Drax biomass silos

Thanks to decades of climate campaigning including direct action, public education and legal challenges, it is no longer controversial to say we need to stop burning coal for electricity. We would do well to pay closer attention to what governments and big energy generators are doing – and putting substantial amounts of public money behind – instead.

When we hear the words “low carbon” or “renewable energy”, most of us think of wind or solar power. However, in 2019 the UK government spent almost £1.5 billion on renewable subsidies for biomass electricity, the majority going to power stations that burn wood pellets. The largest single recipient of these subsidies is Drax Power Station, formerly the UK’s largest coal burner, now the world’s largest burner of biomass Drax claims that its biomass burning is sustainable and even has the potential to become “carbon negative”. However, campaigners in Drax’s wood pellet sourcing regions have exposed the pellet industry’s responsibility for damaging forests, contributing to climate change and exacerbating environmental racism.

Drax has made considerable fanfare over the climate credentials of its switch from coal to biomass, claiming to be “enabling a zero carbon, lower cost energy future”. The logic behind the “carbon neutral” claims of biomass is that if trees are burnt and others planted in their place, the new trees will reabsorb the CO2 emitted by burning the old ones. Drax has recently further claimed that adding carbon capture technology (as yet unproven for biomass) will in future make the power station “carbon negative” (assuming the government provides more subsidies), storing more CO2 than it emits.

A growing number of scientists disagree. Professor Timothy Searchinger and others described the classification of biomass as carbon neutral as a “critical climate accounting error”, because it counts neither the emissions from burning biomass nor those from land use change from growing or harvesting biomass for energy. The carbon emitted from harvesting and burning trees may not be reabsorbed for decades, if at all – and to have a chance of addressing the climate crisis we need to cut our CO2 emissions now and protect and restore forests and other biodiverse ecosystems.

In 2021, over 500 scientists wrote to the leaders of the US, EU, Japan and South Korea, calling on them to put measures in place to prevent the burning of biomass in the place coal. Because burning wood for power is less efficient than burning coal, it emits more CO2 per unit of energy generated.

The letter states:

Government subsidies for burning wood create a double climate problem because this false solution is replacing real carbon reductions. Companies are shifting fossil energy use to wood, which is increasing warming, as a substitute for shifting to solar and wind, which would truly decrease warming.

As well as exacerbating rather than mitigating the climate crisis, the biomass industry also negatively impacts on biodiversity and environmental justice.

Drax burns more wood every year than the UK produces in total, so around 99% of its fuel is imported. Drax’s largest source of wood pellets is the southeastern USA, where forests inside a Global Biodiversity Hotspot are felled and wood from those clearcuts is turned into pellets to burn in overseas power stations. While pellet producers such as Enviva claim to be using “forestry residues” and “low value wood” to make pellets, this regularly includes whole trees.

As well as being home to black bears, a large number of amphibians and endemic bird species such as the red cockaded woodpecker, these forests offer crucial protection from extreme weather events such as floods and droughts that are becoming increasingly common.

Drax also burns wood from Canada and the Baltic states. The company has recently announced its acquisition of Pinnacle Pellets, one of the world’s largest pellet producers whose mills are located next to some of the last stands of primary forests in British Columbia, Canada, home to endangered wildlife like caribou and among the most carbon-rich in the world. In Estonia and Latvia, flying squirrel, black stork and capercaillie habitat is seriously harmed by intensive logging; these forests continue to have spiritual significance, having served as a haven for pagans and political renegades throughout repeated invasions of Christianity and Soviet communism.

The areas most affected by the impacts of wood pellet production in the southern US are predominantly lower income and African American communities who are already exposed to other forms of industrial pollution and social inequality – which the biomass industry is exacerbating with heavy traffic, noise and air pollution that can impair lung function, trigger asthma attacks, and aggravate conditions of people with bronchitis and emphysema.

Drax was recently fined $2.5 million for air quality violations at its Amite wood pellet plant in Mississippi – the largest fine of its kind to date. However, this is roughly equivalent to the £2.27 million Drax receives every single day in subsidies for burning biomass. Massive amounts of public money keep the UK biomass industry afloat – “renewable energy” subsidies which would otherwise be spent on genuinely cleaner and lower carbon energy such as wind or solar power. The government has tacitly admitted that biomass should not be receiving these subsidies, with new rules introduced in 2018 that rule out subsidising future import-reliant biomass power stations; in the meantime, Drax will continue receiving these payments until 2027. However, the government could, if it chose to, implement legislation that would redirect these subsidies away from biomass to lower carbon renewables; this is what the Cut Carbon Not Forests campaign, a coalition of US and UK organisations, is calling for.

Drax has lobbied hard to secure the government support it currently enjoys: the company has met with government ministers over 50 times since 2012, as well as attending party conferences, making political donations, sponsoring academic research and events, and even taking an official role in advising the government on climate change. With such privileged access to decision-makers, it’s no surprise Drax has been getting what it wants.

However, it doesn’t have to be like this. A recent survey showed that 80% of UK residents think the government’s support for biomass electricity is hypocritical given its alleged intention to reduce our CO2 emissions and protect forests. The UK is due to host the COP26 international climate summit this year; Drax will likely be at the summit promoting itself as part of the solution, but civil society will be there opposing corporate interference and calling out false solutions. UK and international policy need to reflect the fact that grinding trees into pellets and burning them in power stations is no solution to the climate crisis. With their demands for ever more government subsidies, Drax and the biomass industry are obstructing climate action.

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Image credit: Alan Murray-Rust – Creative Commons