By ditching coal for biomass, Japan and South Korea are embracing false hope of a zero-carbon future
The assumption that burning biomass can replace or mitigate coal’s negative effects is not just questionable science, it is dangerously undermining coal phase-out plans in Japan and South Korea.
Last year, my colleagues and I [Tomos] took a close look at Britain’s biggest greenhouse gas emitter. It’s not a coal plant – at least not any more, really.
Since 2012, Drax Group has been transitioning out of coal; its last coal-fired plant is expected to shut down later this year. Drax is now the biggest biomass-based electricity producer in Europe – mostly using compressed wood pellets – thanks to what we estimate will be more than £10 billion (US$13 billion) in subsidies.
These subsidies are provided under the premise that burning biomass is carbon neutral, that all the carbon released from burning trees is reabsorbed when new trees are grown. This logic is no longer supported by the latest scientific evidence, which shows that burning wood for power is often not carbon neutral, and can be more polluting than coal.
Our recent analysis found that Drax is the biggest emitter in Britain, pumping out 13.2 million tonnes of carbon dioxide from its chimneys in 2020. This also makes it the European Union’s fourth-largest carbon dioxide emitter among coal plants when biomass emissions are included.
Yet, surprisingly, most people, including many policymakers, did not realise how dirty this energy could be, and were shocked to learn just how much money meant to reduce carbon emissions was being used to pump them up.
Now, this same faulty logic is spreading across Asia, as countries such as South Korea and Japan see biomass as a “clean” replacement to coal power.
Over the past decade, biomass imports have boomed in South Korea; it now imports close to 3 million tonnes of wood pellets each year, largely derived from forests across Southeast Asia. In 2020, close to 2 million tonnes came from Vietnam alone, with Malaysia and Indonesia contributing over 500,000 and 300,000 tonnes respectively.
These imports not only contribute to tropical deforestation but also hurt South Korea’s renewable electricity progress. Biomass accounts for close to 13 per cent of the country’s energy supply, and is so heavily subsidised that the adoption of wind and solar power has slowed to a snail’s pace in recent years.
As of last year, only about 3 per cent of South Korea’s electricity was generated by wind and solar. While the country has aspirations to develop some of the world’s biggest offshore wind farms by 2030, its certification of biomass burning as sustainable over the past decade has undermined the price of renewable energy certificates, which were meant to spur on the adoption of clean technologies such as wind and solar.
In 2020, Vietnam also became the leading exporter of wood pellets to Japan, which has the fastest-growing industrial biomass market globally, importing over 2 million tonnes each year.
Like Britain back in 2012, Japan sees biomass as an alternative to coal power. The same company that runs the Drax plant in Britain has just set up a new office in Tokyo. Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry is discussing whether biomass should be used to extend the lifespan of some of its least-efficient coal plants, by mixing coal with biomass in a process called co-firing.
Doing so would have the same dismal results as admitted by British government ministers, who now recognise that we have wasted too much time and money on this failed experiment.
The Japanese government would only end up undermining its net zero commitments and wasting millions of taxpayer dollars to increase carbon emissions, while undercutting the country’s wind and solar industries.
Last year, South Korea and Japan took important steps towards reaching net zero emissions by 2050, which will require a rapid coal phase-out and a transition to clean electricity. But if both countries remain enamoured by the false hope of a biomass future, they will fail their net zero goals and waste taxpayers’ money doing so.
Source: South China Morning Post