The Government’s new climate change plan includes annual targets to plant more crops for burning to make electricity than woodland.
Green experts have warned that the focus on biomass risks distracting from proven technologies and increasing inequality in rural areas.
The proposals for greater biomass use are part of a major new Government strategy launched last month in an attempt to get the UK on target to hit net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.
As part of the plans, ministers are making a major bet on “Beccs”, or bioenergy with carbon capture and storage.
The technology, which has never been deployed on a major scale, claims to generate negative emissions.
The theory given is that the crops for burning – usually fast-growing grass and trees – would absorb carbon from the atmosphere while growing, which would then be stored underground in perpetuity once they have been burnt.
The technology also promises to provide electricity at times when less reliable forms of generation such as wind and solar are subdued.
Overall, the energy strategy makes a call to plant an additional 9,600 hectares of perennial energy crops and 8,900 hectares of woodland annually by 2030, increasing to 15,000 extra hectares of energy crops and 10,300 hectares of new woodland a year by 2035.
The Climate Change Committee has said that there is a place for Beccs in the UK’s energy mix. However it has warned that the supply of sustainable feedstock is limited and that more of it needs to come from the UK rather than overseas.
Currently, biomass burning sites without carbon capture, such as Drax in North Yorkshire, import their wood from overseas.
Nevertheless, critics have questioned why ministers are placing so much emphasis on an expensive technology that is yet to be shown to work at the necessary scale.
Dr Lydia Collas, a policy analyst at Green Alliance, told i: “The Government appears to be gambling heavily on bioenergy crops, even though these provide few environmental benefits beyond carbon. Planting new woodland, by contrast, is cheaper and better for nature and rural communities.”
Critics of the biomass plan say finite subsidy money should be used to plant woodlands, which sequester carbon and also boost biodiversity, while energy efforts should focus on cheaper and proven technologies.
“We shouldn’t be overcomplicating things. New technology will play an important role in tackling change, but we need to capitalise on the simple yet potentially transformative things already available to us,” said Dr Collas.
Analysis by Green Alliance showed that, even if costs fell significantly, it was still cheaper to remove carbon via woodland planting.
As well as potentially distorting the UK’s energy market, Green Alliance said that the emphasis on biomass crops risked channelling taxpayer money towards already wealthy farmers and away from poorer ones.
The agricultural land suitable for growing biomass crops tends to be of higher quality than that used for woodlands, which is often upland territory with poor soil, while much of the subsidy money would go to power generators.
The Government was approached for comment.