Government accused of 'hypocrisy' over climate goals as UK becomes top spender on wood chip subsidies

Wood chip at the Stobart Energy biomass plant in Teesside - Ian Forsyth /Bloomberg
Wood chip at the Stobart Energy biomass plant in Teesside - Ian Forsyth /Bloomberg

The government has been accused of hypocrisy over its climate agenda after it emerged that the UK spends more green subsidies on "dirty and destructive" wood fuels than any other country.

Figures compiled by the campaign group Cut Carbon Not Forests show that the UK has overtaken Germany to become the top spender on biomass, which involves burning wood pellets largely imported from overseas.

Government subsidies for the industry reached £1.9bn in 2019, ahead of Germany's £1.7bn, and a 60 per cent rise since 2015.

In the UK one fifth of renewable energy subsidies go to biomass, compared to less than 15 per cent in France, which has the second-highest proportion.

The industry argues that carbon is removed from the atmosphere when trees grow, making it a more sustainable alternative to fossil fuels, though critics say this process takes too long at a time when emissions need to be urgently cut to meet climate goals.

Sasha Stashwick, of the US-based Natural Resources Defense Council, which produced the report, said that Europe led the world in spending on biomass fuel, which she called "dirty and destructive".

The UK's funding also goes to electricity generation, a less efficient way of using the fuel, compared to "combined heat and power" systems which harness more of the energy produced by burning, favoured in countries including Denmark and France.

"No single country on the planet has invested as much in burning biomass for electricity as the UK," she said.

Questions have been raised about the sustainability of wood imported to be burned at Britain's largest power station, Drax, in North Yorkshire.

Earlier this year the Telegraph visited areas in the US and Russia used for sourcing wood products sent to the UK and found that some of it was coming from forests where trees could take 150 years to regrow.

Almuth Ernsting, of US-UK group Biofuelwatch, accused the government of hypocrisy and said: "If they want to be serious about their commitments, they need to address the subsidies."

A spokesman for  the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy said: “Biomass-fired generation can deliver both firm and flexible low carbon power and so can be a valuable part of a balanced energy mix.

"The UK only supports biomass which complies with strict sustainability criteria and companies only receive a subsidy for compliant biomass.”