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« Booker on 28gate | Main | Jeremy Grantham gets it wrong »


Matt Ridley has ripped into the biofuels debacle in an op-ed for the Times.

...there is nothing carbon-saving about bio-energy. Take wood, a more carbon-rich fuel even than coal. As the environmental scientist Jesse Ausubel, of Rockefeller University in New York, has shown, when you burn wood more carbon dioxide is emitted than from coal for the same amount of energy.

Yet Britain is dashing to replace coal with wood. Many coal plants are being subsidised to switch to biomass. Drax in North Yorkshire, the country's largest power station, is switching partly from coal to biomass while Eggborough, in the same county, will convert fully to become Britain's leading renewable power plant.

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Reader Comments (28)

There is something to Really Like about Ridley. Thanks heavens for his breath of pure sanity.

Nov 17, 2012 at 7:59 PM | Unregistered CommenterThe Iceman Cometh

But it's the least fun for those of us who pay electricity bills, where the subsidy is artfully concealed.

It's the artful concealing that needs explaining. It doesn't happen by accident.

Nov 17, 2012 at 8:02 PM | Unregistered CommenterRichard Drake

The Health & Safety Executive have recently realised there is a risk of CO death, simply from storing wood pellets.

"Risk of carbon monoxide release during the storage of wood pellets":-

Nov 17, 2012 at 11:31 PM | Unregistered CommenterJoe Public

This issue keeps rearing it's ugly head, but the UK authorities seem either wilfully ignorant of basic science and physics or in the thrall of some mad anti-business ideas. If any society which contains a sector that grows and sells timber for constructing buildings, the simple facts of supply and demand will make forestry growers sell their product directly to the power producers, raising the costs of building.
To leave coal, a brilliant and economic fuel, in the ground in favour of growing biomass for fuel, is madness writ large,
But what else can one expect from a barking-mad sector of society which demonises anything sensible that humans can and will acheive?

Nov 18, 2012 at 1:19 AM | Unregistered CommenterAlexander K

Lunatics and asylums.

Nov 18, 2012 at 3:40 AM | Unregistered CommenterJimmy Haigh

It's the madness of extreme environmentalism.

Nov 18, 2012 at 6:51 AM | Unregistered CommenterPhillip Bratby

So there is a difference between carbon and carbon dioxide but the greens and politicians think it's the same thing?

Nov 18, 2012 at 8:21 AM | Unregistered CommenterSadButMadLad

"wood, a more carbon-rich fuel even than coal"

How does that work? Wood is mostly water. Coal is relatively pure carbon.

"when you burn wood more carbon dioxide is emitted than from coal for the same amount of energy."

Yes, but unlike with coal, the carbon dioxide has been recently extracted from the atmosphere; if the wood-fuel source is re-grown the same amount of CO2 will be trapped again, re-released on burning, and so-on.

Not that that means CO2 emissions matter, of course.

Nov 18, 2012 at 8:37 AM | Unregistered Commenterdave

What you say may well be true, although leaving it as wood locks up that evil carbon for much longer. Our house was built (200 years ago) using oak which started growing several hundred years ago, had it been burnt that carbon would be in the wild. Neither do you answer the subsidy, inflation in the cost of wood and the shortages to follow this plan.

Nov 18, 2012 at 8:59 AM | Unregistered CommenterSandyS

Dave, did you read Matt Ridley's article and the references contained there-in? the issue is that the rate at which wood is being burnt is significantly greater than the rate at which trees can grow. Thus there is an ever expanding destruction of timber reserves and a significant net increase in CO2 outputs. Burning wood is not carbon neutral.

Nov 18, 2012 at 9:08 AM | Unregistered CommenterPaul Dennis

Wood smoke smells nicer. CO2 is not a problem.

Nov 18, 2012 at 9:39 AM | Unregistered CommenterJohn in France

@ John in France Nov 18, 2012 at 9:39 AM

"Wood smoke smells nicer".

That's because of all those other nasty hydrocarbons & particulates released into the atmosphere when wood is burnt.

Ironic isn't it - the (UK's) Clean Air Act was set up to protect the air quality for all its citizens, but waivers have to be sought & given to burn wood.

Nov 18, 2012 at 9:55 AM | Unregistered CommenterJoe Public

Tony Juniper has just been on Sky News (~09:45 on Sunday) saying that we could have secure and independent energy by utilising:

Wind, Tidal, Geothermal and Biomass - we do not need Nuclear or gas he said

This would provide a big boost to jobs and allow us to export this technology

Such stunning stupidity - why are these people allow out without supervision

Nov 18, 2012 at 9:59 AM | Unregistered CommenterConfusedPhoton

because he was on "The News" the majority of people will beleive him, why can't some of the interviewers ask simple questions like "Prove it?" or "where is the wood coming from?" or "what about when there is no wind or tide?", I think I know the answer but long for the occasion when one of these idiots is given a hard time by someone who has done some research.

Nov 18, 2012 at 10:30 AM | Unregistered CommenterSandyS

It was because of a shortage of wood that we saw a dramatic use of coal in England during the Tudor times although in 1307 coal burning in lime production in Southwark was banned due to the smell. No doubt when the biomass runs out someone will point out that we still have some 450 years worth of coal deposits that we know about.

Nov 18, 2012 at 10:58 AM | Unregistered CommenterRobert

The open casts in southern scotland are going on short time working as the price has dropped to below £50 per tonne courtesy of Shale gas in the US creating a surplus of coal for power stations (but coal for burning in your home does not show the same reduction, which is odd but no doubt someone is price gouging using oil and gas prices as an excuse) .

At the same time biomass is being imported for £130 per tonne, it pays the generators to pay this premium so they can claim the ROC's.

So even without actually drilling for shale gas we have a potential benefit, but due to the madness of CO2 we are instead leaving cheap coal in the ground and importing over vast distances fuel at nearly 3 times the price.

Nov 18, 2012 at 11:08 AM | Unregistered CommenterBreath of fresh air

Where is all this biomass coming from? To get the same energy from biomass as coal will require many millions of tonnes of wood chip material. Trees cannot grow fast enough to supply such quantities and the result will be higher CO2 production which these idiots were out to reduce.

Nov 18, 2012 at 11:13 AM | Unregistered CommenterJohn Marshall

Paul Deniis>

"the issue is that the rate at which wood is being burnt is significantly greater than the rate at which trees can grow."

That's a daft argument, though. Wood-fuel needs to be grown specifically for the purpose to make any sense at all. No-one (except the inevitable complete idiots) would suggest it's a good idea to burn more biomass than we grow, or even possible in the longer term.

As with all forms of fuel, wood makes sense in some circumstances and not others. It makes more sense, for instance, for someone in the middle of nowhere with lots of land to coppice wood for fuel than to import oil or gas, but it's a daft thing for someone living in a city to do.

We need to get rid of the ideological arguments and just take a practical view of what works where.

Nov 18, 2012 at 11:29 AM | Unregistered Commenterdave

Folks, why are you all discussing CO2? Get with the program please because it is about sustainability. Yes I know just as well as you do that the world can not burn wood because even at our low level in the UK the supply of wood pellets for power stations is not sustainable. However please look at this through the eyes of poorly educated, non real world ecoloons; if we burn a tree we can grow another one see? Simples.

Nov 18, 2012 at 11:34 AM | Registered CommenterDung

If you burn a tree, then the carbon it has been fixing for decades or centuries is turned into carbon dioxide. The tree that replaces it takes decades or centuries to grow to the same size. Therefore you have accelerated the release of its carbon into the atmosphere by many decades. In addition, you have deprived beetle larvae and their predators of their future lunch. Demand for bio-energy also raises the price of timber, which raises the incentive to cut down a rain forest or plant a field with biofuel instead of food, which raises the price of food, which incentivises the further cutting down of rain forest, which releases a huge amount of carbon not just from the wood but from the peat in the soil when deforested. You have therefore added far more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere than just the wood you have burned.

If instead you had burned coal, you would have saved the beetles' lunch and had a much smaller impact on the atmosphere's composition because you would have no effect on land-use conversion in the tropics let alone on food prices. Besides, because wood is 80% cellulose, and cellulose is a carboHYDRATE, ie, its hydrogen atoms are already oxidised, far more of the energy from burning wood comes from the production of CO2 (vs H2O) than in the burning of coal. Follow the links in my article at if you wish to check out these assertions.

dave says: "We need to get rid of the ideological arguments and just take a practical view of what works where." Precisely. Bio-energy does not cut carbon emissions. Full stop.

Nov 18, 2012 at 12:11 PM | Unregistered CommenterMatt Ridley


I don't think you are making the case about carbon replacement very well. Burning a tree may well release carbon faster than growing a single tree absorbs it. But if you have many trees growing as you burn one, the numbers can be made to balance. So given enough advance planting of trees, wood burning can, in theory, be carbon neutral (and beetle friendly too). That doesn't mean it is practical or even possible. As you point out, there is competition for land use.

Nov 18, 2012 at 12:35 PM | Unregistered CommenterSelgovae

I am with @Dave on this one.

The argument that using biomass for power or biofuels in general is supported by environmental NGOs is out of date – that hasn’t been the case for at least 6 or 7 years.

Look at who is advising the daily telegraph on carbon emission analysis in this article: ‘ Electricity from burning trees is 'dirtier than coal' ‘

“ a damning new report by the RSPB, Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth points out that in fact burning wood from whole trees produces more carbon than burning coal per unit of electricity. “

Of course, if they looked at the science they would see that in fact harvesting, processing, storing, transporting and replanting is all counted in the UK emission calculation and that it has to reach a 60% saving versus the grid average carbon intensity. The carbon debt argument is only valid if you consider one tree and not a plantation of trees grown as a renewable crop.

You might want to consider that biomass to power frequently only uses parts of the trees that have no other commercial use, such as thinnings, branches and off-cuts, which would otherwise be wasted. FAO’s Global Forest Resources Assessment (2010) shows forest cover has been steady in Canada and increasing in the US, Russia and Europe between 1990 and 2010. This is the case for all crops where farming practice has improved yields so much that we see agricultural land being abandoned altogether and afforestation occurring. In general, world rates of deforestation are declining.

The environmental arguments that both ends of the political spectrum are using to dismiss biomass is mainly taken from NGO grey literature that is just as spurious as the claims made on CAGW science. The green anti-biofuels lobby even have Mann equivalent activist academics whose science is almost deceitful. The political right in this country should know better than to unquestioningly take the views of environmentalists on these sort of matters.

As Dave implies. Take some time out and look at the facts – this is not what it seems. The real argument is simply one of economics – do you want to spend money subsidising an alternative energy source or not? Probably not – if there is good reason to believe the technology will never be able to compete without subsidy. In that case you would also never support nuclear power which has never had a single plant built, anywhere in the world, without subsidy.

Consider that the main producers and users of biofuels are in the USA and in Brazil. These policies were developed in response to energy security concerns not concerns about climate. In the USA, the cost of ethanol has been generally lower than the cost of petrol since about 2009. Blending subsidies have already been removed but even if the quota mandates were removed, fossil fuel suppliers would still be blending corn ethanol up to the fuel specification because it is cheaper. George W Bush brought in the energy security act in 2007 to protect the USA from middle east dictators - one of the most successful acts ever endorsed by a US president and he was a republican and an oil man! Shale gas, ethanol and greater vehicle efficiency means that the USA will be self-sufficient in energy within the next 5 years. This is why both Obama and Romney both endorsed the continuation of the renewable fuels standard in the last presidential race. In Brazil, the consumer has a flexi vehicle – the consumer decides what mix of fuel to use based on price only. In Brazil, petrol has often been the additive and ethanol the main fuel on a price basis. Let’s have an intelligent debate on this, keep to the economics and try to stop listening to bogus NGO arguments.

Nov 18, 2012 at 12:39 PM | Unregistered CommenterClimate Chimp


"That's a daft argument, though. Wood-fuel needs to be grown specifically for the purpose to make any sense at all. No-one (except the inevitable complete idiots) would suggest it's a good idea to burn more biomass than we grow, or even possible in the longer term."

I suggest you read the article in its entirety. I quote from Matt Ridley's note:

"By 2030, according to current plans, the UK will be burning five times the maximum timber harvest that Britain could conceivably produce. So most of it will be - and already is being - imported in the form of pellets, lumber, olive pips and peanut husks. Some will come from tropical rain forests, or will raise prices enough to encourage the felling of more rain forests."

It seems the complete idiots, as you say, are in charge of the asylum.

Nov 18, 2012 at 1:05 PM | Unregistered CommenterPaul Dennis

I have to say that I thought Matt's rational optimist book is one of the best books that I have ever read. Very insightful. He has some great analysis on how farmers have responded to price incentives and how that farming efficiency is creating spare land. It is just a shame that he hasn't realised that biofuels is really about competition and capitalism and that environmental NGOs almost unilaterally hate biofuels.

There is plenty of global land availability. If the Africans were to improve agricultural land yield by only as much as the Indians (which have really poor yields) then this change would be enough to provide enough extra agricultural land to grow crops to supply all of the worlds road transport needs.The only thing preventing this is African politics and corruption - and like Matt I am a rational optimist on Africa and look to countries like Botswanna to lead the way on fair elections, economic reform and property rights. Democratic change brings better efficiency, wealth, health, education lower population and more production including food production.There will be loads of land - forests do not need to be destroyed!

Remember the European food mountains of the 90s where farmers became so efficient at production they made so much that the EU ended up dumping grain onto poor countries destroying their economies? The EU policymakers then paid farmers to set aside land but this wasn't very useful either. So biofuels in Europe came about initially not as a climate response but in an effort to utilise redundant farm land. The idea that if you stop making biofuels you will feed more people is completely bogus. Farmers respond to price signals - if there is no price then land just comes out of use and the rate of afforestation increases as per evidenced by the FAO.

The global corn yield this year was the second highest in history despite severe drought in the USA which is the worlds biggest producer. In fact the USA still had its 8th biggest harvest ever despite the drought. Because the biofuels industry exists in the USA, farmers make much more maize than they would otherwise have made. When there is a supply disruption such as a drought there is therefore a buffer stock that would otherwise not be there that can be diverted back into food sector thus creating a cap on the price rise that would otherwise have been experienced if there were no biofuels industry. If there is no drought next year (why should there be?) then we can expect to see grain prices crashing. Biofuels creates a buffer stock that can go into food when there is a supply disruption and brings the prices of ethanol to a more competitive level when there is a boom harvest. It is positive sum gain.

Nov 18, 2012 at 1:24 PM | Unregistered CommenterClimate Chimp

Matt refers to the emission effects of "indirect land use changes"

This theoretical concept was invented by an anti-biofuels academic activist called Tim Searchinger. It relies on complex theoretical economic modelling as dubious as the climate models themselves. Searchinger could be called the Michael Mann of biomass climate modelling.

It basically says that we should penalise the UK rapeseed farmer for emissions that are outside of the UK farmers direct control. The UK farmer growing rapeseed for biofuels instead of rapeseed for food supposedly, by the laws of supply and demand, puts up the prices for food oil. Somewhere this price stimulus supposedly has a knock-on impact that someone, somwhere will see an incentive to grow a crop in high cabon stock land e.g. because the UK rapeseed farmer grew a biofuel crop someone, somewhere will cause deforestation to grow crops on tropical peat land which will release extra carbon into the atmosphere. The modelling cherry picks information and ignores a multitude of mitigations such as high protein co-products and yield responses by farmers. It ignores the real drivers of deforestation - 60% of which is driven by disadvantaged people encroaching on forest land in order to grow to eat i.e. subsistence farming rather than price responses. It ignore legal and illegal logging as the main driver outside subsistence farming.

Why are indirect effects not applied elsewhere? This is a poltical concept with no physical empirical evidence to support it. There is a huge dispute about it in academic land. The biggest solar farm in the UK is being commissioned on agricultural land in Cornwall - but this means that crops on that land that are no longer grown will have an indirect land use effect. No one is calling on solar farms having an ILUC penalty - why? The use of an electric vehicle stimulates more requirement for fossil fuel electricity - why are indirect effects not counted for EVs? The building of golf courses, country parks, football pitches, roads, buildings and all other land uses could be used instead to grow crops for food - should we not apply an indirect emission penalty on these?

ILUC effects if you believe them also change over time as it is a function of the economic conditions at any point in time. It is laughable that anyone thinks that indirect effects can be applied as a policy measure. That is why the NGOs are having such a hard time getting this landed in Europe.

Nov 18, 2012 at 2:15 PM | Unregistered CommenterClimate Chimp

And this news in a couple of days ago from the Planning Portal:

Hull wood burner

Plans for a £130m biomass-burning power station in Hull have been approved by the council. Power company Real Ventures wants to build a 49 megawatts energy facility at King George Dock.

Lucky old Hull. /sarc.

Nov 18, 2012 at 2:37 PM | Unregistered CommenterGrumpy

In France there is a huge amount of waste wood every year from branch trimming and thinning out. It lies in piles all over the place. It has to be cut so it has to be burnt! So wood burning stoves for rural homes are very logical. The whole process is of course carbon neutral. I don't doubt that energy from wood can be sustainable and relatively cheap compared to, for example, burning diesel or Russian gas. So it's not likely as clear cut as the economics genius who brought Northern Rock to it's knees suggests. On the other hand, likely it was coal burning that saved our forests from total destruction in the first place so we cannot view wood burning as any kind of solution for industry.

My abiding impression of environmental and planning policies in the UK though is that trees are regarded far more highly than humans. Here we have green, nimby planners who preserve the green belt with a lunatic fanaticism and the consequent short supply of building land pushes up house prices to a crazy extent. It surprises me not one jot that UK enviro-nuts have changed their tune now from wood burning from being a good idea to it being a bad one; they idolise their trees too much to do otherwise.

On my third hand I totally agree with Ridley about shale gas. But owing to our blinkered, constipated bureaucrats with their army of safety and enviro roadblockers,I fear it won't be developed here until way past the point of too late.

Nov 18, 2012 at 4:49 PM | Unregistered CommenterJamesG

Well, as someone who travels along the A414 between St Albans and Hemel Hempstead every day, I've been witness to how well wood chippings burn (courtesy of a timber recycling facility where one stack of chipped pallets caught fire on Saturday night last week and is still going strong)

Obviously, using a slow-growing biofuel like timber for power generation is stupidly short termist, but if a rapid-growing biofuel could be grown in close proximity to the power station (possibly making use of the heat, waste water and CO2 released), there is the potential for a useful 'closed loop' system to develop. Not sure whether there is anything that can grow quickly enough and have a high enough energy concentration to actually be used in this way, although a friend of mine did describe just such a system being trialled somewhere in the UK (he has previously been involved in biofuels from algae, until his small facility caught fire, so does keep his ear to the ground on this type of thing).

Nov 19, 2012 at 3:06 PM | Unregistered CommenterIan Blanchard

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