UK ‘net zero’ plan to remove CO2 from atmosphere relies on burning 120 million trees, report claims

The UK government’s plan to reach ‘net zero’ by 2050 by removing carbon from the atmosphere relies on burning the equivalent of almost 120 million trees a year, a new report claims.

The government’s Net Zero Strategy, released in October 2021, aims to capture up to 58 million tonnes of CO2 from the burning of biomass and piping it under the North Sea. 

This process is considered to be carbon neutral because the trees that are burnt are then replanted, so any emissions that are captured and stored are counted as negative.

But to create this much carbon, a whopping 32,534,939 tonnes of wood pellets would need to be burned every year, according to a report by The Telegraph — the equivalent of 119,834,572 trees.

For comparison, the New Forest currently has an estimated 46 million trees.

The government’s Net Zero Strategy aims to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 and relies heavily on bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS). This process involves burning wood pellets to create electricity, before the CO2 is separated and piped underground

The UK has three major biomass power stations. The largest is Drax in North Yorkshire, which is a re-designed coal power station

The UK has three major biomass power stations. The largest is Drax in North Yorkshire, which is a re-designed coal power station

When does biomass release emissions? 

Biomass power plants burn wood chips and straws to create heat which will generate electricity.

Plants first generate emissions by transporting fuel to their site, which can be high if it is moved over long distances. Further emissions are then generated when it is burnt. 

Supporters argue that all this can be offset through planting new forests, which reabsorb the carbon and are then later burnt themselves in order to produce more power.

But critics argue this process can take decades or even centuries to complete, meaning biomass may be ineffective in reducing CO2 emissions. 

The government’s Net Zero Strategy aims to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 and relies heavily on bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS).

‘Carbon capture usage and storage can capture CO2 from power generation, hydrogen production, and industrial processes – storing it underground or using it,’ the government explains in its Journey to Net Zero report.

‘This technology also supports negative emissions from engineered greenhouse gas removals – bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) and Direct Air Carbon Capture and Storage.’

The UK government considers the biomass industry carbon-neutral because emissions released are offset by the growth of new trees to replace those harvested for burning.

However, wood burning is far more complex than this assumption – with many studies showing that burning wood is often not carbon neutral.

Following the launch of the Net Zero Strategy last year, independent think tank Ember explained: ‘The ability of BECCS to generate negative emissions relies on the carbon-neutral status of burning wood for power. 

‘BECCS therefore carries with it exactly the same risks around carbon impacts as wood-burning currently does. 

To create this much carbon, a whopping 32,534,939 tonnes of wood pellets would need to be burned, according to the report - the equivalent of 119,834,572 trees. For comparison, the New Forest currently has an estimated 46 million trees

To create this much carbon, a whopping 32,534,939 tonnes of wood pellets would need to be burned, according to the report – the equivalent of 119,834,572 trees. For comparison, the New Forest currently has an estimated 46 million trees

‘In other words, given the significant questions around the carbon neutral status of burning wood, the ability of BECCS to deliver negative emissions on the scale and in the time frame promised must also be brought into question.’ 

In their new report, The Telegraph analysed government modelling to understand exactly how much biomass power plants will need to burn.

Their findings suggest that 58 million tonnes of carbon dioxide would need to come from power station chimneys so that removal can ‘balance the books.’

Speaking to The Telegraph, a spokesman for the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (Beis) said that the plans are not final, and that they ‘do not recognise this characterisation’ of the number of trees being burnt.

‘We need to generate more home-grown power in Britain and sustainable biomass is widely considered a renewable, low carbon energy source,’ they said.

He added that materials other than wood are also being considered to create biomass, and that ‘no decision’ had been made on the reliance of BECCS.

Worryingly, Ember claims that BECCS is likely to be extremely expensive technology, with the costs falling on the energy bill payers. 

‘Given the issues with biomass in the power sector and the great uncertainty around the true impacts of BECCS, investing our future and finance in the technology is a potentially very high-regrets policy,’ it said.

‘The government should only support BECCS at scale when it can be demonstrated to deliver real negative emissions.’ 

WHAT ARE THE UK’S PLANS FOR ‘NET ZERO’ CARBON EMISSIONS?

Plans for the UK to become ‘carbon’ neutral by 2050 were released by Theresa May’s government on June 12, 2019.

However, experts are concerned over how the proposals will work.

The report commits to ensuring that the emissions generated by the UK are offset by removing the same amount of carbon from the atmosphere.

There are two main ways this can be achieved – by planting more trees and by installing ‘carbon capture’ technology at the source of the pollution.

Some critics are worried that this first option will be used by the government to export it’s carbon offsetting to other countries.

International carbon credits let nations continue emitting carbon while paying for trees to be planted elsewhere, balancing out their emissions.

Some argue that the scheme is a way for developed nations to shirk their environmental obligations, by passing them to poor and developing countries.