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Minister: Waste wood is 'huge potential resource'

Burning it could generate 0.7% of UK's 'leccy!

The smart choice: opportunity from uncertainty

UK Minister for Climate Change and Waste Joan Ruddock reckons that the government has cracked - or anyway, largely cracked - the tricky problems of keeping the lights on, saving carbon emissions and minimising landfill. The answer is to burn wood - specifically waste wood which is normally thrown away.

"It has been estimated that recovering energy from two million tonnes of waste wood could generate 2600 gigawatt-hours of electricity and save 1.15 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions, with greater benefits available by recovering heat as well as power," said Ms Ruddock in a statement yesterday.

"This is a huge potential resource that is being wasted."

It seems that in fact Blighty throws away no less than ten million tonnes of wood every year, mainly to landfill. But burning all of this could be a tad tricky, as most of it is contaminated in some way. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has produced a lengthy report on waste wood (pdf here), but nowhere does it give any estimate of how much could be used as fuel other than the 20 per cent - two million tonnes - referred to by the Minister.

Still, two million tonnes sounds like a lot - and it's a "huge potential resource", right?

Well, sort of. The possible 2600 GWh, while a big number, actually equates to a tiny fraction of UK electricity consumption - 0.7 per cent. Again, a million tonnes of CO2 equivalent saved sounds good within the general orthodoxy of atmospheric carbon being bad, but this is carbon "saved" in the biofuel sense. The idea is that wood in landfill would eventually rot away and give up all its carbon to the atmosphere (even though a good deal of it is covered in eternal synthetic varnish or whatever, so it might take a while). Thus, burning it now and releasing loads of CO2 and maybe evil soot, NOx etc doesn't count as releasing carbon into the atmosphere. Even though that's just what you're doing.

Then, of course, a million tonnes of CO2 isn't really a big deal. Blighty puts out better than 150 megatonnes annually; so the 0.7 per cent saving we'd see would, on current trends, be wiped out in just one year by rising energy use and fossil-fuel shifts.

So this is neither a big deal nor a "huge potential resource". Actually, according to the official government food-waste worriers, we unnecessarily waste ten, 15 times as much carbon by throwing away uneaten food*. Rather than fiddling with the taxes to encourage burning of wood, if the government's own estimates are to be believed, they should be encouraging us to buy more and bigger fridges. (Seriously - the official solution to food waste is that we should keep more classes of grub in the fridge. Rather than, for instance, turning the 4.4 million apples thrown away daily into ethanol biofuel, which ought to count as a carbon saving under gov rules.)

And really, rather than doing either of those things, they should be encouraging massive amounts of affordable zero-carbon electricity generation, which would not only remove power-station emissions but - if it were cheap enough - transport and heating carbon too. And even if you're of the opinion that climate change is all a lot of rubbish, you'd still perhaps be pleased at not having to outbid all the other industrial economies for Gulf crude and Russian gas. Especially as money paid for those fuels trickles down to jihadi terrorism and sustains the only military-industrial complex capable of threatening the free West.

But zero-carbon power involves some difficult issues. It's a lot easier to fiddle about with apples and segregated skips. ®

Bootnote

*To be sure, the food-panic bureau admit that their estimates of "carbon" wasted by chucking away rotting apples are not principally based on how much CO2 would produce greenhouse effect equivalent to the methane the decomposing fruit will emit. In order to come out with their numbers, they take it that large amounts of energy are "embedded" into food during production, transportation etc. - and that all this energy is generated by burning fossil carbon.

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