Greenhouse gas emissions from burning US-sourced woody biomass in the EU and UK

Think tank: Chatham House

Author(s): Duncan Brack; Dr Richard Birdsey; Dr Wayne Walker

October 14, 2021

This report from UK think tank Chatham House looks at increased use of forest biomass for energy and associated impacts on the climate.

Existing national and intergovernmental policy frameworks treat forest biomass as zero-carbon at the point of combustion and grant it access to financial and regulatory support. Consumption of wood pellets is growing rapidly as a result. Yet these frameworks do not take full account of the contribution of biomass burning to increased carbon emissions. This paper examines one particular source of woody biomass: pellets sourced from the US that are burnt for electricity and combined heat and power in the EU and UK. Accounting for emissions from their combustion, their supply chain, forgone removals of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere due to the harvesting of live trees and emissions from the decay of roots and unused logging residues left in the forest after harvest, it finds that US-sourced wood pellets burnt in the UK were responsible for 13 million–16 million tonnes of CO2 emissions in 2019, equivalent to the emissions from between 6 million and 7 million passenger vehicles. This makes it less likely that the UK will achieve its climate targets.