Having ditched coal in favour of wood pellets, UK power station Drax calls itself the “largest decarbonisation project in Europe”. But the idea that burning wood produces fewer emissions and is better for the climate than burning coal is increasingly being questioned. In the latest twist, a group of former City lawyers this week announced they were filing a complaint against the North Yorkshire power plant, accusing it of misleading climate claims. The issue risks being a thorn in the UK government’s side as Cop26 kicks off because it has paid out vast subsidies to support Drax’s conversion.
Burning wood pellets has generally been considered “climate neutral” on the understanding that new trees capture the carbon released during the burning of older ones. But scientific opposition to this straightforward interpretation is growing. Research published this month by UK think tank Chatham House confirmed that while in the longer term carbon dioxide from burning wood will be absorbed, there is no certainty this is the case in the coming years or even decades. The regrowth of trees takes time, and younger trees that are regularly harvested in plantations may never store as much carbon as older, bigger trees in natural forests.
The UK has set itself the world’s most ambitious climate change target, to cut emissions by 78 per cent by 2035 compared with 1990 levels. And ahead of Cop26, countries around the world are slowly coalescing around a 2050 net-zero emissions target. In light of those targets, there is no space for carbon dioxide levels to grow anywhere within any timeframe.
The complaint filed to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) argues that Drax is breaching international guidelines governing corporate conduct and misleading consumers. Lifescape Project, a charity set up by ex-City lawyers, questions the company’s carbon neutral assertions and its claim not to burn whole trees. The complaint insists that there is evidence Drax’s business model is increasing CO2 emissions and driving forest destruction.
“This is a critical complaint at a critical moment,” said Alexander Rhodes, partner at Mishcon de Reya, the law firm offering legal advice to the Lifescape Project.
Drax is the UK’s largest single source of CO2 emissions, and supplies around 6-7 per cent of UK energy. Around two-thirds of the pellets it burns come from wood sourced from the South of the US. In 2019, US-sourced wood pellets burned for energy in the UK produced 13–16 million tonnes of CO2 emissions, the Chatham House research shows. Drax is not the only UK power station using biomass, but it is the biggest. That figure includes emissions released when the pellets are burned, from the supply chain, from the carbon dioxide not removed from the atmosphere because trees have been harvested rather than left to grow, and emissions from the decay of roots and unused logging residues left in forests.
“By burning biomass for fuel, you are creating higher levels of carbon dioxide than if you were burning fossil fuels,” said Duncan Brack, co-author of the report and a former government adviser.
Almost none of these emissions were included in the UK’s national greenhouse gas inventory since carbon emissions from biomass are counted in the land use sector of the country, where the trees are harvested. Had those figures been included in the inventory, emissions from UK electricity generation would have been 22-27 per cent higher – equivalent to the annual emissions of 6-7 million passenger vehicles, says Chatham House. And this trend is set to continue with “emissions from US-sourced biomass burnt in the UK projected to rise to 17 million tonnes-20 million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year by 2025”.
A spokesperson for Drax said the company “completely rejects” the analysis by Chatham House. “The science underpinning carbon accounting for bioenergy is crystal clear,” she added, referring to rules set out by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. And insists its sustainability standards “ensure we do not use biomass that causes deforestation, forest decline or carbon debt”.
Chatham House, as well as a growing body of scientists and nature campaigners, recommends amending biomass criteria everywhere to limit financial support to “sawmill and small forest residues and wastes with no other commercial use whose consumption for energy does not inhibit forest ecosystem health and vitality”. And, ultimately, it wants investment to go to renewable energy technologies like wind and solar power rather than biomass.
“Burning wood is a mature technology that doesn’t need support,” said Alex Mason of WWF’s European office in June.
Drax has converted its operations to run on wood pellets thanks to massive injections of cash – “pocketing £2.1m of tax-payers money every day”, say the OECD complainants. The company received £832m in direct government subsidies in 2020, and will require a further £31.7bn to deploy bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (Beccs), making it “the world’s most expensive power station”, estimates energy and climate think tank Ember.
Since current pledges will not get the world on track to meet climate commitments, the focus on solutions – from tree-planting to innovative technologies – that can suck carbon out of the atmosphere is growing. Beccs is one such technology.
Drax “strongly refutes” Ember’s figures for the cost of Beccs, and told the New Statesman they “are based on a series of false assumptions that do not reflect our current proposals”.
The UK Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (Beis) has pledged support for power plants running on biomass until 2027, and told the New Statesman it has no plans to change this, underlining its “strict sustainability criteria”. Its recent Net Zero Strategy also highlighted the potential contribution Beccs could make to renewables and reducing emissions in the UK.
It remains to be seen if the UK government will change tack when it publishes a new biomass strategy in 2022. But even if the OECD complaint does not succeed in changing the narrative, the market seems to be having a wobble. Earlier this month, Drax was removed from S&P’s Global Clean Energy Index after it “met with market participants”.