Biomass: Carbon Neutral or not?


Biomass was recently in the news with the EU reviewing it’s policy, essentially deciding whether they support it. The biomass industry is quite open that is not all good, basically saying the wood used for biomass should be scrap wood or low value wood and we should not be taking good quality forestry and cutting it down for biomass.


This was always a divisive topic with someone telling me years ago that they couldn’t understand why the UK uses high quality wood for biomass whilst others use cheaper wood. Personally, whilst I see the point, I don’t agree that is at all relevant to the carbon neutral argument. It makes no difference what the value of the wood is that you burn in terms of emissions.


Some, mainly politicians and lawmakers, define it as carbon neutral as the tree can only release as much carbon dioxide as it has absorbed in growth. Thus it has taken in X amount and now releases X amount when burned. In theory you then replant and all is well. 


It’s a fair argument, but oil is made of old animal and plant matter too and “only releases what was taken in”, that doesn’t make it ok though. Anything you burn can only give out what it absorbed, that is not valid argument. Neutrality depends on timescale as ultimately everything is a cycle. If we went to biomass on a large scale our carbon emissions would increase dramatically thus it is inaccurate to say it is neutral. Is a forest fire carbon neutral? Unless you actually define what “carbon neutral” means it has no meaning at all.

Timescales really matter here, it’s like offsetting. If a tree takes 70 years to grow and you burn it in 7 minutes that cannot be considered equal just because you replant it. You would need to plan hundreds of trees for each felled tree to compensate and even then you have issues of damage, failure to grow, forest fires etc.


Also, you have air pollution and biodiversity damage that exacerbates the issue. A lot of this is political with scientists saying it is not neutral and politicians saying it is. Burning trees looks cheaper than investing in energy but it really isn’t, not with solar reaching an all time price low. A low that no one predicted incidentally.


Personally I really struggle to see where biomass fits in a low carbon energy system. We burned trees for fuel thousands of years ago, to do it now and call it progress seems a very tenuous argument.


What do people think, is biomass a good thing to support or should we look at other options?





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Lies, Damned Lies and Climate Targets

You have lies, damned lies, statistics and then you have climate targets which may be the most dishonest of all.

The UK 🇬🇧 was the first country to declare a legally binding net zero target for 2050, a point which carbon emissions and absorption should be equal. Great news right? First in the world!🌍

No, Sweden 🇸🇪 actually declared a 2045 target well before the UK did. The UK was just the first country to choose the year 2050 which is a very sneaky bit of messaging. Still, China has a 2060 target so at least we beat them

Or did we?

Net zero is a lovely ambition but you don’t measure the input and output of carbon every year, it’s too much effort. We base targets on baseline years, the UK predictions work from a 1990 baseline. Essentially this means “reducing” (including offsetting) emissions 100% from what they were in 1990. 

China however are reducing their 2005 emissions by 100% by 2060. That is an extra 15 years on our baseline but only 10 years more on the target. Worse still, carbon emissions were far higher in 2005 than 1990 meaning the Chinese aim is actually far more ambitious despite being worse on paper

More vexing, “legally binding” targets are set in law so successive governments, in theory, uphold them. However between now and 2050 there could be 5-10 different governments in power. Who would be held accountable for missing the target? None of them is the answer, “legally binding” is not a term that can be enforced. Even a state government like China’s won’t prosecute itself.

In summary, headline target figures mean little without knowing the baseline they are talking about as everyone is trying to reduce “100% of emissions” from different years meaning they are not comparable.
Comparing climate targets of nations is like comparing progress in a race where everyone starts and ends in different places. The headline number is arguably the least important point of all.

Electric Cars

Last year I was running an event someone was speaking about electric cars. Following the event I got a very critical email from someone detailing why electric vehicles (EV’s) are not good and we should not encourage them. They are not alone, the anti-EV movement is strong, but do they have a point?

Batteries!

The first point of contention is batteries. You need to mine lithium, cobalt or nickel (or a combination) to make batteries and everyone makes theirs slightly different. There is a cost to this in terms of emissions and wider issues like land grabs, child labour, water pollution etc. This is known. Most EV companies are working on this and, like them or loathe them, Tesla are regarded as one of the best in this area. Both in technology and working practises. The point is fair, batteries are hard to make at present and do put the manufacturing cost of an EV (Both £ and carbon emissions) above that of a conventional car.

However, the majority of vehicle emissions are not in manufacturing, they are in using it. If you take the entire life of a vehicle into account then EV outstrips conventional by a very long way. It’s not close. Numbers vary, as EV’s run on electricity and electricity is produced in different ways in different countries so everyone has their own payback period. I live in Scotland where our grid is one of the cleanest in the world so it would be faster than somewhere like Germany who use coal still. An EV in Scotland would probably be more efficient than a petrol car after about six months, even accounting for the higher production cost as the running is so much lower. Obviously the longer you keep the car, the more efficient it becomes. It’s not perfect but it is improving and all new technology is fairly intensive and inefficient to start out.

You can see the pictures from Carbon Brief who explain this. You can never reduce petrol emissions, however electric emissions are going down and will likely continue so even a marginal EV today will be worthwhile long term as the electricity grid gets cleaner. In 2019 the lifecycle emission of an EV were 3x lower than a conventional car.

The Carbon Brief Graph also shows that the best performing conventional car (Toyota Prius) doesn’t win out over even the worst performing EV. This is a great study and really looks into all aspects. Commonly you find people say battery production is high but ignore the fossil fuel and rare earth mining that also happens in conventional cars. This looks at the overall fuel cycle which includes production.

One thing that people don’t look at enough is the end of life. Many claim that batteries die and then are thrown away to pollute and leach into the world. Some likely are. More and more are being reused though. A battery than can move a 2 tonne car around 300 miles is a powerful thing. Even when it becomes less efficient it is still useable and companies are now taking them out of “old” cars and putting them in homes with renewables. Sometimes we make too much renewable energy and can’t store it, an old EV battery is an ideal storage unit in a home and can save a lot of energy. Even if the battery was ludicrously poor, say 10% that is 30 miles worth of charge for a car. Think how many times you can boil the kettle or run the toaster on that if you had only saved some renewable energy? EV’s are already used for this, the National Grid likes people to plug cars in overnight so they can dump excess energy into cars to balance the grid as we still have thousands of wind turbines running at night making energy that needs to go somewhere.

Some people like to go for the tyres and say EV’s are worse and wear down faster causing microplastic pollution. This is untrue. EV’s have faster acceleration and wheelspin will erode tyres (think how often a F1 car changes tyres). Your tyres don’t know they are on an EV, it’s the same tyres and the same weight of car. If you accelerated hard on a petrol car the result is the same, it just takes a bit of caution as people learn more about EV driving.

EV’s have some problems with production, but not significantly more than petrol cars. Certainly not more than they would have had when they were newly made either. Do remember that petrol cars use rare earth metals and mineable resources too.

Of course EV’s alone are not enough and we have to reduce emissions but surely we know that now? But if you can’t walk, cycle or use public transport, an EV is a good option. Importantly, it will be your only option as most car manufacturers have committed to going 100% electric. Hydrogen is another route but is not really viable in road cars, lorries and trains it does work.

In the US and Europe, EV’s are definitely more efficient and will only become more so as time passes.

Source: Carbon Brief

Factcheck: How electric vehicles help to tackle climate change

Carbon Capture and Storage

So I ran a poll on Instagram and 2/3 of people said we should invest in this. Not surprising as it does feature in pretty much every climate strategy and model we have. A few raised the issue of trees, absolutely we should have more trees! Trees and CCS are not opposites though, we need both. Even the 1 Trillion Tree Foundation say we need CCS. Trees can (counter intuitively) release more carbon than they absorb and cannot just be planted everywhere at will. We do of course need to reduce emissions but this post is taking that as a given.

CCS is very viable in some situations.

However, CCS comes in many forms and is misunderstood and unfairly maligned.

Bioenergy CCS

This is when you grow an energy crop (like elephant grass) which absorbs carbon dioxide as it grows (photosynthesis). You then burn it for electricity and capture the carbon from the smoke with carbon dioxide scrubbers which essentially “grab” CO2 molecules from the smoke.

Direct or Air Capture

When you suck CO2 through a fan and scrubbers again grab the molecules out of the sky.

These are the two types you see in the news. Bioenergy is a bit “icky” sometimes due to land use, fertiliser, pesticides etc. Direct is equally dubious as CO2, although very high for human life, is relatively low in the atmosphere at 410 parts per million of air. It’s not the most efficient use of a scrubber. They work really well in smoke stacks and chimneys because the CO2 level is high and the efficiency is higher.

Sort of like how you could hoover more sand from the beach than in the air. If you wanted to hoover sand (I don’t know why), you would go to the beach. You want CO2, you go to the chimney.

So it doesn’t work then?

It can, there is a more common method but it is not new, the first commercial carbon capture plant was in 1974 and the earliest mentions of it are the 1920’s. It was made by an oil company. This is where climate some activists start getting a bit upset. If you capture CO2 from a chimney with a scrubber the CO2 is absorbed in a liquid, this liquid can then pumped underground which forces oil up. It’s a more efficient way of getting oil out and it does work. If you take this away then oil exploration would be more polluting than it is.  

The principal works and is being expanded widely with a slight tweak. Instead of using it to force oil up, we just store it underground. We can capture it from any polluting building, there is a transport cost to putting it back in the ground but it is significantly less than not capturing it so the raw carbon economics do work. The technology does work. For all that oil and gas has done, their ability to invent and implement infrastructure is impressive. They are still heavily involved but now are alongside huge corporations like Microsoft and Google who are putting billions into this. Technology moves quickly and money and competition make it move even faster.

Carbon tax and CCS together is a game changer. It turns CCS into a far more viable prospect. If you pay for every tonne you emit, and get credit/reduction for sequestration then emitting becomes more expensive. The cost of “reducing emissions” becomes lower relative to the cost of continuing at a higher tax rate.

CCS also has spillover effects when mixed with tax. Electric cars become far more viable, same with trains etc.

CCS is absolutely possible, viable and necessary. Not on its own, climate change is a 1000 problems rolled into 1 and we need 1000 solutions. It’s not trees or CCS, it’s both.

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Have XR Crossed the Line?

Activism has been around a long time and studies have shown that the environmental sector is bad at it. It has achieved less here than it has anywhere else with those who take part being labelled as “tree huggers”, “hippies” and other colourful terms. I work in this sector but I find it quite hard to disagree with a lot of the negativity towards some of these people, they really don’t seem to help themselves and indeed groups like Extinction Rebellion really play on the “rebel for life”, “we are not like you mentality” which can feel alienating, even as someone who supports environmental action. These groups protest loudly, disruptively and sometimes in stupid and dangerous ways. This leads even people who sympathise with the cause to lose faith in them. Personally I can’t align with them or support them as they are too aggressive and have done too many stupid stunts. I don’t want to be part of a group where every stunt I have to say “we’re not all like that”. If you have to deny, distance or apologise for the action, it was lkely a terrible action.

Activism is messy, particularly in the environmental sector as there as so many groups and each one is broken into further autonomous groups. Extinction Rebellion frequently distance themselves from their own members, indeed anyone can claim membership so it is clearly open to exploitation but only because they set it up as such. There are so many different levels of activism and very little control over who is getting the power, what they do, and often a hypocritical and self righteous response when authorities try to intervene. Certainly some activists break their own “non violence” and no “blame and shame” rule (rules 8 and 9 in the XR handbook fyi), indeed some it seems just enjoy the anarchy and protests which doesn’t advance the cause.

Activism groups follow a standard pattern. They tend to become to live, hit the news, develop support, start alienating people and then end up with a core group of supporters, a lot of indifferent people and authorities who try to stop them. This then leads to more and more radical attempts to be noticed. If we take the latest group, Extinction Rebellion and look at some of their stunts we can see this.

 Firstly there was the infamous stunt of climbing on an electric train in a poor part of London and stopping commuters. Even XR’s core group advised that this was a bad idea but it went ahead anyway with protesters angering everyone, being dragged off the train and generally causing havoc. This caused the first real divisions in XR as they had internally opposed this and a poll showed 72% of members wanted no action against tube stations. It certainly didn’t aid in their efforts to be taken seriously and undermined their calls for greater democracy when they ignore their own majority. XR are not a climate group though, they have stated that this “isn’t about the climate” and that they want to abolish governments and that ‘forcing governments to act’ or ‘bringing them down’ in order to enact its policies will require ‘some to die in the process’.

Then we had the protest in Cambridge where they dug up university grounds, grounds that you aren’t allowed to even walk on. This was especially stupid as Cambridge City Council declared a climate emergency, are not Conservative and thus don’t represent the government and are generally pretty good at sustainability. Also, why was digging up the grass necessary, what was the purpose? Just to be controversial, just to make the news? Maybe that was the case but I can’t imagine anyone saw a hole in the grass in Cambridge and thought “better reduce my CO2 emissions”. At some point it seems the attention became more important than the message. At that point, all credibility is lost. Vandalism and activism are not the same thing.

We also had the “spraying the treasury with fake blood” scheme which seemed to go wrong and they sprayed the road. Even from a basic environmental point of view it wasted a lot of water with some sort of red chemical in it, used a fire engine which is about the most energy intensive road vehicle and made them a bit of a laughing stock for failing miserably at it.  8 people were arrested, people were disrupted and, as with the previous stunts, they lost support from the public.

Those stunts also saw a media that had started out by enjoying the novelty of the protests, turn against them. Pushing the public further away, they may want to be “rebels” but opposing the media and authority pushes them more toward extremes and alienates those who genuinely care. Now you have a divide with the majority of the media and public on the side of the authorities, meaning the government is even less likely to concede ground.

On top of this you have different groups which sometimes block emergency service vehicles and some that do not. The official line is they do let emergency vehicles through but there have been times when this has not happened which has alienated them further.

Calling for system change is all very well but you can’t do that from a jail cell, you need a seat at the table.  A government can never been seen to bow to a protest, it sets a precedent.  It could provide ammunition for the opposition who are free to agree. It is however very difficult even for them as many in XR fundamentally want to topple governments. Indeed the founder of XR, Roger Hallam has said,

Name of the game, you’ve got to bring down all the regimes in the world, ideally simultaneously, and replace them. The practical implementation happens by paralyzing major cities with masses of people. Disabling traffic for a sufficiently long period of time would result in food shortages. Once that happens the regime will fall.”

I doubt however that was what most protestors thought they were doing. Were they protesting the environment or were they trying to cause starvation and the overthrow of government?

Indeed, Roger, an ex carrot farmer, went further:

It rained a lot and my business went down the drain, and so I decided to take down the system because I didn’t like it very much,”

It certainly takes away from the high minded, social and climate justice angles. Sounds a lot more petty and vindictive. It also explains why the government put them on what amounts to a terrorist watch list. If you we explicitly state you want to overthrow a government, it is very hard to then expect them to listen. Objectively, if you put those quotes in front of a picture of dictator in the Middle East, the conclusion you draw is not “environmental activist”.

I appreciate what the protestors want, they want people to take notice because no one seems to care and they want to show the world what is happening, it’s frustrating. But venting is not progress.  XR just do so many hypocritical and stupid things that it is very hard to see things from their perspective, even as someone who supports the environmental aim. To call for everyone to be involved and then to alienate and disrupt people seems to be counter intuitive. What about the middle ground of people, the ones who just aren’t sure, who were on the fence? Many now think “these environmental activists are stupid” and the chance to earn their support and help is gone. Not just for XR, but for Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and whoever else you want to name. They are now lumped together as crazy activists.

The diversity issue is still prevalent with them being accused of being a “middle class white protest” as they were the ones who could afford to be arrested. It is a fairly entitled view as most people can’t get arrested without damaging career prospects or risking a criminal record. Indeed for black members who wish to be arrested they wrote a special guide that said not to worry as “most prison officers are black and do not wish to give you a hard time” which seems like an obvious error. It also said people should use their time in prison to “practise yoga” and “learn from their experience” which is equally stupid.

Many of you may be in XR and may support it, which is fine, the trouble is however they are made up of so many people and different groups (about 650) that they will not share the same views and thus there is no clear message. They will also not share the same methods and if they act in the name of XR and do something awful, what is the recourse? The damage to the reputation of all is done and the public support will be lost for all 650 groups. Indeed the recent “Coronovirus is the Cure” posters someone claiming to be XR put up has done exactly this.

 If you don’t know the story then these posters appeared from what was claimed to be an unused Twitter account and was done by “white supremacists” who do not represent XR (how that represents white supremacy I’m still not sure). I think it is fair to say they don’t represent most of XR but they felt that they did. I checked and the account was in regular use, tweeting XR related things for a long time and was not disused as XR claimed. Ultimately though it highlights the issue, if you can’t control who is in your group (which is the point of XR, mass civil disobedience) then how can you call for consistent things and be taken seriously as a group?

98% of XR are probably just people that want action on climate change. But if you have an uncontrolled minority that divide and irritate the public it makes no difference what the majority does. Especially if there is no single communication message. However, if we go back to Roger Hallam, maybe this is the point? Disruption and the breakdown of the system through disagreement and general anarchy.  I could almost accept it, but it feels like XR are either in disarray themselves or treating protestors as pawns in a bigger game. Like a pyramid scheme where you join to support the environment but find out in the end you are overthrowing the world’s governments. It’s very hard to simultaneously call for better legislation, “going beyond politics”, topple the government and form your own political party (which is something Roger Hallam has also done). Seems a mixed message.

For these reasons activism in the environmental sector never seems to work. Change will not come about through alienation, discrimination and disruption (in my humble opinion). All across the board we are being urged to collaborate, problem solve and work together to actually solve the problems and not just tell people about the problems. There is a place for activism but it needs to be intelligent, considerate and less antagonistic if the aim is public support. Setting out to be arrested, causing public disruption, and demanding change is not likely to win you friends in government or the general population. Speaking rationally with real science just might, look at Greta for example, she has met more world leaders than most world leaders have. She is an activist with widespread support for her actions and manner. It doesn’t matter if you like her or her message, her delivery earns respect.

 Activism may have a just cause, but it needs to be smarter, more organised and far more clear what the aim is.

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