Thursday, February 10, 2011

Bristol's biofuels plant must be refused planning permission

Burning biofuels in power stations is environmental vandalism on a staggering scale – both in terms of emissions and habitat loss

Today, the government will make what should be a very simple decision: whether or not to give planning permission to a power station in Bristol burning biofuels. The answer must be no.

Burning biofuels in cars is mad enough, as it causes more environmental destruction – in terms of both carbon emissions and the loss of habitats – than petroleum. I've been campaigning against it since 2004. But at least in this case it's a response to a limited set of options: finding a green substitute for liquid fossil fuels is a tough call (which is why electric cars are the best way forward).

Burning biofuels in power stations is environmental vandalism on a staggering scale. The operators, such as W4B which hopes to run the Bristol plant, have two options. They could burn the cheapest available vegetable oils, which means palm and soya oil. These are also the most destructive: driving massive deforestation in both south-east Asia and the Amazon. Growing palm oil produces so much CO2 that it makes crude oil look like carrot juice. A paper published in Science suggests that when (as they are in Indonesia and Malaysia), tropical forests growing on peaty soils are cleared to plant palm oil, it takes around 840 years for any carbon savings from burning this oil rather than petroleum to catch up with the emissions caused by planting it.

Alternatively, the operators could burn cheaper oils, such as rapeseed. In doing so, they cause two problems. The first, by increasing demand, is to raise world food prices. Such power stations, in other words, burn food which could otherwise have kept people alive. It's decadence of the worst kind. The second is to create a vacuum in the world edible oils market, which is filled by … palm and soya oil. Whichever kind of vegetable oil you burn, you'll end up trashing the rainforests of Indonesia, Malaysia and Brazil.

What makes this so frustrating is that there's no shortage of ways to generate electricity. Renewables, nuclear and gas are all 100 times greener than burning biofuels. Even – God help us – coal burning is a lot less damaging than this idiocy. Yet somehow the government still classes burning edible oils to make electricity as green, and issues renewables obligations certificates for it – which is the only reason why it's happening.

In fact, you get twice as many certificates for producing a given amount of electricity from vegetable oil as you do by generating it from wind, even though it's far less green, and far less renewable. This situation is entirely an artefact of government policy and it's time the government brought it to an end. The planning secretary, Eric Pickles, can at least make a small start today, by turning the Bristol plant down

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