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Environmentalists slam plans to replace coal with biomass in power plants

By Hugh Wilson

Europe-wide plans for coal-to-biomass power plant conversions risk making global warming worse

Plans to transform power plants from coal to biomass-burning will only make the climate crisis worse, according to an influential climate think tank.

A report by Sandbag said plans to switch from coal to biomass in power plants across Europe could actually exacerbate climate change, by burning forests equivalent to half the size of Germany’s Black Forest every year.

Europe’s 10 largest coal-to-biomass conversion projects would require 36 million tonnes of wood pellets annually, doubling current global production. Much of the wood has to be transported from North America, adding a further environmental burden.

Sandbag said the plans would result in a “staggering” amount of tree burning, with the potential of destroying forests faster than they can be regrown.

The report will come as a blow to EU regulators and the companies behind the conversions. They believe that forest regrowth absorbs as much carbon as the wood pellets release when burned, making biomass a carbon neutral fuel.

But Sandbag recommends that coal-to-biomass conversions should not be considered as renewable energy sources unless the operators can demonstrate that the project will lead to a net reduction in atmospheric carbon levels within a decade.

The think tank states that subsidies should be withdrawn from projects that fail to meet this threshold.

The report adds to growing scientific concern about the portrayal of biomass as an environmentally friendly fuel source, and the belief that converting from coal to biomass can help alleviate the climate crisis.

Earlier this year the European Academies' Science Advisory Council found that current policies on coal-to-biomass conversion “risk achieving the reverse of that intended—initially exacerbating rather than mitigating climate change.”

FURTHER READING: Renewable energy set for surge in growth

FURTHER READING: South32 sells off major South African coal asset for minimal price

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