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Circulating blame in the circular economy: The case of wood-waste biofuels and coal ash

Millward-Hopkins, Joel, Purnell, Phil
Energy policy 2019 v.129 pp. 168-172
accounting, biofuels, carbon, circular economy, coal, concrete, deforestation, electricity, electricity generation, emissions, forests, politics, waste wood, wood products
The transition from coal-based electricity to ‘carbon neutral’ biofuels derived from forests has catalysed a debate largely centred upon whether woody-biofuels drive deforestation. Consequently, a crucial point is often missed. Most wood pellets used in electricity production are derived from waste-wood; a practice considered acceptable by many otherwise strongly opposed to the industry. We highlight that, precisely because waste-wood is a ‘waste’, its carbon-neutral credentials should be questioned. We then examine a parallel development occurring within the same industrial system; the recovery of electricity producers’ combustion-ash residues for concrete production. Contrasting how accounting practices allocate upstream carbon to these ‘wastes’ in the cases of wood pellets and coal-ash reveals how decisions are shaped by industry imperatives, rather than established lifecycle techniques. If the politics of emissions allocation continue to evolve in this way, it may become increasingly difficult to distinguish where progress towards a low-carbon, environmentally sustainable and circular economy is real, from where it is an artefact of biased and inconsistent accounting practices.