Professor John Beddington, a former UK government chief scientific adviser, has warned that relying on the cutting down and burning of trees as a replacement for the use of fossil fuels could rebound dangerously.
Policies aimed at limiting climate change by boosting the burning of biomass contain critical flaws that could actually damage attempts to avert dangerous levels of global warming in the future. Beddington said, “these policies may even lead to a situation whereby global emissions of carbon dioxide accelerate”.
Biomass absorbs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and then releases it in a relatively brief life-cycle which should, theoretically, have a restricted long-term impact on the atmosphere. As a result, giant power stations, including Britain’s Drax generators, are increasingly abandoning gas or coal as power sources and are instead turning to the burning of wood, usually in the form of pellets imported from other countries such as the United States and Canada.
But burning wood to produce electricity is a relatively inefficient process. In generating exactly the same amount of electricity, wood will release four times as much carbon into the atmosphere as gas would do, and one and half times as much as coal. Besides, energy is used in harvesting and transport while vast stretches of land are needed to create the forests to supply generating stations with the wood they need. This also has profound environmental impacts for a world that will soon be home to more than 10 billion humans who will need every scrap of productive land to provide food.
Beddington calculates that carbon emissions will rise by 6% or possibly more if the wood is allowed to continue to provide more and more of Europe’s energy output, rather than a reduction of at least 6% that would come from using other renewable sources, such as solar or wind power.
Instead of choosing those options, experts agree that we should concentrate our efforts to boost solar and wind projects and other less harmful sources of renewable energy.
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