Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has been called out by more than 600 scientists for the UK’s use of a contentious form of energy, which they say is destroying the “lungs of the earth”.
Signatories from every continent have spoken out in a letter about the “devastating impacts” of bioenergy on forests.
The controversial energy form, which divides scientific opinion, involves cutting down trees and burning them to generate electricity.
The professors and science students warn of the industry’s “growing threat to biodiversity” because of the way they say it hacks down trees and habitats.
They warn it undermines a current high-stakes push to slow the rapid loss of life-sustaining nature.
“It is simply not environmentally sustainable,” said Kew Gardens’ director of science, Professor Alexandre Antonelli, one of the key authors.
“Sustainability means you can do something forever… and because we are losing forests that have been growing for many decades, if not centuries, we are not allowing nature to recover to the level it needs to recover the biodiversity,” he told Sky News.
That matters because healthy, old forests house things like mosses, which can slow flooding, and pollinating insects and birds and can soak up more carbon dioxide, he says.
They want the UK and leaders from other major users or consumers of bioenergy – including President Xi Jinping of China and US President Joe Biden – to ditch the energy form together.
The letter lands just before global nature negotiations COP15 kick off in Montreal next week, which aim to slam the brakes on the rapid loss of nature that provides food, medicine, income and pollution all over the world.
The signatories warn the talks may fail unless businesses stop clearing forests for bioenergy, which has boomed in recent years as a replacement for coal, the dirtiest fossil fuel.
‘Not the right solution’
The government’s climate advisors plan for a limited role of bioenergy in the UK, which generated 12.9% of its electricity last year.
But because one million species globally are now at risk of extinction, “we have to do everything we can to reverse the loss of biodiversity worldwide,” Prof Antonelli argued.
“The climate and biodiversity crises are strongly intertwined, and we need to find solutions for both of them,” he said, acknowledging “the energy transition across the world is going to be difficult.”
“But we don’t think burning down forests… is the right solution,” he said. The signatories want governments to replace it with wind or solar power instead.
Many countries class bioenergy as renewable in spite of it emitting more climate-heating carbon dioxide than oil or gas.
Supporters of biomass say replacement trees absorb those greenhouse gases as they grow – critics say trees take too long to grow back, and may not ever at all.
Strict sustainability criteria
Mark Sommerfield from UK industry body REA said “biodiversity considerations are an important component of biomass sustainability governance”.
He cited a review of 211 studies, 69% of which concluded that forestry had no negative impact on biodiversity.
The letter accuses the industry of clearcutting forest, which means cutting down entire sections rather than keeping continuous cover, and is supposed to be particularly bad for biodiversity.
Mr Sommerfield said bioenergy is part of a “broader forestry economy”, often using the residue from the timber industry, and therefore eliminating waste.
In October, 550 academics sympathetic to the industry wrote a letter arguing bioenergy can “substitute fossil energy and is a significant part of climate protection policy”.
A government spokesperson said the UK “only supports biomass which complies with our strict sustainability criteria”.
“Many biomass feedstocks are likely to be combusted or decomposed anyway, so it is more efficient to use that material as an energy source and displace expensive, volatile fossil fuels in the process,” they added.
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