Stop burning our trees – what’s this about?


We’ve had a few answers to this little investigation and I’ve written a follow up post here.


Walking down the street this week in London, I was overtaken by a bus with a large advert down the side that caught my eye. It had a picture of a little pine tree with a label on it, saying ‘when I grow up I want to be a table’. The advert had no information other than a website,

Looking that up today, I find that the site is still under construction. Considering how expensive it is to run a bus campaign, something’s gone wrong here – either someone’s late with the website or early with the bus ads, surely.

I’m also slightly puzzled by the campaign itself. The website’s single page says “we think it’s wrong to chop down UK trees and burn them in power stations.” It has the briefest of explanations: that if you grow a tree and make it into furniture, the carbon it absorbed over its lifetime is locked away. If you burn it, you release that carbon back into the atmosphere. The website is promoting a (so far non-existent) petition to limit the burning of wood to waste wood that would otherwise be in landfill.

I’m not sure about this. For one thing, the UK’s actual use of wood in power stations is fairly small, but growing. There are incentives for the use of biomass, which appears to be what the website is objecting to. But there are good reasons why biomass is being encouraged – biomass is a renewable source of energy. Unlike coal or gas, you can keep planting new trees. Using wood in power stations is a vital part of a sustainable energy sector.

Sure, carbon is released into the atmosphere, but if the wood is coming from managed woodlands, then new trees are being planted for every one that’s burned. Of course it would be better if all wood could be used to make furniture or chopping boards, and that carbon locked up in our houses, but we need electricity and heat as much as we need furniture. And of course we should use waste wood as much as possible. No wood should be sent to landfill – but can we afford to limit the emerging biomass market to waste wood?

More importantly, biomass energy generation is considerably better on the carbon front. Megawatt for megawatt, a wood-burning power station can produce 50-80% less CO2 than a fossil fuel power station. So, again provided the wood is from sustainably managed forests, biomass is one the most promising ways to reduce the carbon footprint of our energy sector.

Biomass is also used in micro-generation, and is a great way of going off-grid, particularly for farms and rural areas. A couple of weeks ago I stayed at a hostel that burnt wood pellets for their heating. Being in the middle of England’s New Forest, that’s an entirely local and appropriate thing to do.

I don’t want to idealise the use of wood burning – it’s not a silver bullet answer to our carbon emissions probem and our energy security. Obviously subsidies can be abused – see biofuels – but I’m not sure it’s wise to cut the biomass industry off at the knees at a time when we urgently need to lower our emissions.

So I’m curious. Who’s behind the Stop Burning Our Trees campaign? Who’s got the money to advertise on buses, but isn’t organised enough to get the petition online before the campaign hits the streets? Is their any research behind it all? And am I wrong – should we ban the burning of virgin wood in power stations?

Can anyone tell me more about the campaign?


    1. Thanks – that looks like a possible connection. The article is entirely Canada-based, but it looks similar enough that there’s a parallel UK campaign planned. We shall see.

      1. The ‘Stop burning our trees’ campaign is supported by a number of UK wood processors and associated suppliers to the furniture and construction industry who are extremely concerned about the future availability of their primary raw material i.e. domestically grown wood. If you accept the more conservative forecasts then wood demand into UK electricity generation could increase to around 50Mt (other forecasts put it as high as 80Mt) and that Government predict that up to 10% could be sourced domestically (why 10%? If it’s cheaper than imported wood it could easily be more). As the UK is one of the least forested countries in Europe, the only way that this domestic demand could be satisfied is if existing users were displaced. Wood processors aren’t against the burning of wood for energy per se, but unlike other biomass crops, wood is unique in its use in multiple applications, its reuse potential and its recyclability and as such the benefits of this resource should be maximised rather than being burnt in the first instance for extremely inefficient electricity only generation. The size and nature of the UK forest resource is much more suited to smaller scale heat or heat and power generation. A point that the Scottish Government has accepted.

        The tree vs. coal argument is fair enough, but the point being made is that trees will take 30 to 40 years to grow before harvesting. If used in wood products first then the carbon life will be extended. Burn a tree today and its carbon will be released and not recovered until another growth cycle. At the end of life and after reuse and recycling opportunities have been maximised wood products can still be burnt and the energy recovered.

        1. These comments all have merit, I agree with most of you and would applaud this sensible and factually based debate. However the “stop burning our trees” campaign itself in its use of such an emotive catchphrase and simplistic messages only serves to debase a complicated and mulifaceted argument. I have now spoken to several forestry professionals with both commercial and charitable interests in the promotion and protection of UK woodlands who have been horrified that such a headline could be used. Its clear that the subtext behind this campaign is those timber using industries who have seen the price of their raw materials rise due to an upswing in demand as new markets emergy for wood in the UK. I agree with other commentators that using wood for large scale electricity production is inefficient, ultimately unsustainable and potentially damaging to the future of the UK forest industry but damming the entire biomass industry is over simplistic and dangerous. Using timber within heat only biomass applications that has little value to other users is a vital source of income for many woodland owners. It is important to realise that woodfuel is best considered as being one of a range of forest products that are available from woodlands, experienced foresters will sell their forestry products into a range of markets and biomass is one of those markets. Maximising the value of the these products and allowing more of the timber extracted to be diverted into the approriate uses will ensure that there is an economic advantage to bringing more of the UK’s undermanaged woodlands into active sustainable management. The Forestry Commission estimated as part of the English woodfuel strategy (2006) that there was a potential extra 2 million tonnes that could be brought into the woodfuel market from this undermanged resource, this estimate assumes that only 50% of the annual harvested increment would be used as woodfuel. And in case anyone out there thinks managing woodland is a bad idea then please refer to the wildlife trusts evidence based body of work which points to consistently better levels of biodiversity within sustainably managed woodlands.
          There needs to be a clearer definition within this emotive and crass campaign that woodfuel has a role to play within a diverse woodland product marketplace, that this is not about burning trees, but more about where we generate our electricity and how we should best use the resources that we do have. Timber users from other industries need to stop hiding behind the “protector of the trees” masks and take part in a more open way in this debate otherwise the reasoned arguments and sustainable path will be lost to crassness. Where are the foresters in this debate, has anyone spoken to them? Where is the voice of reason in this campaign, which has more echos of witch hunt than fair trial. As from this commentators perspective the only voice I can see within this campaign is, once again, the voice of big business, with vested interests, deep pockets and the ability to spin the debate to suit their own ends.

          1. OK, my family have been involved in commercial forestry since the 16th century and while I will not defend all the practices of the forestry industry today, or in the past, there is obviously an interest based campaign going on here.

            Unfortunately I have to deal with a legacy of my grandfather’s practices with our forestry areas in Sussex, UK where much of the pine, spruce and larch plantations are what are called Plantations on Ancient Woodland Sites (POWs), where a semi-natural native woodland would once have existed there are now mono-crop stands of coniferous trees.

            It is my ambition that these plantations will be gradually thinned, sometimes at a non-commercial rate in order to allow natural regrowth of native species, with particular attention to sensitive areas. Many of these trees that we selectively fell are not straight or have split stems, where two stems have become ‘leaders’. These trees are simply not suitable for timber uses.

            In the plantations on non-woodland sites (i.e. areas that were once fields) there is still a need for periodic thinning – about once every 5 years a few rows of trees and in the more mature stands selected trees are felled to allow the good quality trees to grow more. This is standard commercial practice and improves the speed of growth and quality of the stand. But what to do with the smaller or ‘deformed’ trees that are taken out? They have no timber value and felling and extraction is an expensive process.

            The recent rise in the demand for biomass has provided a market for wood of small diameter or stems that aren’t straight. What horrifies me is that our forest managers, during a recent thinning operation, were selling much of the wood to be turned into shavings for horse and animal bedding! Huge truck loads of stems were loaded up, transported to Belgium, planed up into shavings, bailed and put back on the lorries to bring those back for horse bedding in the UK. What’s even more shocking is that manure from these horses is more or less useless as the wood takes much longer than straw to break down!

            Needless to say, in future thinning operations I will be making sure that all small diameter wood will be going for chipping for biomass even if we take a knock in the selling price. In fact, we are planning to develop small scale wood-boilers for nearby properties to create a future market for future thinnings to minimise the fuel miles for the wood.

            While, given the past history of government incentives in the industry, I am sceptical about the merit of subsidising biofuel production, the “Stop Burning Our Trees” campaign are trying to get the public behind what could be a very useful debate based on mis-representation of the situation and they ought to be ashamed. They obviously have self-interest, rather than genuine care for the environment at heart.

          2. Thanks Corin, that’s a valuable perspective from someone involved in forestry. And yes, ultimately this is about two different business sectors using the same raw materials, and one wanting to get the other out of the way so their prices don’t go up.

  1. I don’t know anything about their campaign but from what you’ve written here, you should support it. Biofuels in the UK are to quote David MacKay “scarcely worth talking about.” I suggest you read his book, the section on biofuels is here,

    It has been estimated by some scientists that the energy return on invested energy for corn ethanol in the US is close to 1 If there were no subsidies it would not be worth the effort.

    The oil drum has many excellent articles on biofuels e.g.,

    Photosynthesis converts about 5% of the energy falling on your plant to energy usable by the plant, some of this energy is require so your plant can live and grow. By the time we chop the plant down to burn it only around .5% of the energy is left. The energy needs to be concentrated, so you have to collect the plants from a large area and then transport it to your power station. Your lucky if you get more energy out than you get when you put it in.

    The only time it would be profitable is if you have a large mature forest to cut down, which has concentrated 30 years of sunlight into the trees, but that is hardly a long term solution.

    1. I’ve read McKay’s book and I share his scepticism on biofuels. (I posted a link to a petition to end biofuel targets earlier this week) In no way is biomass going to take care of Britain’s energy needs, but neither is it useless. I’d like us to pursue every available technology, and not rule any out until they’ve been tried.
      Unless there’s some new research behind this campaign, I think it’s premature to limit this sector to just waste. Like the hostel I mentioned, biomass has a role to play, particularly in smaller, local, combined heat and power systems.

        1. Burning wood for fuel is stone age stuff, but the sophistication of the technology is not the point. The point is that we need to diversify our energy supply and move beyond fossil fuels, and we shouldn’t rule out anything at this stage. I’m not talking about chopping down the trees in the park – even the most hardcore advocates of biomass recognise it will never be more than 10% of the fuel mix in the UK, and I’d think it would be considerably less than that. I’m just saying it’s probably unwise to make it illegal to burn wood for fuel.
          As I said in the article, it’s not a silver bullet. It’s a tool in the box, and it’s particularly good for small, local micro-generation. Perhaps we need to amend the subsidies, but let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater and ban the burning of wood wholesale.

          1. I think you missed the basic point David MacKay makes it as the end of his chapter on the sun biofuels are afterall a roundabout way of havesting solar energy:

            “I think one conclusion is clear: biofuels can’t add up – at least, not in
            countries like Britain, and not as a replacement for all transport fuels. Even
            leaving aside biofuels’ main defects – that their production competes with
            food, and that the additional inputs required for farming and processing
            often cancel out most of the delivered energy (figure 6.14) – biofuels made
            from plants, in a European country like Britain, can deliver so little power,
            I think they are scarcely worth talking about.”

            You can always find one or two micro-generation schemes which may seem ok. But will they scale, the answer must be a resounding no.

  2. I’m not saying it will be. I’m just saying we shouldn’t rule it out just yet. And if it won’t scale, which you say and which I agree with entirely, then why rush to ban it? Let the technology succeed or fail on its own terms.

    1. You seem to be agreeing that the laws of Physics indicate the technology will not scale and will there for fail, excepting that it may be suitable for a few very small communities who live in large forests. Yet leave it up to the market to see if it will fail?

      The problem with this approach is like in the Lorax by Dr Seuss it’s not immediately apparent that you are causing an environmental disaster when you start an enterprise. Once you make any investment in this technology the desire to make a return on the investment is likely to wipe out forests.

      I saw a program on the BBC about a pig iron plant in Brazil fuelled by charcoal from the Amazon rain forest, probably the most environmentally destructive pig iron plant in the world.

  3. I think you’re mistaking me for an enthusiast for burning wood to generate electricity, which I’m not. Like you, I’d rather have the trees. However, I’d want to see a good case made before we opted for an outright ban.
    If the campaign gets its website live and makes that case, I’ll sign the petition. But I suspect that there are halfway house measures that would serve us better than a full ban – removing subsidies and limiting the size of power stations using wood, for example.

  4. Burning wood for power generation is only 30% efficient and releases more carbon than burning coal. The energy companies argument is that their biomass power stations would be carbon neutral as the carbon is sequestrated in the growing trees that are planted to replace the ones burnt. They would become only carbon neutral once the trees have reached maturity which is 40-50 years for conifers in the UK. If the power generators growth expectations are realised then we will see a net increase in the UK in Co2 emissions.
    The large power companies are planning,through new build, co-firing and conversion of old coal burning capacity, to burn over 80 million tonnes in the UK. As we presently only harvest a total of 10million tonnes per annum and they will have to import most of their wood fuel. If of course they purchase ( as many of them state) 10% from domestic sources ( = 8 million tonnes) this will displace the unsubsidised existing wood users, such as the panel board manufactures and the saw millers along with the benefits of carbon capture within the wood products. Woody biomass has a part to play in our renewable energy strategy, but should be used in the smaller scale production of heat not electricity.

    a concerned forester.

    1. Thanks for clearing that up John, nice to see some good numbers in a post, subsidising the buring of trees to me seems madness. On an international level there is no way that countries can increase their tree harvesting by a factor of eight with out massive enviromental distruction.

    2. If those are the forecasts for 2030 then, yes, that’s a perverse subsidy and it ought to be corrected before we set ourselves up for a mass deforestation somewhere in the world. I still think reform of the subsidies is a better solution than a ban. Without the subsidies, it will only be used in the places where it makes sense – particularly small scale combined heat and power systems.

      Interestingly, the website is now live, but there is no linked research and no word of who is behind the campaign, which is what pricked my curiosity in the first place. The only link out is to the website Make Wood Work, which is run by the Wood Panel Industries Federation.

      So, it would seem that this is a industry action, not an environmental campaign. Doesn’t mean it’s wrong, but I’d like to see the research.

      1. Sure – I’ve not signed it, as I’m not prepared to take the campaign at face value. If they can show some research behind their figures, and name their sources, then I’ll sign it.

  5. The Wood Panel Industries Federation, who are funding this campaign, is actually a loose federation of chipboard, MDF and OSB producers!

    So no dubious motive there then?
    They are right to say chipboard locks in carbon, but it also locks in toxic resins used to bond the wood fragments. Plus, as most chipboard is used to make cheap furniture it is quite likely to end it’s life on a bonfire or in landfill. It cannot be re-used, as they state, as a fuel source later on.

    I know from experience in conservation forestry that the price the energy companies are paying for UK wood is feeble, even with the subsidies. But it is better than the pathetic amount the wood panel federation members had been paying. Not surprising they feel hard done by now their strangle hold on UK conifer wood has been disrupted.

    And, their statement that, “We think it’s wrong to chop down UK trees and burn them in power stations” is deliberately misleading. For UK trees read CONIFERS. Whatever your feeling about biomass energy, which clearly has its drawbacks, stating that the energy industry threatens all UK trees is tantamount to lying. The energy companies will not pay for native hardwoods as it’s uneconomical. Much cheaper to ship in foreign softwoods (not so green), which they already do.

    1. Who’s misleading now!. As we speak end of life furniture including panel waste is being burnt to generate electricity in the UK. The best estimates are that there are around another two million tonnes of wood waste still going to landfill.

      Before denegrating chipboard furniture, its worth noting that about 70% of the wood content is recycled. Lets not forget either why it has become the predominant material in furniture manufacture. Oak and beech are fine but there isn’t the availability to satisfy mass market demand and at a cost that the majority of the population would be willing to pay. Ikea,the worlds largest furniture retailer sells plenty of affordable chipboard furniture but I doubt they would consider it to be ‘cheap’ in the sence of poor quality.

      The main campaign imagery seems clear enough that its focused on softwoods, but arn’t you missing the point if you think the issues being highlighted are just the concern of the wood panel industry. Listen to what the sawmillers, pallet producers, furniture manufacturers and indeed even the timber growers representatives are saying. They are all concerned about future feedstock and the destabilizing effect that large scale wood fired electricity generation could have on the market.

    2. That was my problem with the campaign – that they don’t say who they are anywhere on the site, and the language gives the impression that we’re going to somehow clear Britain of trees to feed our power stations. Now that the website is up, there’s no research or links to more information. None of their figures are backed up.

      1. They are just arguing for the status quo, it is those who wish to burn trees in power stations who need to do their research and convince us this will not be an environmental disaster.

        Where is all this extra wood going to come from?

  6. The main issue is wood used in large scale energy generation. The current wood consumers are not against burning wood as such especially on small scale, it is not about that. So called biomass energy includes all sorts of other than wood sources, but many of these products don’t have an alternative higher value use and the best way of diposal is burning. Wood and including wood waste often have alternative higher value uses. Virgin fibre can be used for all sorts of products and wood waste is used in chipboard production, animal bedding, composting, landscaping and the lower quality is used in energy. For low quality wood waste the best disposal is burning with energy recovery and it is widely done in Europe. Unlike in the UK the energy generators have to prove that wood they use has no alternative uses, basically is waste. In the UK the taxpayer (Government) is giving subsidy to wood burning on a large scale ignoring the fact it can be used or reused to make something useful, it makes energy generators more capable of paying higher wood prices with traditional industry being squeezed out of the market. Many of the proposed energy projects would not be viable without this subsidy, only few would be able to buy wood under the same conditions as the current industry.
    The UK has some of the lowest wood prices in the Europe and many planned energy projects will ship the wood from Americas and Africa, not exactly a sustainable solution, as European wood prices are too high. With the domestic wood prices going up the prices of all wood products will go up as none will be produced in the UK all will be imports. The argument is not limited to conifers only, as the energy players already take hardwoods if available. Native hardwoods come from forest clearing, roadside clearing and similar activities, nothing on a large scale as the existing demand is not so high.

  7. A quick whois lookup proves that this domain was registered by one Paul Duddle. A little more digging reveals that one Paul Duddle is Marketing Manager for Kronospan – the world’s largest manufacturer of panel wood products. Domain registered to a postcode starting LL15. Kronospan are based in neighbouring postcode of LL14. Both are in Wales, a relatively unpopulated area of the UK.

    Kronospan would presumably profit from power generators choosing – or being forced – to burn offcuts from firms like themselves.

    Big coincidence…? Either way, a bit shadowy not to declare who is behind a well funded and promoted site, unless you has something to hide…

    1. Thanks Simon, yes, this is a bit of corporate lobbying in disguise as an environmental project. Kronospan would be more concerned about the rising price of wood I think, than from getting paid for offcuts. They’re worried that a biomass boom will increase demand for virgin wood, as that would push up the price of their raw materials.

      Nothing’s secret on the internet, and I wish they were a bit more up-front about who’s behing it all.

      1. Take a look at the British Furniture Confederation report on the issue:

        Click to access biomass-government-report.pdf

        The concern from all the major furniture associations which represent over 100 000 manufacturing jobs (almost all of them SMEs) and around £7.5Bn of GDP is that paying government subsidies to burn trees on a large scale to generate power is damaging and wasteful. The subsidies are creating a price bubble which will threaten UK jobs at the taxpayers expense. Small scale combined heat and power biomass plants are far more sensible – we are not against biomass power in general, but we should not be threatening manufacturing jobs in this inefficient way during a recession.

        1. Yes, that’s a fair point. The solution is to cut the subsidies however, not to ban the burning of virgin wood. I oppose this campaign because it goes too far, and it would outlaw small and sustainable woodlands-based combined heat and power systems. There are lots of ways of ending perverse subsidies and encouraging other wood using SMEs without going for an all-out ban.

          1. The BFC report (which is sepetate from the campaign mentioned) suggests a range of actions that government can take, one is that Government subsidy precludes the burning of virgin timber. Small scale CHP plants make huge sense and are generally sustainable – it is the massive industrial scale plants that will decimate forests and damage our manufacturing base that we must stop subsidising.

          2. Jonny, Im sorry you mis undestand the campaign, it is definately not opposed to small scale heat and power. The opening line says it all when it refers to ‘Power’ i.e. electricity only plant.

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