France struggling to choose between being a climate leader and burning biomass
The French Government is expected to decide in March 2019 whether to convert the Cordemais coal plant to run on bioenergy. France pledged to close its coal plants by 2021, but as workers strike to protest the plant’s closure, the Government is considering converting it to run on 80 per cent biomass – despite the negative environmental and health impacts of such a move.
The amount of biomass Cordemais would require could not be sourced from French forests without causing considerable damage to forest ecosystems. It is highly likely that France would also need to import pellets from the US, Canada and the Baltics, where logging for bioenergy is already reducing the carbon sink and harming biodiversity.
Électricité de France (EDF) claims that it will burn ‘black’ pellets composed of waste and residues; however, only ‘white’ pellets made of high-quality wood have been successfully burned in converted coal plants, with considerable negative ecological impact. Corrosion has marred past attempts to burn black pellets; for example, a power station in Ontario was shut down after it became apparent that the pellets were incompatible with the plant. Furthermore, the industry frequently stretches the definition of ‘residues’ to include whole trees.
Conversion of this power plant would run counter to France’s ambitions as a climate leader. The long-term climate plan to 2050 that France submitted to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) emphasises sustainable resource use that does not compete with food production, and that benefits biodiversity. It notes the need for efficient mobilisation of bio-based materials, yet burning trees for bioenergy releases carbon dioxide and reduces the forest carbon sink. In addition, the ‘on-off’ operation in line with grid demand that EDF proposes creates frequent, large spikes in emissions.
France will soon submit its 2030 National Energy and Climate Plan to the European Commission. To avoid locking in bad technologies, and to fulfil its role as a climate leader, it needs a coherent plan for its forests which puts greater emphasis on sustainability, long-term use of wood products, and healthy forests, rather than burning biomass in plants such as Cordemais.