Concerns have been raised over whether burning wood for electricity is a genuine renewable energy source
The proposals rely largely on capturing the smoke from power plants, which burn wood to create electricity, and piping it under the North Sea using a system known as bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (Beccs).
Because these biomass plants are considered to be carbon neutral, largely because the trees they burn will be replanted, any of the emissions that are captured and stored are counted as negative.
To create enough emissions so that the removal can balance the books and reach net zero, the power plants will need to burn the equivalent of 120 million trees a year, an analysis of government modelling by The Telegraph has found.
It came just days after the food strategy promised to use huge swathes of the countryside to grow crops, with scientists warning that there is not enough land to deliver on all the competing pledges.
‘A castle built on sand’
Concerns were raised over how the technology will work at scale and whether burning wood for electricity is a genuine renewable energy source.
The European Academies’ Science Advisory Council (Easac), the association of national academies across Europe including the Royal Society, has called on policymakers to “suspend expectations” that they can use Beccs to reach net zero.
Its analysis found “that there are substantial risks of it failing to achieve net removals at all” or that the removals will not happen quickly enough to meet climate targets.
Dr Michael Norton, the environment programme director at Easac, told The Telegraph that belief in Beccs is based on “flawed assumptions”, adding: “Our conclusion is that it is a bit of a castle built on sand.”
The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (Beis) said that the plans are not final, and it is looking at other waste products that can be used as biomass and other carbon capture technologies.
How net zero targets could be met
Biomass is a renewable energy under international carbon accounting rules and is seen as sustainable on the basis that the trees grow back.
However, some of the world’s leading scientists warned that if trees are replanted, the system creates a “carbon debt” that will take decades, if not a century, to pay back.
While classed as carbon neutral, Drax, the UK’s largest biomass station, is also the single biggest emitter of carbon dioxide, having burnt the equivalent of 27 million trees last year.
Drax received £932 million in green subsidies from consumer bills in 2021 and is expected to receive more than £31 billion over the next 25 years for its development of Beccs.
The industry, including Drax, said that all its wood pellets come from sustainable sources and they are made not of whole trees but the offcuts from other industries.
An investigation by The Telegraph last year raised questions over the sustainability of the wood used and the impact on biodiversity.
Mr Kwarteng has so far refused to meet MPs, and it can now be revealed that the Government has been quietly planning to expand the industry to create more than four times the current emissions.
The net zero strategy recognises that “to help compensate residual emissions”, technology will need to remove up to 81 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (MtCO2e) a year.
Buried in the strategy, released in October, is a plan to capture about two thirds of those emissions, up to 58 MtCO2e, from the burning of biomass.
An analysis based on the current emissions, and the number of wood pellets burnt by biomass, showed that increasing the emissions by this scale would require burning the equivalent of almost 120 million trees every year. The New Forest has an estimated 46 million trees.
Dr David Joffe, a government adviser from the Climate Change Committee, has told MPs it is “really important” that the “vast majority” comes from the UK so they can be certain it is sustainable.
However, scientists have warned that this would take a “huge amount of land” and would compete with government pledges, including on food, rewilding and tree planting to combat climate change.
Dr Daniel Quiggin, a senior research fellow with the environment and society programme at Chatham House, said: “The tension over land is going to be absolutely extreme the world over and that is the same in the UK. Adding in biomass at the scale net zero has indicated is going to be very difficult to achieve. It is very difficult to square all of these things.” https://www.telegraph.co.uk/…/exclusive-dirty-cost…/