Tony Juniper: Last week, a group of respected scientists wrote to the Guardian to argue that using wood to generate electricity in place of coal is not a solution to climate change. Their critique pointed to a “carbon debt” arising from the years between using a tree for fuel and new one growing. They gave the impression that forests are being cleared wholesale to be shovelled into power stations. Reality on the ground is, however, somewhat different. I found this out when earlier this year I went to the USA as an advisor to Drax, a power company in the UK that is seeking to accelerate the phase out of coal by using a biomass instead. On my travels I had many vivid reminders as to how forests are more than collections of individual trees. In the case of the US South, from where much of the wood being used in the UK comes from, I saw vast expanses of production woodlands being harvested for a range of products. I learned that the demand for wood has over recent decades been the main reason why the quantity of wood those forests hold has about doubled. Those managed ecosystems are taking carbon out of the atmosphere, while supplying various industries including, lumber, paper and bioenergy. I saw how, at the level of the landscape, there is no carbon debt. And it is important to know which wood is being made into wood pellets to generate electricity here. Much of the wood produced by these forests is low grade thinnings taken out as part of the process of growing higher grade lumber. These, along with branches and sawmill waste, are the principle sources of materials being made into wood pellets to displace coal. Of course it might be argued that solar and wind are better, but when it’s dark or calm these intermittent renewable sources need to be complemented with sources that can be turned up and down at a moment’s notice. Hydropower and tidal sources can do this but in the UK context have limited potential. Nuclear is another low carbon alternative but is inflexible and if anything is an alternative to wind and solar, rather than a complement to them.
Guardian 19th Dec 2017 read more »