Rising demand for woodfuel worldwide, including in the UK, is helping to increase the number of foreign-owned plantations in developing countries, at the cost of food security, according to a new report from the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED).
However, at the same time, the amount of waste wood being exported from the UK to the continent for use as fuel is expanding "very rapidly" and could account for up to 500,000 tonnes of material by the end of the year, according to Toby Beadle, technical advisor for the Wood Recyclers' Association.
Projected demand for wood chips and pellets in the UK is likely to exceed - by five or six times - the indigenous supply of ten million tonnes a year. The UK, along with Sweden and the Netherlands, is already importing more. It currently imports 40m tonnes a year, and this is expected to rise to 50m tonnes shortly.
This trend is fed on the one hand by aggressive marketing from some companies in some developing countries, such as the Brazilian Association Industry, which is busy promoting cheap sources of industrial biomass fuel energy, and wood chips, alongside briquette sugar cane agropellets, which turn waste from Brazilian sugar cane production into pellets that can be burned in coal-fired and thermal plants.
Rising UK demand alone, fuelled by the Renewable Heat Incentive and other initiatives, could lead to an almost doubling of world trade in wood chips and pellets, according to John Clegg Consulting. Wood already accounts for 67% of global renewable energy supplies.
The confused British market for woodfuel
Ian Tubby of the UK Biomass Energy Centre says that the homegrown market for woodfuel is currently immature, confused and still developing, and the supply chain is undeveloped. What is needed is a much better match between the UK's supply and demand sides to avoid the waste caused by unnecessary exports and imports.
The market for waste wood is likely to be boosted by a new Wood Quality Protocol for recovered waste wood. The protocol is being developed under the Waste Quality Protocols project by the Environment Agency and WRAP to define the point at which recovered wood would no longer be classed as a waste.
But waste wood can only meet part of the expected rise in UK demand, which is partly due to the UK's National Renewable Energy Action Plan, which stipulates that under the European Renewable Energy Directive the UK must reach a target for 15% of energy consumption in 2020 to be from renewable sources.
This has meant that planning permission has been granted to more than 7GW of biomass power plants, including and especially, Drax. Most of this will be imported, Drax says.
"New pellet mills are coming on stream in the UK but this is not a market waste wood producers can sell to," Tubby says, "so pellets are exported. The grade of pellets required by, say, Drax, would be different."
Yet Tubby says that in England alone 4m tonnes of wood is currently unharvested; if just half of this were brought out, it would fuel a quarter of a million houses.
If waste wood is exported to be burnt rather than sold domestically it is because, say, it is treated, or the wrong grade and so cannot be used in domestic incinerators under the terms of the Incineration Directive.
As a positive development, he points to Forestry Commission plans being developed to encourage landowners to plant and harvest more domestic woodlands for fuel, and to grants that are available to support coppicing.
He says that he knows of foresters on England's south coast who are looking to the continent for a market for their woodfuel.
There is also potential for harvesting more brash - branches left behind after forests are felled. Some must be left behind for reasons of sustainability - to protect the ground from erosion. Some brash can be economically and sustainably collected however, Tubby says.
Global rising demand
Europe is not alone in creating a higher global demand for woodfuel: in South Korea, the recently approved Renewable Portfolio Standard requires utilities to source 10% of their electricity supplies from new and renewable sources, including biomass, by 2022, and in the United States a quarter of all national energy is to be supplied from renewable sources, including biomass, by 2025.
Energy companies are developing plantations on available land in developed countries, but they have their eye of much bigger prizes in Southeast Asia, Africa and South America.
For example, in 2010, a US company acquired a 49-year lease on 5,000 hectares of land in Ghana for a plantation to produce feedstock for biomass power plants.
In Guyana, where it already leases some 2,000 hectares (expected to increase to 58,000 hectares), it plans to export wood chips to the UK and the US.
The IIED report documents that North America has also acquired 11,700ha in India, an unknown amount of land in the Congo and 60,700ha in Guyana. Europe has acquired 126,000ha in Mozambique and South Korea 200,000ha in Indonesia, for example.
New tree plantations for exporting woodfuel in developing countries could be good news in terms of jobs, investment, climate change and conservation in these nations - if they are managed well.
But the IIED report points out that because land in these countries is often owned by the state, decisions about biomass plantations will be taken by central government agencies. The risk is that plantations may therefore displace poor and marginalised communities from land they have tended for generations but have no formal claim over.
The IIED's paper warns that this could therefore harm food security and the livelihoods of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people.
"All eyes are turned to food and biofuels, but tree plantations for biomass energy may soon become an important driver in the global land rush," says Dr Lorenzo Cotula, a senior researcher at IIED and co-author of the paper.
Duncan Macqueen, also a senior researcher and co-author adds: "Wood is a vital renewable energy source, and countries in the South should develop it for local energy security, not export it to fuel Northern energy deficits at the expense of their own people."