With greenhouse gas emissions at an all-time high and global non-renewable resources depleting rapidly, drastic reform is required in the way we produce our energy. Nuclear remains an unpopular option, wind and solar cannot be depended on for consistent generation, and battery storage technologies are decades away from large-scale feasibility. Biomass provides cheap, dependable, near carbon-neutral energy, and currently makes up 7.5% of the UK energy mix (https://www.ofgem.gov.uk/data-portal/electricity-generation-mix-quarter-and-fuel-source-gb). However, its use has proved controversial, with the student body of the University of Sheffield protesting its use in powering the institution. Why is this? And would it be ethical for the UK to use biomass as a direct replacement of fossil fuels in the future?
Meeting Emissions Reduction Targets
The Paris climate change agreement stated that by 2050 the UK is to have reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 80% relative to 1990 levels (https://www.theccc.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/CCC-2018-Progress-Report-to-Parliament.pdf). The target is ambitious and therefore every measure must be taken to reduce UK emissions. Current biomass technology produces near carbon-neutral energy, and so using it as a replacement for fossil fuels would significantly decrease carbon emissions. Therefore, approaching the issue from a Kantian viewpoint, if our duty is to encourage international cooperation in resolving a global issues, it follows that to effectively uphold the Agreement, biomass should become a significant contributor to the UK energy mix.
Carbon Negative Technology
Biomass is a proven yet still developing technology. Investment in this sector would not only go towards increasing the growth of biomass, but would also be channelled into innovation. Emerging technologies that provide cleaner, more efficient energy production have been researched and are beginning to be implemented (https://www.bioenergy-news.com/display_news/14395/200_million_biomass_plant_planned_in_uk/). Carbon capture is potentially the most exciting example, as this would make biomass the only known method of power generation with the potential to reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide levels. The first carbon capture system in the UK was recently installed at Drax’s Yorkshire plant (https://www.drax.com/press_release/europes-first-bioenergy-carbon-capture-storage-pilot-now-underway/). Investing in biomass would stimulate progression and innovation, and allow the UK to fulfil its commitment to reduce its emissions and combat climate change. On a similar note, plants accommodating waste as a fuel reduce extremely harmful methane emissions from landfill sites. That amounts to about 4% of the UK’s greenhouse emissions (https://www.theccc.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/Waste-factsheet.pdf). Clearly the development of such practices is characterised by moral intent, as they directly reduce greenhouse gases, which aid humanity towards a healthier and more sustainable future, a core concept of Kantian philosophy.
Scaling our focus down to the everyday person, it becomes evident that a financial benefit would arise with increase of biomass plants. First off, biomass costs about ⅓ that of fossil fuels for equivalent outputs (https://energyinformative.org/biomass-energy-pros-and-cons/), reducing energy bills to consumers. Secondly, fueling the plants with biodegradable waste would alleviate the Landfill Tax (https://www.theccc.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/Waste-factsheet.pdf), an incentive imposed to local businesses by the EU Landfill Directive to eliminate methane emissions from waste, which has increased from £7.00 to 86.10/tonne in a decade (https://www.theccc.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/CCC-2018-Progress-Report-to-Parliament.pdf). Furthermore, coal power plants can be converted for biomass (http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20180821-the-giant-coal-plant-converting-to-green-energy), making it a more cost-effective investment compared to other clean energy technologies, relieving government spending and indirectly benefiting other government services, such as the NHS. Regarding the U.K citizens as stakeholders, the consequences of such investment are considered net positive, and thus deemed ethical, from a utilitarian standpoint.
Competition for Arable Land
If biomass were used as a large-scale energy source, the amount of land that would need to be devoted to growing the required fuel would be vast. It is believed that even using the most efficient plant-based fuel source, to meet the total energy requirements of the UK, the amount of area required to grow the fuel would be larger than the UK itself (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E0W1ZZYIV8o). Fuel would therefore likely need to be imported from other countries. This could put the food supply of developing countries under greater duress, as farmers may be incentivised to grow biomass fuel for developed nations rather than food to support the local population if the former is more profitable (http://biofuel.org.uk/threat-to-food-supply.html). Food poverty would become more prevalent in both the short and long term should biomass be used as large scale energy source. Therefore, from a utilitarian perspective, such action should be considered unethical.
Land conversion is required to grow the raw material for biofuel. The preparation of this land releases CO2, creating a “carbon debt”. The scale of this carbon debt depends on the type of land being converted. If abandoned agricultural land is used, this would only create a small carbon debt. The reduction in carbon dioxide that would result in using biofuels over “dirtier” fuels would then “pay off” this debt over a short period of time. However, converting native forest and wild land to produce biofuel could result in a carbon debt that would take as long as 500 years to pay off (http://biofuel.org.uk/global-warming.html).Indeed, one of Britain’s chief climate experts calculated that carbon emissions would rise by more than 6% if wood burning becomes more prevalent in Europe’s power production (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/dec/31/biomass-burning-misguided-say-climate-experts). According to Kantian ethology, the action of converting any native land in the full knowledge that it would increase atmospheric CO2 levels and in doing so cause harm to the global community could not, in good conscience, be supported.
Reduction in biodiversity Converting areas of natural land for fuel production would result in a loss in biodiversity. The harvesting of fuel supplied by the U.S. to UK biomass plants directly damages the natural habitat of dozens of endangered species (https://www.redpepper.org.uk/dont-believe-the-hype-biomass-is-an-environmental-disaster/). The benefits of maintaining a healthy and diverse ecosystem are manifold and extend beyond the issue of CO2 reduction. From a deontological perspective based on the universal principle of life preservation, knowingly taking action that would directly harm life and reduce biodiversity would therefore be categorically unethical.
In conclusion, while it may be possible to replace the use of fossil fuels with biomass in individual countries such as the UK without doing net damage to the environment, attempting to do so on a global scale would do more harm than good.