I have been in an email discussion this week about the rights and wrongs of generating electricity by burning biomass. In the UK, biomass is counted as a renewable source of energy, and if you simply think about burning well-seasoned wood, say in a domestic wood-burning stove, that’s almost true. In a well-managed woodland, where there’s selective coppicing on a longish rotation, the carbon released from the wood when it’s burned has only been locked into the wood for a few decades or so and if the volume of new growth is equal to the volume of wood harvested, a roughly equivalent amount of carbon is sequestered out of the atmosphere by the new tree growth. So far, so good.
The UK is one of the world’s leading burners of biomass for electricity. Figures are hard to find, but they vary from 4.75 million tonnes in 2014 (UK Government figures) to 13 million tonnes (Biofuel Watch figure – but I think this is based on the assumption that 13 mt of green wood yields the 6.5 mt of dried pellets they claim were burned in 2016 at Drax, by far the biggest wood-burning power station in the UK). Whatever – it’s a lot of wood. Most of this is imported from North America. There is a lack of clarity about the source of the wood (Is it dead wood? Sawdust? Bark? Small trimmings? Whole trees? Are the trees clear-cut from plantations or ancient forest? How are the plantations/forests managed for the benefit of wildlife biodiversity? Are the forests expanding due to increased demand or reducing in size?). The wood is burned in the form of oven-dried pellets – presumably that’s more cost-effective than letting the wood season naturally. I wonder about the carbon emissions associated with oven-drying and then with shipping the pellets across the Atlantic, but I can’t find figures for that. There’s a lot of opacity around this industry which adds to my sense of foreboding, which in turn inclines me to think it’s a bad thing.
It’s complicated. If you’re focused on cutting out fossil fuels, burning wood instead must be good, right? If you’re focused on woodland biodiversity, it may not be (depending on how the source forests are managed). But if you don’t focus, how are you ever going to fix anything?
It’s complicated just trying to do the right thing. I want to cut out dairy from my diet. I’m struggling to do that in general, but, in any case, I wonder if it’s better to eat organic English butter, the result of a fairly simple production process and wrapped in paper, or margarine made in a complex industrial process from exotic imported oils like palm and soya and sold to me in a plastic tub? (I also want to support the milkman, who brings us organic milk in glass bottles, although the local depot recently closed due to falling demand so now he brings it in a diesel van from a town 10 miles away). What about palm oil? I’ve been trying to avoid it (impossible though that is) because of the way tropical forest is being replaced with monocultural palm plantations. But then I read that farming other oils uses much more land. I’ve been trying to cut down on plastic packaging, for example buying sauce in glass bottles, but then someone said that the carbon emissions from transporting heavy glass bottles are greater compared to lighter plastic ones.
When things get complicated, you end up feeling bewildered – no solution seems right. That quote (or is it a mis-quote? It’s complicated.) from H.L. Mencken puts it debilitatingly well: “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple and wrong.”
It’s complicated. I’m never going to solve climate change. I’m never going to save the world. But perhaps I can learn to live well – or at least live better. I think that place of resignation is a good place from which to start again. I’m never going to fix this, but if I can be more compassionate, gracious, mindful, and so on, I can be better. If I can keep a vision alive of what a saved world might look like, and be inspired by that living vision in how I live now, I can become better. There’s that bit in the Earth Church manifesto about refusing to be content with where the compromises fall, which acknowledges that there will be compromises but also that those boundaries will be pushed back as life-giving living expands. I want to explore this idea of becoming more authentically aligned with the values I aspire to. It feels more holistic, more earthed, than a technical, problem-fixing approach. Perhaps a simpler, more authentic core of living well is a good foundation, a good hub for engaging creatively with the complexity that is, and always will be, life on this planet.