This headline was recently seen in an article by the BBC showcasing the fact that coal usage in the UK is now down to zero (or close enough). 10 years ago the UK depended on roughly 40% of its electricity coming from coal sources and now, as a result of lockdown, a lack of demand for electricity has lead to the closure of 4 coal-based power plants. Now, this all sounds great, the article proceeds to mention that the UK now has the largest offshore wind farm in the world, with 37% of this years electricity coming from renewable sources, compared to 35% which is sourced through fossil fuels.
One of the UK’s largest power plants, Drax, is planning on a shift away from coal in pursuit of compressed wood pellets as a ‘renewable alternative’ and this is where things can be a little deceptive. Drax suggest that their CO2 emissions have gone from near ‘20 million tonnes a year to almost zero’ and this quite frankly cannot be accurate.
Wood pellets have been widely received as a carbon loophole, meaning that the European Union alongside the British government suggest that the burning of compressed wood pellets to be carbon neutral. The concept essentially suggests that burning the waste products of sawdust and other waste products from lumber or construction in this compressed form will eventually be offset by replanting the trees that were used in the first place. Now, there are a tonne of ethical concerns with this entire process, so I am going to list some of the main issues below;
- The majority of EU and the UK’s wood pellets are sourced from the US (with some illegal logging taking place in Eastern Europe) meaning that transportation and production could amount to 25% of the carbon emissions alone.
- According to some environmental science studies, newly planted trees could take anywhere from 50-100 years to absorb enough carbon to create a carbon-neutral system.
- Environmental campaigners and scientist are almost certain that the process does not only use waste but also incorporates a large portion of full trees. This creates a whole array of issues, including the fact that some fully grown trees can store extremely large amounts of carbon, meaning the co2 release could be much greater than first expected.
Essentially, the EU defining wood pellets as a carbon-neutral form of renewable energy is creating huge issues in the fight for sustainable futures. The concept creates a huge time lag, ranging from 50-100 years, which is far too great as immediate change is a necessity. To see them turn a blind eye to an exploitable loophole is extremely worrying and disheartening as other sectors strive for a more sustainable future.