Damning revelations emerge about the UK’s clean energy claims ahead of COP26

Alok Sharma
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New research suggests that a tree-burning power plant, which the UK heavily subsidises and categorises as ‘clean energy’, is the country’s biggest emitter of carbon pollution.

According to climate and energy thinktank Ember, Drax power station in North Yorkshire is the country’s biggest single source of CO2 emissions. Moreover, it claims that Drax is among the top three coal plant emitters in the whole of the EU.

Biomass giant

Drax used to be an exclusively coal-fired plant. In the last couple of decades, however, it has switched a number of its units to burn biomass – namely wood – rather than coal. People in the UK pay a levy on fuel bills, massive subsidies from which go towards propping up the plant. And it’s now expanded, becoming the second largest manufacturer of its main feedstock – wood pellets – for producing bioenergy.

According to Ember, with its biomass and coal energy production combined, Drax was the third biggest coal plant emitter of CO2 in the EU in 2020. Its CO2 emissions totalled 14.8 million tonnes (Mt), with 13.3Mt coming from bioenergy. The think tank also calculated that the plant was the EU’s fourth largest power plant emitter of PM10 in 2019. This is particulate matter that is below 10 micrometers in diameter. It’s a pollutant that can contain toxins and impact human health, particularly among vulnerable people.

A Drax spokesperson said that Ember’s figures were:

completely at odds with what the world’s leading climate scientists at the UN IPCC say about sustainable biomass being crucial to delivering global climate targets

A Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy spokesperson commented that the department “did not recognise” the figures.

Read on...

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Carbon neutral?

The Conservative government, and seemingly Labour too, accept the idea that biomass energy is carbon neutral. Globally, a number of policymakers and institutions also appear to endorse the premise. Its alleged carbon neutrality centers around the notion that we can plant further trees to replace the trees cut down for burning.

Trees store carbon, which is released when companies like Drax burn them. Ember points out that wood has a “lower energy density” than fossil fuels like coal. It says this means companies have to burn it “in higher volumes than coal to produce the same amount of energy”. As such, wood emits more carbon per unit of electricity than coal.

Because we can, in theory, plant further trees that will suck that carbon back out of the atmosphere, the fuel has attracted the ‘neutral’ characterisation. However, trees take time to grow and store carbon. Meanwhile, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), which is part of the Cut Carbon Not Forests coalition, asserts that Drax and others in the business “routinely” source wood from whole and mature trees.

So bioenergy appears to be driving the destruction of longstanding, carbon-holding forests. And its ‘neutrality’ is based on the assumption that at some point newly planted trees will be capable of storing that carbon instead.

Other issues

In short, the timelines don’t stack up in terms of the carbon accounting. Indeed, hundreds of scientists voiced their opposition to bioenergy in an open letter earlier in 2021 due to its contribution to global warming, among other things. Moreover, the European Academies Science Advisory Council has also pointed out that oftentimes:

the type of forest biomass harvested and its use causes harm to biodiversity while also failing to deliver climate benefits

A study released in July, meanwhile, asserted that in relation to water and irrigation, growing biomass at scale for burning cannot be achieved sustainably.

Drax also aims to develop the ability to capture and store the carbon produced in its burning of biomass. This is known as bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, and it will be largely funded by UK consumers. Drax says this would make the fuel carbon negative rather than carbon neutral. But efforts to capture and store carbon (CCS) around the world so far haven’t inspired confidence in CCS as a viable, smooth, or secure route towards cleaner energy or a cooler world.

Despite all these issues, the UK government counts Drax’s bioenergy as a renewable – and therefore ‘clean’ – energy source. So it doesn’t count emissions from bioenergy in its CO2 totals. Meanwhile it does count bioenergy in its totals for renewable energy production. Bioenergy amounts for around 30% of the UK’s renewable energy. This means that, overall, bioenergy production reflects well on the government’s climate record, not badly, despite not being very ‘clean’ or sustainable.

The government also subsidised the company’s operations by over £2m a day in 2020 and 2017 according to Biofuelwatch.

Fails on every count

The NRDC’s Sasha Stashwick recently told The Canary that there are three key things the world needs prioritise to tackle the climate and biodiversity crises. They are:

  • Quickly ceasing to load the atmosphere with carbon.
  • Transitioning to real sources of renewable energy.
  • Protecting nature.

Doing the latter will both stem biodiversity loss and help to store carbon.

Despite its ‘neutral’ and ‘negative’ promises, bioenergy doesn’t appear to assist in any of these goals. In fact, on most counts, it seems to be making matters worse.

Featured image via iGlobal News / YouTube

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  • Show Comments
    1. What we NEED to do is deprioritise our economy from being designed to funnel money to the very rich. Then we can start cutting useless and wasteful jobs (“Bullshit Jobs” – Graeber), which combined with a thoughtful national transport plan could reduce transport emissions greatly, and free people up for more useful occupations and skills such as post-oil permaculture agriculture, or reducing state classroom sizes, or shortfalls in the NHS/care sector. All professions that need much higher rates of pay, that would come from the wealthy having their vampirism slashed.

      Which is, of course, exactly why there was a dirty tricks campaign against the potential Corbyn govt, that might have considered such policies to literally save the UK itself.

      Anyone who still believes that Steer Calmer would do ANY of that… they’d have to be in that insane asylum called “The Corporate Media”.

      Properly preparing for climate chaos is impossible when the 1% of the country is only focussed upon impoverishing 80% of it.

      I’m sorry, but that is just a fact.

      It’s the white elephant in the room, along with brexshit.

    2. Surprisingly poor reporting from the Canary in that you’re implying that living trees are cut to fuel a Biomass incinerator. In fact they use waste wood and other sources of waste plant material for fuel. This does not alter your point about Carbon though, which is a separate issue.

      “…… There are at least six subgroups of woody fuels. The differentiators between these subgroups mainly have to do with availability and cost. Forestry residues—in-forest woody debris and slash from logging and forest management activities. Mill residues—byproducts such as sawdust, hog fuel, and wood chips from lumber mills, plywood manufacturing, and other wood processing facilities. Agricultural residues—byproducts of agricultural activities including crop wastes, vineyard and orchard prunings or turnings, and rejected agricultural products. Urban wood and yard wastes—residential organics collected by municipal programs or recycling centers and construction wood wastes. Dedicated biomass crops—trees, corn, oilseed rape, and other crops grown as dedicated feedstocks for a biomass project. Chemical recovery fuels (black liquor)—woody residues recovered out of the chemicals used to separate fiber for the pulp and paper industry.”

      https://www.hurstboiler.com/biomass_boiler_systems/biomass_fuel_types

      Also the failure of the Canary to point out that the Conservative Neo-Liberal argument for privately run Utilities as opposed to Nationalisation, is that it is more efficient and does not burden the citizen with more taxes to pay for it.
      Here we have a perfect example of the hypocrisy of the Gov’t’s economic model which operates widely across the Private sector.
      From the taxpayer subsidised “National Living Wage” which is trumpeted from every Conservative mouth as putting billions of money in peoples pockets – when in fact it steals money from the taxpayers pockets and subsidises and enriches Low-Pay Employers.

      “Drax Group PLC is a power generation business. The principal downstream enterprises are based in the UK and include Drax Power Limited, which runs a biomass-fuelled power station, Drax power station, near Selby in North Yorkshire. The Group also runs an international biomass supply chain business. The company is listed on the London Stock Exchange and is a constituent of the FTSE 250 Index…….”

      So here is an International Corporation listed on the Stock Exchange subsidised by the taxpayer. The astounding hypocrisy of anti-Nationalisation Conservatives is breathtaking but unsurprising. After all they are the CEO’s of Pissing in our faces and telling us it’s raining and it is the rule rather than the exception when it comes to Conservative Business Policy.

      The Canary has raised an important issue also but missed out on equally important issues it could have exposed here.

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