Palm oil facepalm

The environmental imperative suggests that generating electricity from renewable energy sources as a means of reducing carbon emissions is an obvious course of action. But might some renewables end up costing the earth?

In December last year, I wrote a post expressing concern at Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) Secretary Ed Davey’s decision to proceed with plans for the fracking of shale gas reserves in the UK, not only because of the environmental problems therein, but also lest it detract from investment in renewable energy technologies such as wind, wave, tidal and solar power.

Like most nascent industries (and even some established ones), the renewables industry is in receipt of government subsidy, and this subsidy takes the form of Renewable Obligation Certificates (ROCs) which are issued by Ofgem to energy generators who in turn sell them to suppliers to meet their own obligations.

It may well have escaped your notice that, in the House of Lords last week, a cross-party scrutiny committee considered the Renewables Obligation (Amendment) Order 2013 (read from 4pm), a motion proposed by DECC which largely concerned the latest round of gradual phasing down of the level of ROCs used by the government to support the renewables industry. Such phasing down is perhaps inevitable, as the costs of renewable technologies decrease over time as they are increasingly rolled out – so far, so uncontroversial. However, one aspect of the Amendment which has brought controversy concerns the place of biofuel in power generation.

Coming to a power station near you? (Picture source: bloomberg.com)

Coming to a power station near you? (Picture source: bloomberg.com)

Now I’ve long been of the opinion that, when it comes to transport, the use of biofuels rather smacks of clutching at straws, in that it detracts from land which could (should?) be dedicated to food crops and which, in turn, could potentially impact upon the supply, security and price of food. Not only that, but the energy expended in the refinement of crops into fuel renders them rather less carbon neutral than it is commonly claimed. Besides, surely crops are better used for fuelling people rather than vehicles?

Biofuel, or biomass, can take several forms, ranging from firewood in domestic wood burners to manufactured wood pellets used in industry. I must admit that the use of biomass as a means of a larger scale electricity generation is something I hadn’t really considered, although the Amendment suggests that it could provide up to 30% of the UK’s renewable energy, equating to ~4% of total energy. The Amendment also included the introduction of ‘support bands’ for existing coal-fired power stations to convert, wholly or partially, to biomass generation, along with an announcement of a 400 megawatt cap on new biomass ‘plant’ or generation. I’m not sure exactly how much this kind of generation comes to, but the proposal is causing some concern, largely due to the spectre of palm oil.

Palm oil is widely used in many domestic household and food products, and the problems wrought by deforestation – climate change, sustainability, biodiversity and habitat loss – as rainforests are cleared to make way for palm oil plantations are well documented, and it has been reported that some agencies have expressed their concern that the measures proposed in the Amendment could make deforestation even worse. For example, a post by the Sumatran Orang-utan Society (SOS) claims that the Amendment’s proposed biomass cap would be high enough to double imports of palm oil into the UK. This claim is entirely plausible as it is reported that officials at DECC say they would be unable discriminate against palm oil – the cheapest liquid biofuel, according to SOS – subsidies, lest it impacts upon other biomass sources they want to encourage. But if Germany and the Netherlands can remove palm oil subsidies, why can’t we?

DEFRA and DECC seem at odds over endangered species (Picture source: independent.co.uk)

DEFRA and DECC seem at odds over endangered species (Picture source: independent.co.uk)

This is madness. In their efforts to reduce carbon emissions here, DECC are seemingly ensuring that they actually increase them elsewhere, all the while establishing monocultures and destroying habitats. SOS also point out that, with almost impeccable timing, DECC were potentially committing the habitats of endangered species to 20 years of development (the length of time that ROCs are guaranteed for) just two days after the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) became part of a one-year campaign promoting awareness of endangered species. You couldn’t make it up.

That’s not all. On BBC Radio 4’s Today programme last Wednesday morning, energy minister John Hayes debated the matter with Professor Sir David King, the former chief scientific advisor to the government (listen from 2:39:40 to 2:46:14) and, in defending the biomass proposals, Mr Hayes seemingly demonstrated a profound ignorance regarding sustainability matters. As I listened to the programme, I was amazed to hear him denounce concern over food production as a “detached, bourgeois view” and stunned to hear him glibly declare that “we’ve been chopping up trees and burning them since man began”. So that’s alright then!

On the basis of this performance, one wonders what hope the environment has with someone like John Hayes in office. His appointment seemingly illustrates the disdain and/or ignorance of this government regarding the environment – I wonder if Mr Hayes could be replaced by one of the orang-utans displaced by the government’s misguided renewables policy.

Incidentally, the motion was passed: greenest government ever?

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