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US trees burnt to keep UK lights on

Swamp forests in the US are being felled to help keep the lights on in the UK. The BBC discusses whether this is the best way to combat climate change.

Environmentalists are trying to block the expansion of a transatlantic trade bringing American wood to burn in European power stations.

The trade is driven by EU rules promoting renewable energy to combat climate change.

Many millions of tonnes of wood pellets will soon be shipped annually to help keep the lights on in the UK. Other EU nations may follow.

The implications are complicated and disputed, but it is clear that EU leaders did not have burning American wood in mind when they mandated that 20 per cent of Europe’s energy should come from “renewable” sources.

Critics fear that increasing demand from power generators will encourage foresters to take land that is currently growing food.

Their other fear is that plantation forests will replace even more of the natural forests of the southern US, which are already dwindling fast.

The British government will shortly announce its rules for the sustainability of “biomass” burning for power. It will set a standard for emissions created from the cutting, drying and shipping and timber but it will make a working assumption that burning the wood has nil CO2 emissions as new trees will suck up the CO2 emitted by wood burning.

Critics say this is simplistic as it fails to recognise that it will take maybe 50 years for new trees to absorb the CO2, whilst politicians agree that emissions need to be cut immediately to prevent carbon over-heating the planet.

It also fails to account for the fact that in the US the forest stock has been increasing and this process offsets the growth in carbon emissions from homes and industry.

Foresters argue that this doesn’t matter much as long as the total biomass sent for export is no greater than the wood used in a single large pulp mill. But these numbers will grow fast.

Liberal Democrat MP Nick Harvey has tabled an amendment to the UK Energy Bill insisting that long-term subsidies for biomass burning should only be agreed for plants that capture and store CO2 emissions, or use the waste heat for other purposes.

But the amendment is not supported by any of the major parties.

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