Drax Power Plants Burning Trees Dropped Green Energy Index

Here’s a green riddle for you: If a tree falls in the forest and is chipped, then shipped to be burned for electricity, is it carbon neutral?

This is a question that has stumbled national carbon calculators around the world since the days of the Kyoto Protocol. Since the late 1990s, industry and governments have widely viewed the burning of wood pellets in power plants as renewable, zero-emission energy, since planting new trees should, theoretically, absorb enough carbon dioxide. carbon to cancel the emissions that come out of the chimneys as they burn.

But doubts about the science behind these claims and the sustainability of the practice have grown as more countries accelerate the combustion of woody biomass as a substitute for coal.

In October, Drax Group, the world’s largest biomass power producer, was one of 15 companies launched from the S&P Global Clean Energy Index. S&P has also abandoned the French bioenergy company Albioma. The reason given: their “carbon / income footprint” was too large. S&P did not provide company-specific details beyond that, saying only that the changes to the S&P Global Clean Energy Index were incorporated “in order to improve the diversification of the index, to improve transparency, further reduce the carbon footprint of the index and align the methodology of the index with the market. sustainable investment trends and standards.

The same month, a study conducted by Princeton University, published in the journal Science, denounced a “serious” error in the rules of climate accounting widely applied to biomass energy since the Kyoto Protocol. “This accounting wrongly treats all bioenergy as carbon neutral, regardless of the source of the biomass…. For example, clearing long-established forests to burn wood or grow energy crops is counted as a 100% reduction in energy emissions, despite causing significant carbon emissions.

“Burning wood for energy can actually worsen climate change, at least until 2100, even if wood replaces charcoal, the most carbon-intensive fuel.

–John Sterman, MIT

The carbon neutral assumption may be true if you’re using perennial grasses or twigs, but scientists say tree plantations don’t store as much carbon as natural forests and regrowth takes time. It could take 40 to 100 years for planted trees to absorb the carbon debt released by biomass power plants (in boreal forests these estimates rise to 100 years).

In 2018, MIT scientist John Sterman concluded that “burning wood for energy may actually worsen climate change, at least until 2100 – even if wood replaces charcoal, fuel makes it worse. more carbon intensive ”. In early 2021, the Scientific Advisory Board of the European Academies asserted that the use of woody biomass for electricity “is not effective in mitigating climate change and may even increase the risk of dangerous climate change”.

Meanwhile, the carbon accounting loophole has fueled a boom in the biomass industry in Europe, the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom, where it is heavily subsidized. In the EU, biomass accounts for around 59% of all renewable energy consumption.

Once the largest coal producer in Western Europe, Drax now derives two-thirds of its biomass from forests in the southeastern United States and a growing percentage from western Canada. Last April, Drax bought Pinnacle Renewable Energy in British Columbia, which the company says is expected to increase its annual operating capacity to 4.9 million tonnes of biomass pellets by 2022, from 1.6 million tonnes . Drax now owns more than half of the pellet plants in British Columbia

Pellet makers typically say they don’t cut down entire trees and instead use fallen branches, sawdust and other wood waste, but environmental organizations in the United States and the United States Canada say the opposite. The Natural Resources Defense Council said that “multiple independent surveys show that wood from clearcuts from mature, biodiversity-rich forests regularly enters Drax’s supply chain.”

Drax says its biomass meets “the highest sustainability standards” and that in British Columbia, “the harvest has increased dramatically to use dead and dying wood.” [affected by mountain pipe beetle] as lumber in sawmills while it was still viable.

Ben Parfitt, a researcher at the Canadian Center for Policy Alternatives (CCPA), disputes this statement. “The photographs, videos and publicly available data clearly show that Drax does not distinguish between living and dead trees. It takes anything he can get his hands on, ”says Parfitt, who wrote a survey report on the pellet industry in April. He adds, “It is time the BC government appointed an independent expert to investigate.

Until then, the ACCP calls for a ban on all new pellet plants in the province. Vancouver’s environmental group Stand.earth has called for a moratorium on harvesting British Columbia’s primary forests for pellets. Across the pond, 50 MPs wrote a joint letter to the UK Energy Minister in December, calling the burning of wood to create electricity a “scandal”.

Drax maintains that its bioenergy has reduced its CO2 emissions from power generation by more than 90% since 2012. The company plans to pilot a carbon capture technology, which CEO Will Gardiner says will make the business carbon negative by 2030.

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