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Environmental Audit Committee 

Oral evidence: Sustainable Timber and Deforestation, HC 637

Wednesday 2 November 2022

Ordered by the House of Commons to be published on 2 November 2022.

Watch the meeting

Members present: Philip Dunne (Chair); Duncan Baker; Caroline Lucas; Cherilyn Mackrory; Dr Matthew Offord, Claudia Webbe.

Questions 57 - 82


I: Dr Alan Knight, Group Director of Sustainability, Drax Group; Professor Michael Norton, Environment Programme Director, European Academies Science Advisory Council; and Professor Patricia Thornley, Director of the Energy and Bioproducts Research Institute, Aston University.

Written evidence from witnesses:

Drax Group

Examination of witnesses

Witnesses: Dr Alan Knight, Professor Michael Norton and Professor Patricia Thornley.

Q57            Chair: Good afternoon and welcome to the Environmental Audit Committee, where we are resuming our panel discussion on the sustainability of biomass supplies. I am very grateful to our guests, Dr Alan Knight, Professor Patricia Thornley and Professor Michael Norton for re-joining us. You will recall, members of the Committee, that last week we were interrupted by the bell. Caroline Lucas was in the midst of a series of questions to Alan Knight from Drax and we are going to resume where we left off last week and invite Caroline Lucas to commence the questions.

Caroline Lucas: Welcome again. Before I come to Professor Thornley I want to clarify some evidence that Dr Knight gave last week. In response to my question about whether you use logs rather than just sawdust and trimmings, you replied, according to our transcript, “Yes, we do use logs but…these are not logs suitable for timber. These are logs that are twisted and bent and hollow”. I want to get on the record, for clarity, that the 20% of your sources that are not sawdust, around 80% of that, is grade 4 logs and only about 11% are grade 6 or Z or whatever. It is not the case, is it, that all of the logs that are not sawdust are all twisted and bent and hollow? Some of those, as we know, are the roundwood logs which we had a bit of a debate about, whether a market exists for them but they clearly can be used for things such as fence posts and pulp and paper. I want to clarify exactly how much of what you are using in British Columbia could be used for other purposes.

Dr Knight: It is an important question. As you say, 80% of what we use is sawdust and timber is graded—grade 1, grade 2, grade 4, grade 6 and grade Z—and the area you are referring to is what is known as grade 4. Some of these numbers came from the “Panorama” programme and did not include in them all in their mathematics. Grade 4 is classified as timber, and logs, unsuitable for sawmills. So arguably, yes, some of those logs could be used as fence posts but the market for that is not big enough in that region.

Q58            Caroline Lucas: I want to get that clear. In your transcript, you said, “These are logs that are twisted and bent and hollow” but not all grade 4 is twisted and bent and hollow. Some might be but grade 4 can be 

Dr Knight: I was using that to illustrate the point that grade 4 refers to logs which are not suitable for sawmills because they are hollow, twisted or too small.

Caroline Lucas: But could be used for fence posts, for example. I have been talking to the BBC producer, who was telling me that in the area where Drax was cutting down those trees in British Columbia, there were in fact smaller companies, indigenous nations, who wanted some of that grade 4 wood but could not get it because it was being used by Drax. I want it on the record that not all grade 4 wood is twisted and bent and hollow, even if it is not the best grade.

Dr Knight: Yes, so for the record we do use grade 4 and that grade 4 is timber unsuitable for sawmills.

Caroline Lucas: It is not twisted and bent and hollow—all of it. Not all of it is twisted and bent and hollow.

Dr Knight: No but as I was saying, for the record, I was using twisted, bent and hollow to refer to the fact that grade 4 is timber unsuitable for sawmills.

It is interesting that you talk about First Nations. We had a leadership meeting today at Drax and had a couple of First Nations people over. They were saying how their business model works. For timber suitable for sawmills, they get $150. For logs suitable for pulp, they get $60. We give them between $20 and $30 for material that is unsuitable for either. They were expressing their gratitude—had come over to express their gratitude—for the contribution we make to good forestry in their region.

Q59            Caroline Lucas: For balance, I cannot help pointing out that when I spoke to the BBC, they pointed out that some of those First Nations were also very annoyed that grade 4 wood is being used to create pellets rather than for creating things such as fence posts and other things that they might to use it for locally, but that is for the record.

One last thing before I come to Professor Thornley. Coming back again to another area which just felt a bit unclear when I re-read the transcript, which was about this definition of what is and what is not primary forest. That apart in a way, because I know you were saying that in British Columbia they do not necessarily use that definition, as I understand it, Drax’s own sustainability criteria say that you will avoid damage or disturbance to—the phrase you use on your website—“high carbon forests”. Would you acknowledge that some of those areas in British Columbia where you were logging were indeed high-carbon forests?

Dr Knight: First, you keep saying “where Drax is logging”—

Caroline Lucas: Okay, where Drax is using the wood; you are right. Yes.

Dr Knight: The Drax business model, as we say, is that we use sawdust and we use the residues and we have had that conversation.

The other important thing is—again, this was clarified when talking to the First Nations this morning and they showed us photographs—that material would have been burnt in these areas. We only go to areas where the Government, with First Nations’ consent, have decided to log for timber and we support that industry by taking residues which would have been burnt anyway.

Caroline Lucas: I am challenging you, just for the record because I have heard other evidence, but anyway, let’s talk about high-carbon forests. You are right. I apologise—

Q60            Chair: I did not quite understand that. “Would have been burnt anyway” means what exactly? Forest residue would literally have been burnt on site?

Dr Knight: Literally. For things like sawdust, they used to have these things called beehive kilns, which were huge. These are not little bonfires at the bottom of the garden; they are huge, and the sawdust would go in there and be burnt. I started my career sorting out sustainable timber for B&Q and I would go to the back of factories and I would be seeing sawdust being burnt. We have now created

Q61            Chair: For no purpose other than to clear it up? It wasn’t used for energy—

Dr Knight: It was burnt and then, yes, over time of course they started thinking we could use it for kilning and now it is the source for pellets.

We have organised ourselves around forest-harvested timber. We are not going into forests and harvesting for pellets. We are providing a service to an industry. The panel before this one was talking about how to promote timber; how do we increase the growth of forestry and forest products in the UK. We are part of that sector. We help that sector. I think it is important that we get this point across.

Q62            Caroline Lucas: You are a licence holder for at least one of these areas. It is very convenient to be able to pass the responsibility to someone else and say, “We are only just going to be at the very end of the process after someone else has logged the more useable wood. But it does feel that that is not entirely the case when there is plenty of other evidence to suggest that without your having had that licence, you would not necessarily be in that happy position.

Dr Knight: The theme of this discussion is deforestation and of course one thing about global deforestation is the need for good forest governance. A forest licence is part of good forest governance. If we are talking about British Columbia, the British Columbian Government have worked with environmental groups, and First Nations, and decided which parts of the forests they want to issue licences for forestry and that is based on First Nations’ environmental criteria. They then issue the licences. As you say, we have in the past owned one or two of these licences—it is not the bulk of our business model—and that is the result of a commercial transaction whereby if we get those licences, we can work with some of our suppliers, they get the timber-quality logs and we get the sawdust. It is just a way of doing business in that region. It does not compromise our stance that we only used the residues from the harvest industry. Forest licences are part of a very thorough good-governance process of forestry.

Q63            Caroline Lucas: I have some questions about good governance, which we will come to in a second. Let me come to Professor Thornley now because your organisation has carried out some analysis of the claims that were made in the “Panorama” documentary. Would you share your views on the evidence that you have heard and the claims in the documentary?

Professor Thornley: It is very difficult to place a judgment on what happened in “Panorama” because of the context because we were looking at a single lorry that was being chased and a single supply chain.

The two things that I think are important are that forestry is a process that involves some clearing, and some cutting, and frankly, with managed forests, the reason that we plant them is in order to eventually cut them. You have to cut them in order to plant new trees. The take-up of carbon from the atmosphere is fastest in the earliest years of growth so if you do not cut the trees and do something useful with them, you have not progressed. So we must be careful about the way “Panorama” dealt with things, chasing down a single supply chain.

Caroline Lucas: It was a high-carbon forest. It was not a new-grown forest.

Professor Thornley: The second thing is that there are a number of reasons why one would clear a particular area of forest at a particular point in time. I think that the best thing we can do is trust foresters to do that, foresters who are doing the management with respect to carbon but also with respect to biodiversity. One of the big things in British Columbia—and I don’t know if this was the case with the particular site they were at—is the prevention of fire and disease. That is often why you see areas that size felled.

So we need to be careful. We also need to be careful about definitions. Definitions of high-carbon forest and primary forest and so on can vary around the world. For me, this is why I would like to see foresters managing forests because frankly they know what they are doing.

Q64            Caroline Lucas: That depends on who they are working for, doesn’t it? It is not some bubbly world where there is no profit motive—that just seems to be utterly naive, if you don’t mind my saying.

Professor Thornley: You are absolutely right but most foresters go into this for the right reasons. In the same way, one can argue that most MPs go into Parliament for the right reasons and not in order to—

Caroline Lucas: There could be some discussion about that but we both know that significant deforestation is happening, removal of tree cover, and what is worrying me is that if we are only looking at it in terms of whether or not more trees are planted—and that is kind of what you were saying—doesn’t that overlook, first, the lost sequestration that you have had from the older growth? I was looking at a report in Nature not long ago that was countering the idea that old-growth forest doesn’t sequester good amounts of carbon and in fact it can, plus there is the biodiversity and so forth being destroyed at the same time as the trees are being taken down.

Professor Thornley: There are two separate points there. Let’s deal with the deforested area argument.

What I think is important is to let foresters manage forests and make them keep records. If we then, as UK plc, decide that we want to purchase this stuff and we want to bank the carbon credentials, we should be able to access them and be able to use methods like the life-cycle assessment and carbon footprinting that I use to establish whether this is sensible or not.

There are points in time when you have to make decisions on forests. You have to decide whether to thin, whether to harvest, and so on, and that involves so many competing decisions but you can record it and calculate it. From the UK’s perspective, we need to set what our objective is and what our threshold is, around carbon which is coming in and being imported. Earlier this year I helped with some stuff around the green taxonomy, and I think that can be used in a useful way here and that we can set that threshold sensibly. Let foresters manage forests, but if we are going to purchase that material and bank on its carbon, from the UK’s perspective we should, absolutely, have an audit trail of what happened in that forest. I do not think it is helpful to audit single truckloads because that misses the big picture, which is what I think is what you are worried about, which is that deforestation over large areas.

It does not make sense to chase a single supply chain and say, "That lorry went there, therefore—".

Q65            Caroline Lucas: I want to ask you something about governance because you have raised that.

Is it not a concern that to comply with subsidy criteria, 70% of all wood fuel must be legal and sustainable—that bit is all right—but the remaining 30% under current UK regulations only needs to be "legal"? Doesn't that leave significant scope for wood fuel derived from unsustainable forestry sources to enter the UK?

Professor Thornley: I am assuming that "unsustainable" is about sustainable certification so I think you are right in that it leaves scope for it. Therefore what I am saying is that foresters should keep these accounts and for anything that we take from the UK’s perspective, we should be able to interrogate the carbon accounts for that forest. Yes, I think I am agreeing with you on the carbon front but sustainability has a load of definitions.

We were talking a moment ago about indigenous people. If you put burdens around sustainability that cost a lot of money, frankly, to police and to check up on, you can alienate the people who own and manage the forests and who are doing a good thing, often providing for their communities, and they do not want to engage with big, fancy international schemes that cost a fortune and have people who do not know what they are doing coming over to visit them and inspect what they are doing. We need to be careful. I would like to see records kept. I would like to see them being independent and I would like us to be able to audit them.

Caroline Lucas: The loophole that I have just talked about—

Professor Thornley: I don’t think we should be taking 30% for granted when if what we are actually talking about is signing up to a scheme where we are paying for auditors and someone says they do not want to pay—I have a certain amount of sympathy with that.

Can I just say at the other end that if we really want to capture deforestation, there are much smarter ways to do it than by chasing down supply chains? We have a lot of global satellite data. We have records that are kept at country level for these forests. Again from UK plc’s perspective, it makes much more sense to look at where we are sourcing and at what is happening in that region by using those records.

Q66            Caroline Lucas: I want to take you back to governance, precisely so, because the Climate Change Committee reported in 2018 that the sustainability rules that I have just been describing only apply where bio-energy feedstocks are tied to subsidy schemes and do not apply where there is no subsidy. So it is bad enough that there is a 30% loophole when there is a subsidy; if there is no subsidy, those sustainability criteria do not apply at all.

Would you suggest that a recommendation from this Committee would be that that needs urgently to be addressed and that loophole closed?

Professor Thornley: I think that everything that we import into the UK that is counting against our green energy should have its carbon credentials examined and audited, yes.

Q67            Caroline Lucas: Are there any formal links between your organisation, Supergen Bioenergy Hub, and Drax?

Professor Thornley: Drax sits on our independent advisory board but we do not have a formal collaboration with Drax.

Q68            Caroline Lucas: Finally, to Dr Knight, how will Drax address concerns about the sustainability of its imported wood pellets, going forward?

Dr Knight: We already have a lot of systems in place. We have our own sourcing policy. We only buy in areas where we know deforestation is not happening and the forest regulations imposed by those Governments are very robust. We have the SBP, which is the sustainable biomass programme and where schemes like FSC and SFI are available, we use them. We have almost a triple-lock mechanism. We do not rely on one governance system. We have several.

That is the system we have at the moment. How can we enhance that? One area that we are very interested in, and completely agree with, by the way, is carbon analysis of the sources we buy from. Rather than just saying the rules allow us to classify as carbon neutral, we are more than comfortable with the notion that we need to do LCA on the forests in the regions we buy from. Our challenge is getting a methodology that people have confidence in and people to do that. I can include scientists and if you say you have done it, you pay for it yourself and use your own methodology.

Another good recommendation for this type of thinking if you go down that route is who owns the methodology. Who owns the governance, so that when we say we say “our number is 6”—I am making a number up—people can trust that; they trust the methodology.

Q69            Caroline Lucas: You say you would only want to take wood from areas where deforestation is not happening. Can I clarify what you mean by that, that in other words where trees have been cut down, they are being replaced? I understand that there is a difference between deforestation and removing tree cover, which to the uninformed might sound like the same thing. My question to you then is if you are using deforestation as the measure of whether something is sustainable—in other words, you will be confident that the area will be reforested—how does that address the issues that I was raising earlier about biodiversity in particular and the fact that that old growth has a quality in terms of biodiversity that the new growth that is only 13 or 14 years old will not have?

Dr Knight: It starts with the fact that we only go into forests that are being harvested for timber. A lot of the systems in place to ensure that timber harvesting is true to biodiversity—the British Columbian Government assign logging licences based on things such as First Nations

Q70            Caroline Lucas: But you are doing your own legal requirements too, aren’t you? You are not simply relying on what the British Columbian Government or any other government tells you; you have your own criteria.

Dr Knight: We then have our own policies. We have SBP; we have FSC. We have the systems we have talked about in the UK. There are lots of checks in place. The most robust and important check has to be areas that are well-regulated. We have had a conversation about UK forestry rules and British Columbia has very good laws.

Q71            Caroline Lucas: It seems to have good laws about total acreage that is or is not reforested but less so in terms of looking at the issue of what has happened to the biodiversity in those old-growth forests.

Dr Knight: I think a lot of people would question that. If you want to come out to British Columbia and meet these people and see for yourselves what we are doing—we have taken politicians around our sources—I think if you sat down with the British Columbian regulators and said, “How do you assign logging licences?”, they would talk about biodiversity, water catchment, fire resistance, managing pest control, First Nations having a say in the decisions. They would say biodiversity is a key factor in how they issue licences.

Chair: I think Professor Norton wants to come in on that but could you do that quickly? Then I am going to move on to questions from Dr Matthew Offord, who has to leave shortly so he is going to jump in.

Professor Norton: EASAC looks at the general regulatory framework and its consistency with the science so we are not in a position to comment on this particular case but it does identify some weaknesses in the sustainability criteria. For instance, the Ofgem criteria say quite clearly that you should not be taking biomass from primary forests after 2008 yet we have a situation in British Columbia where either British Columbia does not share that view of Ofgem or maybe has not assigned a particular tract of forest to primary forest status or it just has a different classification, as we have maybe heard.

So we have a potential disparity between the Ofgem requirement and the local rules in the host forest. It is quite easy to see the temptation or the pressure on a company to adhere to local regulations rather than overarching regulations coming from Ofgem and that does raise the question of who has the dominance, who has the priority, where these things are not consistent.

As I think has already been said by Dr Knight, British Columbia is a fairly advanced country in terms of logging, forestry management, forestry rules but what happens when you are importing from Belarus or Russia or Brazil or other sources? There is a generic question about the applicability or consistency of UK sustainability criteria and those of the host countries and how to manage that in each case.

I only point that out as a problem. I do not have a solution for you.

Another point is that it does illustrate the oversight in the sustainability criteria of the carbon balance and the whole life cycle analysis. It may surprise members of the Committee to know that harvesting wood from a forest, taking it down to the local mill, converting it, drying it if you are converting to pellets, moving it from that mill to the port in British Columbia, moving it 20,000 kilometres across the sea, through the Panama Canal to Liverpool or Immingham, putting it on a train, shipping it to the power station, all of that is a supply-chain emission that comes well within the criteria the Ofgem set in 2015 and 2014. It is not compatible with the current requirements that would be set in future but it shows you that the standards are pretty generous, I would say, and that ignores the emissions from the stack when that biomass is burnt, which we know are more than they were when the same power station was using coal. Overall, that overall system is leading to a significant increase in emissions to the atmosphere and that elephant in the room is ignored by the current sustainability criteria and that is where all the argument has been within the European Union over the last five or six years, still unresolved, about how to deal with that. We can go into the detail later if you wish.

Q72            Chair: I will move on for now, if I may but you made one statement that I would like Dr Knight to pick up. You said that the emissions from the stack are greater than the emissions from the power station when it was burning coal.

Professor Norton: In terms of kilowatt hour generated. The emissions per kilowatt hour generated using biomass fuel are about 100 grams of carbon dioxide per kilowatt hour more than they were when these power stations were burning coal. That is using Drax’s own figures.

Q73            Chair: Is that recognised by Drax?

Dr Knight: There are several arguments here which are really important so thank you for raising them.

The first is the premise that this is not a fossil fuel. Ten years ago, Drax was burning coal and one of the big agendas from COP was to stop the line on fossil fuels. We have achieved that.

The reason why biomass is different from coal is because of the natural carbon cycle. As trees are fed, new trees grow and the CO2 is taken out of the sky in that sort of environment.

We also have these counterfactuals. The material we use from British Columbia would have been burnt anyway. As we talk about developing better methodologies, those sorts of counterfactuals cannot be ignored. This morning I saw a photograph of 10 huge bonfires on the horizon of material to which a First Nations person said, “Thank you. You now give us money. This is what was happening three years ago” and it was causing local pollution issues and that sort of thing. So the local context really matters.

Another thing we need to start factoring in is our targets by 2027 when Drax power station will be one of the world’s first BECCS plants; that is we will become carbon removers. Already in the build-up to COP next week, people are talking about needing carbon removals and we are doing that.

You said last week that different types of materials can make or break that model. We think if you use the right materials—the business model we are building will be providing millions of tonnes of carbon removals for the British economy. So don’t just look at where we are today, which is the conversion of coal to biomass from well-managed forests. Give us five years and we will be burying that CO2 underground and we will be one of the world’s leaders in carbon removals, which is something to be proud of.

Chair: We have had half an hour on that set of questions and now I am afraid we have to move on.

Q74            Dr Offord: Professors Thornley and Norton, I want to ask you about the problems that you envisage occurring with the larger scale and different sources of biomass and how we can mitigate those problems.

Professor Thornley: What do you mean? Do you mean environmental problems when planted or the governance around them?

Dr Offord: More the environmental side but certainly if we look at alternatives to woody mass.

Professor Norton: In terms of climate impact, which is what we are looking at—there are other perspectives of course—but looking at the fundamental motive for subsidising bioenergy as renewable energy, the only motive for that is to reduce the amount of CO2 coming into the atmosphere. With solar and wind, we can show quite clearly that as soon as those are operating, that electricity is being burnt[1] with zero emissions, essentially zero emissions. I have mentioned that once you switch from coal to biomass, the actual CO2 coming out of the stack is more than it was when we were using coal.

To regard those three things as equal renewable energies is scientifically rather strange. There are reasons I could go into, but I will not do that at the moment, why that was chosen 15 years ago, but the pattern of biomass use and also scientific knowledge has changed to such an extent. The power argument has been that we need to start being much more discriminatory in our judgment of whether a given biomass project is climate neutral, climate negative or climate positive and that is where your question comes in. The key differentiator between climate neutral to beneficial biomass and climate damaging biomass is the source of the feedstock and also where it is located.

Of course the original concept was that you would be using materials that would either just degrade to the atmosphere or be burnt and would therefore discharge their carbon to the atmosphere anyway and it made a lot of sense to try to get some energy out of that. That was entirely valid and entirely supported by science. The way the regulations were written, however, did not have any limit on where you could get the material from or what material you were going to use, so we moved to a business model that includes, although not exclusively, additional harvesting of forests which means you take the carbon out of the forest, using that as feedstock which means it goes into the atmosphere, and you have to then calculate how quickly that forest regenerates and re-absorbs the carbon released to the atmosphere by that removal. That is where the science and life cycle get more complicated but in terms of generalisations, while you are using genuine residues such as the residues that Dr Knight has mentioned—sawdust residues, sawmill residues—I think it is valid to regard bioenergy as renewable energy. However, as soon as you start additional harvesting and particularly if you start competing with other potential uses of that forest, you move into this area.

The key boundary, in our view, is that question: are you taking out additional forest just for bioenergy or are you using genuine residues which would otherwise have no use? That is the key boundary as far as we can see. It makes regulation quite challenging which is why a lot of people are spending a lot of hours arguing about it at the moment.

Professor Thornley: Can I come in on the CO2 transfer issue and the timing around it?

When we are dealing with fossil fuels, we are looking at a transfer of carbon that has been locked up for a long time to the atmosphere. That causes climate change. Every year, the soils that we have around us absorb carbon and release carbon. There is a net balance. It is happening around us all the time. If we put more vegetation on the land and more trees, the net increase is greater. So what we are dealing with, with biomass, is a much shorter cycling of carbon. Coal was laid down millions of years ago and that is now being released. That causes a problem. If I am taking CO2 from the atmosphere this year and putting it back again next, it does not cause the same problem. It is a natural cycle, provided that we keep the same area of land forested and provided that we keep that sustainable by keeping around the planet enough land forested to keep us all in balance.

I think it is important not to consider CO2 emissions from stuff that has recently been extracted from the atmosphere to be exactly the same as CO2 emissions from coal and oil.

I always draw the comparison that coal is like spending my family inheritance whereas taking plants is like my current account; it goes up and down every month and that is okay because I know I am going to get paid again next month. So as long as I keep planting the trees—and this is the tricky bit because that is a future-time governance problem that frankly I do not think any of us has any real certainty over—but if we can keep the same area of land forested, we do not have a problem in terms of the balance. You will only keep that land forested if the foresters get a return on the land and get money for it and that is one of the key issues.

Chair: I know Caroline Lucas is itching to get in again but we are going to get into the whole international forestation issue in subsequent panels and I am keen that we keep going now.

Q75            Cherilyn Mackrory: I would like to bring the conversation to the potential for the UK to produce its own domestic biomass from woodlands and from other sources such as energy crops and the interaction this may have with the UK's other forestry and land-use goals.

It is widely acknowledged that increasing the production of biomass feedstocks in the UK could lead to potential land trade-offs. Professor Thornley, could you comment on how much potential you think there is to source more woody biomass from the UK and what the associated advantages and risks associated are?

Professor Thornley: This was dealt with a little bit by the previous panel. There is a certain amount of woodland in the UK today that it does not pay to manage. We have crunched the number on this. I cannot remember the exact figure but a few million tonnes per annum is potentially accessible in a sustainable manner from woodland in the UK.

You could, of course, increase the cover and that is what DEFRA and others are trying to do with things such as the England Tree Action Plan and initiatives around energy crops in particular.

One of the interesting opportunities here is that the UK has about 18 million hectares of agricultural land and the vast majority of that is not used for producing vegetables or cereal, which is one of the UK’s key export crops; it is used for pasture for farm animals. I find the trade-offs there very interesting. If we are seriously moving towards a healthier future where we are also eating less meat, perhaps that would free up more land for afforestation and for other energy crops and other purposes. Of the 18 million hectares, more than 10 million—it is 10-15 million—is used as grassland.

Q76            Cherilyn Mackrory: Under the Climate Change Committee’s Sixth Carbon Budget balanced net-zero pathway, meeting biomass to burn for BECCS would require, they think, converting up to 700,000 hectares of land. That is about 3% of the land or about four times the size of Greater London. Is that a figure that you recognise?

Professor Thornley: It sounds plausible but it depends on exactly how much BECCS you want to do. I don’t know which pathway you are looking at but under different scenarios, we look at removing between 20 million and 70 million tonnes.

Cherilyn Mackrory: The Sixth Carbon Budget balanced net zero pathway, if that is helpful.

Professor Thornley: I’m sorry; I can’t remember that off the top of my head. But certainly the sorts of figures that make sense to me are 5% to 10% of agricultural land. I do not think that most farmers would have a problem with that. One of the relationships that my organisation does have formally is with the National Farmers’ Union and we have been helping them look at individual farms and at how farmers can help in net zero. For many of them, taking some land that is not particularly productive and putting woodland on it, on say 10% of it, is definitely an opportunity. If you could look at energy crops such as miscanthus, why not? The difficulty for many farmers is that they are not familiar with it. That is the key barrier.

Professor Norton: It is a fundamental question because it relates to the balance between imports and domestic production and of course ideally we should be producing more.

To give you an idea of the imbalance, in terms of pellets I think the UK imported 9.2 million tonnes in 2019 and our domestic production was 279,000 tonnes so you can see that there is a little bit of a gap there if you are looking to domestic production to start bridging that gap.

I don’t have anything to add to what Professor Thornley said except that land is scarce, basically. We cannot use it as if there was land hanging around. Just like a tree—there are now multiple uses for trees—there are multiple uses for land and the whole point of policy is to get the most out of it from the point of view of either society or the environment or the climate, and those objectives do not always match. There is often some conflict and that is why we have politicians and our governments to try to resolve those conflicts while we as scientists just try to give you the best possible information in the hope that you will make a wise decision.

I can give you a little anecdote that illustrates some of the conflicts. Where I live in South Cambridgeshire, a five-acre[2] plot of land came up for sale last year and when I managed to get together enough money, my own and from friends, to buy it we gave it to the Woodland Trust to convert to woodland. The reaction of some of the farmers—we had one e-mail: “What you have done is obscene, to take land out of food production”. And I quite understand what he is saying. It is a conflict and it just shows that there is not this free land, or what is often called “marginal” land, lying around. Most marginal land is currently in some sort of use in the UK. We have to start thinking about land being scarce and being a valuable resource that has to be protected and managed to get the maximum societal benefit.

Q77            Cherilyn Mackrory: I agree with you. You mentioned those figures, the 9.2 million tonnes and what we produce here. Did you say that was 279,000 tonnes?

Professor Norton: Yes.

Cherilyn Mackrory: Notwithstanding taking land out of food production, if we concentrated on existing woodland, how significant would bringing that into biomass production be for our own energy generation?

Professor Norton: About 275,000 tonnes is probably harvested from existing woodland and you see the same sort of blurred boundaries between pellet use and timber use.

In the Lake District, inside the national park, I saw a recently clear-felled tract of land with stacks of timber and two of the stacks had “bio” on them and they had trees this big, which were obviously at least at first sight suitable for timber. So much depends on the economic signals. There may not have been a sawmill close enough. It may be that there is a better price by not separating them. A lot of economic signals would go into the detailed decisions at the coalface so to speak, and that is why the political decision is to what extent we should subsidise one activity, such as the one we are talking about today, and just leave the other markets for timber to go on according to uninterfered-with market signals. That is another difficult balance to strike.

Cherilyn Mackrory: Professor Thornley, do you have anything to add on land trade-offs, particularly with our existing woodland?

Professor Thornley: I agree about the economics around this. The figures—the 9.2 million and the 275,000—that is mainly because in the UK we have not scaled up forestry here. We do not have the same types of forests as they have in Sweden or Norway or the same size of operation. I think there is one plant in Yorkshire that makes pellets but there aren’t many more.

Chair: Caroline Lucas, I know you have one more question that you would like to come back to, which I will let you do very briefly.

Q78            Caroline Lucas: Professor Thornley, you used an analogy, saying it is a bit like a current account where money spent is replenished by money coming in. Surely if we are talking about carbon-rich forests, they cannot be replenished in such a like for like way because it takes years to replicate the carbon-richness and the biodiversity that has been lost so I want to challenge that model.

Professor Thornley: The rotation period does vary. In most of the arboreal forests in the US and across Europe, the rotation period is maybe 70 to 80 years. That is when the forest reaches its maximum carbon sequestration. If you were to remove that forest and replant it, I don't think there is a problem. I did an analysis a few years ago that I can provide. We looked at an 80-year rotation, a 20-year and a 50-year, I think, in three different locations in Canada, Sweden and Spain, I think, and looked at the net impact. You get this sort of up and down of carbon and looking at a period, it is the average that counts. I am agreeing with you if we are talking about a tree that has been there for hundreds of years but I am still saying that if you cut it down and use it usefully, you have not lost anything.

Chair: You did say earlier that the younger the plantation, the more carbon is sequestered.

Professor Thornley: Yes.

Chair: Can you provide some data to support that? That would be very helpful.

Caroline Lucas:For what it is worth, the article in Nature that I cited said the opposite. You are the expert, not me.

Chair: I don’t think we will have an argument about that now. It would be helpful if you provide the evidence, Professor Thornley.

Professor Norton: Chair, I can give you one or two examples. The tree cycle is very slow initially. Once you get to the mid-range, that is the highest absorption, but that does not relate to the carbon stock. There is often a balance between the management of the forest to maximise yield and the amount of carbon in the stock. I have some figures for Europe here. Primary forest could hold between 500 and 900 cubic metres of wood per hectare and that translates to carbon, whereas the European average of managed forest is 169 cubic metres per hectare. There is quite a lot of difference there. You will get more yield if you manage the cropped forest for maximum growth, maximum harvesting, but you will not have the carbon stock.

Q79            Chair: We are getting slightly diverse and off the subject, and we must finish, but I was always under the impression that once you had established a canopy, the volume of wood grown underneath that canopy is more or less the same from year to year, subject to the weather, but that it is establishing the canopy that takes time and therefore if you are thinning a plantation but you are maintaining the canopy, the remaining trees will grow faster because the same bulk of wood, the same volume of wood, is growing underneath the canopy. Is that wrong?

Professor Thornley: That is the principle on which thinning is carried out but I am going to say that how that is put into practice varies a lot from one species and one location to another.

We have also talked about LCA, the whole LCA of what is happening in the forest, in this conversation but there is also the question of what is happening to the products coming out of that forest. For example, the timber around this room is going to live longer as stored carbon than a tree in a forest. Then you can add what we do and turn that into BECCS. The wood from the forests we buy from will be making furniture or wood panels and the sawdust and the residues, when we turn BECCS on, will be stored underground for thousands of years. So there what is happening in the forest, as a living system and what happens to the products coming out of the forest—add it all together and you get some very interesting figures.

Q80            Duncan Baker: I want to build on the words Professor Norton just used and I will come back to that in just a second and ask Professor Thornley and Dr Knight about it.

I was struck by the comment that land is scarce. So to Dr Knight and Professor Thornton, if you take that point, do we expect competition between wood products and the use of woody biomass will present challenges for sourcing woody biomass in the future?

Professor Thornley: If we are looking at sourcing material from established managed forests, I do not see a problem because at the moment that is perhaps material going into things such as chipboard and I don’t see that there is much difference between doing that and using it for energy.

It is difficult to say land is scarce. People want land of a certain type for certain things. If you are looking for land that is of a quality to grow food, yes, that is probably scarce. If we are looking for land that is in a particular location prime for developing housing, yes that is probably scarce. But there are very significant quantities of land around the globe—a paper was published on this last year—offering huge potential for expansion but the age-old problem is getting the expansion in the right place. The available land is not necessarily where you want to use it.

Q81            Duncan Baker: It is use, not necessarily specifically scarcity, that is the issue.

Can you comment on that as well, Dr Knight?

Dr Knight: It goes to the rules about what we choose to use or not use to make biomass. The current Drax model is based on residues from the timber industry. If the world wants a timber industry, we are taking the bits nobody else wants. We are not going into forests and harvesting them for pellets. We are picking up the bits that the timber industry cannot use and you might say, “That works”. If the rule is that is the biomass you can use, we will stick to that rule and we have succeeded by sticking to that rule.

We will happily support, through what we can do, the growth of UK forestry. We are looking at UK energy crops. All the questions you are asking us, plus a million more, we are asking ourselves and we are going to commission research to do that. We have said we want a market signal. Obviously the numbers Drax has played with, there is a market signal, but the governance matters.

The BECCS model unravels if you are competing with food. The BECCS model unravels if we are cutting forests. Trust us. We fundamentally know that. We would not be stupid enough to build a BECCS model that destroys forests because it unravels. So we have imposed our own governance. We have worked with people such as SBP. We work only with countries that are regulated. Michael Norton mentioned some countries where forest governance is not very good and one thing that all those countries have in common is that we do not buy material from them.

If one of the outcomes of this discussion, this Committee hearing today, was better rules to make sure that we only buy the right biomass all the time, we would be very comfortable because we think we are there already; we know we are there already. So better governance to make sure that BECCS works and delivers its promise is what we need; the world needs BECCS and for BECCS to work, we need tight rules, so bring them on.

Professor Thornley: Can I add something to that? Governance is important but I think we need to know, we need to be monitoring at the right scale globally, if we are going to go to BECCS, to ensure that we do know what is actually happening. I talked earlier about the national inventories. Those are great but I think there is a need to be observing what is happening at a global scale if we are to make any significant change.

Q82            Duncan Baker: I want to bring Professor Norton in. You have expressed some concerns about carbon payback periods and I think you touched on it just a moment ago. Can you talk to us about that particularly and about your concerns, particularly about woody biomass?

Professor Norton: This is the real core point. Professor Thornley drew a comparison between the millions of years of carbon locked in coal and oil and the slightly shorter periods locked in living biomass, and it may be a lot shorter than a few hundred million years but it is still significant. With wood biomass, we have a series of potential biomass feedstocks and we have the annual grasses and miscanthus where you have a fairly rapid carbon cycle, which we can regard as almost equivalent to carbon neutral. You have short-rotation coppicing where your cycle may be more like five to 10 years. Then you have a range of possibilities in the forest, depending on the forest, depending on the harvesting mechanism, depending on so many other things but there you get a payback period ranging from a few decades to almost never.

The Joint Research Centre of the EU did a very thorough review of this about 18 months ago and they found only one which I think were light trimmings and leaves and upper branches from a sustainably managed forest—only one source of feedstock that re-absorbed the extra carbon within five to 10 years. Most of the others were in the 30 to 50 range and quite a number of those, once you started taking out heavy, coarse residues and new trees, were in the 50 to 100 range.

When the biomass regulations were first negotiated in the late 2000s, there was a widespread feeling that we had until 2050, 2060, to sort out the climate crisis and that if you had an energy that had an initial pulse of CO2, providing that took it back within 40 to 50 years, that was okay. But now we have very frequent warnings coming from IPCC. The latest one was that we need rapid and immediate substantive reductions if we are going to meet 1.5 degrees. Now the latest thing is that we are not going to meet 1.5 whatever happens, whatever we try, and we are really now moving to 2 degrees. We are looking at trying to get CO2 to stop going into the atmosphere now, or in the next five to 10 years.

So technology that leads to the opposite in the immediate period and only compensates for that in the 30, 40, 50 year period is no longer fit for purpose. That is our conclusion about that and that is a message we have been putting through from the European science academies. We need to start putting a performance measure in bioenergy so that we can be sure that it is going to start contributing to climate change mitigation in a realistic period. That is where we get into this boundary between different feedstocks and where anything that involves additional harvesting is questionable whether it can be that objective. That is where the regulators are currently tussling with the competing special interests that have to take into account energy security and economic factors as well as climate factors.

Chair: Thank you very much indeed for taking the trouble to come and see us twice. I would like to conclude the panel now and give my thanks to Professor Norton, Professor Patricia Thornley and Dr Alan Knight.

[1] Professor Norton has since clarified to the Committee that he meant to say ‘generated with zero emissions’.

[2] Professor Norton has since clarified to the Committee that he meant to sayfive hectare’.