As the UK prepares to host the Climate COP in Glasgow, it continues to subsidize its biggest CO2 polluter: Drax. This despite a drumbeat of new research showing that Drax, the world’s largest biomass power plant, is exacerbating climate change and endangering the UK’s chances of meeting climate targets. Evidence from around the world also shows how Drax’s massive demand for firewood harms vital forest ecosystems in Europe and North America and threatens the health of marginalized communities in the southern United States.
This month, climate think tank Ember revealed that when it accurately counts all emissions, Drax is the UK’s largest source of CO.2 emissions. He also revealed that as of 2019, carbon emissions from biomass combustion in the UK power sector exceeded those from coal and were only exceeded by emissions from the combustion of fossil gas. In other words, an energy source that many governments have viewed as “renewable” is one of the main polluters.
A week later, a new report from Chatham House and the Woodwell Climate Research Center found that emissions from the combustion of US wood pellets at power plants in the EU28 (the 27 Member States of the European Union + the United Kingdom) fell from 9 to 11 million tonnes. of CO2 in 2014 to 16-19 million tonnes in 2019. Most of this was attributable to the UK, where emissions fell from 7 to 8 million tonnes of CO2 in 2014 to 13 to 16 million tonnes in 2019. Almost all of the increase in emissions in the UK was associated with biomass burned at Drax.
Alarmingly, hardly any of these emissions have been included in the UK’s national GHG inventory. If they were, Chatham House concluded that it would have added 22-27% to emissions from total power generation in the UK, or 2.8 to 3.6% of total GHG emissions in the UK. United in 2019 – which simply equates to the annual emissions of six to seven million passenger vehicles. absent from the UK balance sheet.
The findings reinforced those of a new report from the NRDC, which calculated that biomass supply chains similar to those on which Drax primarily relies are so highly emissive that they will worsen climate change, even with the addition of carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology to the stack. . This raises serious questions about Drax’s claim that it will become a ‘carbon negative’ power plant, as well as the UK government’s plan to leverage bioenergy with CCS (known as BECCS) to achieve the targets. of “net zero” emissions, as I have discussed here.
If all that wasn’t enough to silence claims that burning biomass is a climate solution, the S&P Global Dow Jones removed Drax from its Global Clean Energy Index over concerns about its poor environmental performance. Along with this major news, financial firm Jefferies has made it clear to clients that bioenergy is “unlikely to make a positive contribution” to tackling the climate crisis.
And Drax is currently the subject of a complaint to the OECD filed by the Forest Litigation Collaborative over the company’s misleading claims that burning wood pellet biomass is good for the climate.
But the arguments against biomass are not limited to climate pollution.
Unlike solar and wind power, large-scale wood burning in power plants also emits dangerous air pollution that causes a host of health problems. Drax is currently facing criminal charges for damage to the health of its workers caused by wood dust at the Drax power plant. Ember also reports that Drax is one of Europe’s top emitters of hazardous particle emissions, which puts it in the same notorious category as some of the continent’s worst coal-fired power plants.
Meanwhile, wood pellet factories fueling the biomass energy industry are exploding in the southern United States, the region from which Drax purchases most of its wood pellets.
Communities in the region with Drax-owned factories in their backyards tell us that pellet production comes with dust, 24/7 noise, and other negative impacts. that perpetuate decades of environmental racism. In April, the company was fined $ 2.5 million for serious air quality damage at its Gloster, Mississippi pellet plant, which is literally in the back. -court of the community of Blackman Hole.
This is the biggest known fine ever imposed on such a facility, yet it equals less than a day’s subsidy that Drax receives from the UK government. It’s true: Billions of UK government grants, meant to support the deployment of renewables and clean up Britain’s electricity grid, not only pay to increase carbon emissions, but also pollute the air in communities of color. vulnerable across the ocean.
As if all this were not enough, biomass puts the ecosystems and fauna of the planet even more at risk. Amid a biodiversity crisis, with scientists predicting one million species at risk of extinction, timber entering Drax’s supply chain is routinely cleared from old-growth, biodiversity-rich forests around the world that are home to a multitude of species and serve as vital carbon sinks.
On July 5, 2021, Channel 4 News investigators exposed how wood from a clearcut from an ancient and biodiversity-rich Estonian forest not only ended up burning at the Drax power plant, but was certified as “sustainable”. This summer, the European Commission even launched an infringement procedure against Estonia for logging, partly for biomass, in its Natura 2000 reserves, a European network of areas intended to protect the most endangered species in the region. .
Also this summer, after years of misleading claims about making wood pellets solely from logging by-products (v. Century-old rainforest to be turned into wood pellets at its factory in Northampton, Carolina of the North, which supplies Drax.
And while there is talk in political circles of the UK government to shift from imported biomass to domestic sources, Drax’s actual investments are at odds with this narrative. Instead, the company is actively moving in the opposite direction, locking down its biomass import supply chains. Drax recently purchased Pinnacle Renewable Energy in Canada, the second largest producer of industrial wood pellets in the world, and Drax owns or has interests in 17 other pellet plants and development projects in North America, which it uses for self-supply in granules. In Canada, the “transport zones” of Pinnacle’s wood pellet mills (now Drax’s) overlap with essential primary forests and habitat for endangered woodland caribou.
Nonetheless, the UK government continues to subsidize Drax to the tune of £ 2million per day and Drax is currently lobbying the government for additional subsidies to add CCS technology to its factory. Ember estimates the project will require £ 31.7 billion in new grants. Such large government subsidies should secure significant climate benefits. Yet the evidence summarized here indicates that the policy would be ineffective in reducing emissions and, perversely, would worsen climate change – and a host of other environmental and social impacts -.
Together, this casts a shadow over Britain’s claims for climate leadership and suggests that the UK government’s plan to rely heavily on bioenergy to meet its climate commitments under the Paris Agreement is at high risk for people. and the planet and should be greeted with great skepticism.
The clean energy revolution we’ve long envisioned shouldn’t mean increased carbon emissions, air pollution, or clearcut forests. The UK government should end dirty biomass electricity subsidies to Drax and other large biomass power plants and reinvest the savings in wind, solar and other genuine climate solutions.