The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of FORESIGHT Climate & Energy
Subsidies for biomass burning are jeopardising South Korean renewables. It is time to speak up against this polluting and climate-damaging fuel.
Burning wood as a “renewable” fuel in power plants emits more greenhouse gas compared to fossil fuels and can degrade the forests that are harvested for fuel. Nonetheless, similar to what happened in the European Union, the South Korean government has promoted forest biomass as an emissions-free renewable energy with generous subsidies, leading to a surge in new wood-burning plants and old power plants co-firing wood pellets with coal.
In recent years, South Korea has become the third largest importer of wood pellets in the world, spending $460 million on importing 3.4 million metric tons in 2018 alone from Vietnam, Indonesia, and as far afield as the United States and Canada, where wood pellets are increasingly being sourced from forests that are hundreds to thousands of years old.
Furthermore, data from the South Korean biomass industry shows that wood burning releases as much, or even more, harmful air pollution as coal per megawatt-hour, in a country that last year saw emergency powers passed to curb the “social disaster” of air pollution and the temporary closure of a quarter of the coal fleet.
But the damage goes even further. As in Europe, subsidised biomass burning in South Korea is not just encouraging environmental degradation, it is competing for funding and grabbing market share from genuinely clean renewables like wind and solar. Between 2014 and 2017, bioenergy projects received nearly 40% of all Renewable Energy Certificates issued by the government—more than any other type of “renewable” power.
With these generous subsidies, use of biomass for energy increased more than sixty-fold during the same period, with more than two-thirds being co-fired with coal, thereby extending the life of these polluting plants which we so desperately need to phase out. The situation is now so acute that South Korean solar operators have taken the unprecedented step of challenging biomass subsidies in the courts.
South Korea’s government followed the European Union’s lead in promoting biomass as a “zero emission” renewable energy. But now, as the destructive consequences of that choice emerge, the EU story and Korea story share common features. Wood use for energy is hollowing out forests and increasing greenhouse gas emissions. And the financial costs are also heavy, with EU member states allocating over €6 billion a year to subsidise biomass burning; subsidies that could instead be allocated to truly zero-emissions renewable energy.
As the European Commission considers reforming the Renewable Energy Directive to take account of a higher 2030 target for renewable energy, much is being made of attempts to restrict the harvesting of wood for energy to by-products from other industrial and forestry activities, such from sawmills.
But this policy simply has not worked in South Korea and appears to have led to the quadrupling of so-called ‘unused biomass’ production in the first half of 2019, compared to the second half of 2018 when these amendments were brought in.
There are many other examples globally of this kind of practice with the essential problem being that governments keep expanding the definition of what constitutes ‘unused biomass’ due to a strong industry lobby, leading to large volumes of whole wood being harvested for electricity generation.
As the European Commission increases the ambition of its renewable energy and emissions reduction targets under the European Green Deal, lawmakers would do well to set a good example for South Korea and others to follow. Truly clean energy like wind and solar will only flourish and deliver its benefits to our climate only when countries end their dependence on polluting wood biomass for renewable energy.
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