Biomessy: fringe groups hijacking the energy debate

I attended an event in Parliament in December, where an associate fellow from Chatham House was speaking at a debate on the role of biomass in the energy sector. Duncan Brack is a former Special Advisor for Chris Huhne when Mr Huhne was the Secretary of State at the Department of Energy and Climate Change. There was a heated debate at this event between Mr Brack and some environmental activists on one side, and some biomass industry representatives on the other.

As a layman on the topic, I didn’t know what to think, especially as both sides accused the other of lying. I, therefore, welcomed the recent release of a Chatham House report, authored by Mr Brack, on this topic. It was picked up on the front page of The Times, who reported the findings favourably.

Reading the report myself, I noticed that all of the references to the environmental impact of biomass (a topic I know little about) were sourced from works authored by attendees of the biomass event in Parliament. These included Dr Mary Booth of the Partnership for Policy Integrity, and Duncan Law from a pressure group called ‘BioFuel Watch’. These were the same people who made scathing attacks against the industry representatives at the event. It was striking to see someone from Chatham House exclusively citing groups on the fringe of the debate.

A week or so later, I saw that the International Energy Agency criticised the Chatham House report, specifically the assertions about the climate effects of biomass. They organised a letter from more than 125 academics decrying the report, and in an open letter to Chatham House, they determined that ‘the major conclusions and policy-specific recommendations are based on unsubstantiated claims and flawed arguments’. This led the BBC to cover the debate.

Detailed reports on this issue are very important; the UK's energy mix is an issue where robust debate is crucial. it is concerning, therefore, that research on this topic can be based on the prejudices of extremist groups rather than the evidence. 

What I (and the TPA) am much clearer on is taxpayer-funded environmentalism. When taxpayers unwittingly fund environmentalist groups to push fringe agendas, the taxpayer takes a double hit: these groups get subsidised to lobby the government; which is then too often pushed to increase the costs of energy to taxpayers to satisfy the demands of these groups. What’s more, these energy bills always disproportionately affect the less well-off.

We’ve looked at that topic in great detail in the past. For instance, in 2010 we published a report showing where over £10 million of taxpayers’ money was going. The UK government and the European Union gave out large grants to groups already well-funded through charitable giving, including the WWF. Even councils got in on the act – Hackney Council gave out over £140,000 to a group called Global Action Plan, which is an organisation that aims to help businesses and other organisations cut carbon emissions and make financial savings. Fine – but that’s a service businesses should pay for. It's not for taxpayers to fund.

I fear it will not be the last time that hard-left groups try to fool or cajole respected institutions to push their agenda, regardless of the science. In a time where there are worries about ‘fake news’ it is important to recognise that our most respected institutions are under threat, and science should not be traduced by extremists of any side.