequester carbon at maximum speed. As stands get older, the tree canopy closes and individual trees begin to die off from self-thinning and other causes. Very old forest stands can reach a carbon-neutral equilibrium, whereby trees die and decay at approximately the same rate as they grow back.

It is worth saying that before thinnings were used for bioenergy and turned into pellets, they were typically burned to get rid of them. The idea that the use of biomass is taking away fundamental primary forest, which is being cut down even though there are better uses for it, is false, but I will write to Barry Gardiner about the specifics of that. It is always possible that there are exceptions, but Canada and the United States have really strong forest management and sustainability practices, regulations and laws. We have looked closely at the issue, and if they wish to keep this business going and manage the crops of these forests, they have every incentive to maintain them.

I say to my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon that we could do with bringing in some experts, and I will hold a meeting. Let us have the scientists in and discuss some of this stuff—it would be an opportunity to talk about it further.

Photo of Selaine Saxby Selaine Saxby Conservative, North Devon

I thank the Minister for giving way on this point, although I am very disappointed by the stance he is taking. Will he invite the 600 scientists who wrote to the Prime Minister earlier this week with their very detailed analysis? The professors with whom many of us in this room have spent much time understand that the science has evolved and that some of the information we used back in 2014 is no longer correct. We need to re-evaluate things; we cannot just get stuck on what we used to do in the past.

Photo of Graham Stuart Graham Stuart Minister of State (Minister for Climate)

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. We must not get stuck in the past, and we need to have a thorough and proper examination of the issues. That is why, as one small contribution to that, bringing in the Government experts and the people we are listening to would be a useful way to carry on with this and make sure that we are making the right judgments overall. The last thing we want to do is get this wrong. As successive Members have said, there is a substantial subsidy involved for a start, and we want to ensure that whatever we are doing is the most sustainable, both economically and environmentally, for the good of the country. It is well worth having that conversation.

Forest sites are harvested to produce fibre for multiple products, such as timber, plywood and oriented strand board, among others. Those industries invariably pay more for the fibre. Wood pellets for bioenergy make up only a small portion of a harvest—notwithstanding the talk of 27 million trees—and help to maximise the benefit of each harvest. It is, effectively, a harvest—an energy crop, and a by-product energy crop of the main product, which is timber produced for other uses.

Material that is not wanted by sawmills can be used when it does not have a suitable destination in the sourcing regions—for example, when there is a lack of local pulp and paper mills or other suitable industries. The destination of lower-quality material such as low-grade roundwood that is unsuitable for use in sawmills depends on the types of industry present around the sourcing area. If there is a pulp or paper mill nearby or a wood panel producer, material suitable for use in those industries is taken there, as those end users pay more for the fibre than wood pellet producers do. It is simply not economical for the harvester to sell those materials to the pellet mill if other, higher-paying industries are present.

Photo of Barry Gardiner Barry Gardiner Labour, Brent North

The Minister has been generous in giving way, and I appreciate that. Will he address an issue that many Members have raised, which is the payback period and the cycles not being short enough to achieve the emissions reductions in the timeframe that the climate will allow?

Photo of Graham Stuart Graham Stuart Minister of State (Minister for Climate)

The hon. Gentleman, as so often, has put his finger on the central point. We cannot do this by looking at an individual tree. We look at the whole forest and different parts of it, which are of different ages. That forest is harvested in an ordered way. We need to look at the whole forest, and as long as there is replanting—that is precisely what the sustainability criteria are about, and those are applied in Canada, America and elsewhere—and the overall carbon sequestration is maintained, and indeed over time preferably increased, there are no emissions, effectively.

Let me return to the point source emissions at Drax and say that that is why we do not count them. As long as the overall picture is in balance—this is only a by-product of the energy crop and of the main use, which is for timber—we can see, straightforwardly, that it is right not to view that as having emissions. That is what the policies are in place to try to ensure.

I must allow two minutes for my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon, and I look forward to a further discussion of the matter. As has been said, I have been in the job for only a relatively short time, and, as Members can tell, I am seized of a certain view, but I am certainly interested—

Photo of Graham Stuart Graham Stuart Minister of State (Minister for Climate)

We have had those quotes, which might or might not have been accurate. My right hon. Friend Kwasi Kwarteng did then say that he fully supported Drax and the policy of the Government. He was not a junior Minister; he was Secretary of State, so if he had a different view he could have said so. I do not suppose he was too constrained.

Anyway, I look forward to further examination of the issue, but I should give the floor to my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon.

Photo of Selaine Saxby Selaine Saxby Conservative, North Devon 10:58, 6 December 2022

I thank you, Mr Gray, for chairing the debate, and my colleagues for their contributions. I suspect we will return to the issue, and I would be happy to join the Minister in doing so.

As we move through the transition to net zero, it is vital that we understand that things are going to change, that the science has changed and that we are moving forward. When people first burned coal, they did not understand the damage they were doing to the planet, and I think the same is true for wood pellets. In 1959, plastic bags were invented to stop us cutting down trees to make paper bags, and we recognise now that that probably was not the right decision.

I hope that as the Minister reviews the matter and considers the release of his biomass strategy, he will find those same advisers who persuaded the former Secretary of State that importing trees to burn is not a sustainable practice in view of our intention to get to net zero by 2050. On the current path, we are simply not going to achieve that.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House
has considered the sustainability of burning trees for energy generation.