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, stopburningourtrees.org
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?