The Millions of Tons of Carbon Emissions That Don’t Officially Exist

At the recent U.N. climate-change conference in Glasgow (COP26), a dominant issue, as in past conferences, was that governments and businesses are underreporting emissions. Yet there was relatively little conversation about the biomass loophole. If anything, in Glasgow, the E.U. appeared to be doubling down on biomass. “To be perfectly blunt with you, biomass will…

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At the recent U.N. climate-change conference in Glasgow (COP26), a dominant issue, as in past conferences, was that governments and businesses are underreporting emissions. Yet there was relatively little conversation about the biomass loophole. If anything, in Glasgow, the E.U. appeared to be doubling down on biomass. “To be perfectly blunt with you, biomass will have to be part of our energy mix if we want to remove our dependency on fossil fuels,” Frans Timmermans, the European Commission’s executive vice president for the European Green Deal, told reporters. Meanwhile, the Earth’s atmosphere continues to absorb enormous amounts of carbon that don’t officially exist.

A group tour of the Drax power plant, which I took in 2019, began in a visitor’s center with glossy floors, high ceilings, black-and-white photographs of coal mines past, and a model of a nineteenth-century turbine. It looked like a science classroom in a public school in a town with a healthy tax base. The walls were papered with positive newspaper headlines: “Drax Leads Europe in Green Power,” “Power Station Looks to an Eco-Friendly Future.” Of the fifteen or so people who joined the group tour, four were boys under the age of ten. Two brothers, aged around seven and nine, cowlicked and big-eared, accepted their hard hats and safety vests from the tour guides with bashful excitement. A tiny kid, maybe in kindergarten, adorable in his tracksuit—a mini-Jason Statham—clung to his mother’s leg.

One of the tour guides—white, tall, bald, mid-fifties, rimless glasses, Dad sense of humor—called us all to attention by holding up a small clear jar of wood pellets. “What can you all tell me about biomass?” he asked. Silence. “Very quiet group today.” The adults smiled expectantly; the children took stock of their reflections on the floor.

Finally, one of the cowlicked brothers said, “It’s natural?”

The tour guide was delighted. “That’s right!” he exclaimed. He shook the little jar as the boy looked down with shy, secret pleasure. “This is residue from the timber industry, made out of scraps and sawdust.” The tour guide had a musical Welsh accent and he swayed back and forth, as if to the sound of it. He passed the sad vial of orphan timber residue around the room and asked if anyone knew where the wood came from. “No, we don’t get it from England. No, we don’t get it from Germany. Can we do better? Perhaps, maybe? A bit better?”

“The United States,” I piped up. People laughed, because the person with the American accent had said “United States.”

“That’s right,” the tour guide said again. “We don’t have a timber industry in the U.K., so we don’t have all the waste that they have there in the United States, and also Canada. They have all these lovely trees, for making things and so on, they cut down these trees, make those things, furniture, boards, you know, and we just use the bits of the trees they are not using.”

Drax burns wood pellets from pellet mills situated mostly in the U.S. and Canada. In the South, there are four Drax-owned mills and several more owned by one of Drax’s largest suppliers, called Enviva. In Canada, there is Pinnacle Renewable Energy, which Drax bought this year. These operations cut down a lot of trees: pine and hardwood forests in the South; and spruce, pine, and red cedars in British Columbia. Some of this activity is in primary-growth forests—forests that have never before been logged. Pellets made from these trees are shipped from ports (Baton Rouge, Louisiana, is one; Prince Rupert, British Columbia, is another) to England, where they are loaded onto custom-built trains, brought to Drax, and burned to supply around six per cent of the electricity used in the U.K.

The Dogwood Alliance has extensive photographic evidence of whole trees in North Carolina and Virginia being piled up on trucks that are headed for Enviva’s pellet mills, which require some fifty-seven thousand acres of timber per year to operate. Conservation North, a community group in British Columbia working to protect primary forests, has taken aerial photographs of thousands of hectares of forests in British Columbia that the provincial government has licensed to the Drax subsidiary Pinnacle Renewable Energy. These forests were recently shorn clean of their spruce, birch, and pine trees. “Those forests went to Pinnacle and then went to the Drax power plant to be burned,” Michelle Connolly, the director of Conservation North, told me.

This evidence conflicts with Drax’s official promotional materials. According to a Drax-produced virtual tour, the wood it burns for biomass is “made from tiny pieces of sawdust” that are “made when the trunk of the tree is cut into the big pieces needed for construction and furniture.” Minutes later in the same video, you see whole trees being loaded into a debarking machine, as a narrator speaks about “sustainably sourced forest thinning and low-grade wood.”

When I first asked a Drax spokesperson, Selina Williams, about this evidence of clear-cutting, she challenged me for using the word “logging.” “Pinnacle isn’t a logging company,” Williams said repeatedly. When I restated “logging” as “tree-cutting-down,” she repeated the phrase in a derisive tone: “Tree-cutting-down? What do you mean by tree-cutting-down?” Eventually, she said, “Canada has one of the most regulated forest industries in the world and has laws requiring a specified annual cut to minimize the risk of pest, disease, and fire.”

Conservation North’s fight is less with Drax or Pinnacle than it is with the British Columbian government, which, Connolly said, “won’t acknowledge that primary forests exist and are important for wild-life habitat and as carbon sinks.” There’s another loophole at work here: under international definitions, if a government or private entity cuts down a forest but doesn’t develop the land, it has not officially engaged in deforestation. “There aren’t any laws against primary-forest degradation in B.C. and Canada,” Connolly said. Canada’s forests used to be one of the biggest carbon sinks in the world, but about ten years ago, due to a combination of logging and natural disasters such as fire and drought, they began emitting more carbon than they absorb. (According to Lewis, the Drax spokesperson, “forty-three per cent of the material used to make all of our pellets comes from sawmill residues,” and “the proportion is much higher in Canada, where our operations use around eighty per cent sawmill residues.”)

On the Drax tour, the message about making good use of the timber industry’s castoffs seemed to resonate. “It’s wonderful that they’ve come up with a use for all that leftover wood,” mini-Jason Statham’s mother said as she looked up at one of the massive cooling towers.

“It certainly is,” the tour guide said. “So, there’s ten steel balls sitting inside each of those pulverizing mills, where we will visit later, and what they do is turn those pellets into what, well, pellet powder, and the fuel drops in, it burns, the ash pops out the bottom, all happy there? Any questions, happy, mostly? All very happy?”

Later that day, I spotted the mother of the cowlicked boys quizzing them about what they had learned. “Why do they burn the wood?” she asked.

“Because no one else wants it?” one replied.

“That’s right,” she said, beaming.

The tour group boarded a transport van to drive around the Drax complex. Drax is in the middle of the English countryside, but once you enter the gates, you feel like the only thing around Drax is more Drax. There are a few brutalist-lite concrete office buildings, connected by walkways. Otherwise, the buildings are strictly industrial, housing the boilers and pulverizers and furnaces, surrounded by those two sets of six cooling towers and turbine halls, with the smokestack somewhere in the middle of it all. We passed through some open space of scrubby vegetation—about forty-seven acres—and paused in front of a giant pile of coal. “This all used to be coal in here,” the tour guide said. It was still a lot of coal.

We pulled up to a giant, open-ended metal shed, where railroad tracks came in one side and out the other. Here, trains bearing the slogan “Powering Tomorrow” carry pellets in from the English ports. Seventeen trains per day, with twenty-eight cars each, bring twenty thousand tons of pellets to this shed every single day.

Drax, like England itself, has an ambivalent relationship with coal. Working in a coal mine meant you risked being suffocated in a pit or by your own lungs for a paycheck, but it was a steady living. At its peak, in the nineteen-twenties, the British coal industry employed more than a million people. By 1990, it was fifty thousand; by 2016, just a thousand. During the 1984-85 miners’ strikes, Margaret Thatcher made trade unions her enemy, but it was also simply much cheaper for England to import coal than to mine it. As the coal industry collapsed, work in England became predominantly urban and either professionalized or service-oriented. The towns where people once did physical labor to maintain the country’s infrastructure became places to sleep and be unemployed in. The last large-scale underground coal mine in Great Britain—Kellingley, which is also in North Yorkshire, about twelve miles from Drax—closed in 2015. The Selby coalfield, also in the area, once employed three thousand five hundred people; today, Drax employs about seven hundred.

An employee monitors the main generators in the control room at the Drax power station, in North Yorkshire, in 2016.Photograph by Simon Dawson / Bloomberg / Getty

Many of the people living in and around Drax have solid jobs with the government, or with a large sixth-form school called Selby College, or at nearby York University. Wealthier residents commute to York or even London. But there are also a lot of residents who are unemployed, underemployed, doing contract work, or working in low-wage service jobs. I talked to Steven Shaw-Wright, a councilperson in Selby, on Zoom, about the economic landscape of the Selby area. He described an indoor-amusement-park chain twelve miles from Selby, called XScape, which is also home to cinemas and restaurants. It’s built on the site of a former coal mine. “XScape’s got lots of jobs, but those jobs pay ten quid an hour, as opposed to the decent money that the pit used to pay,” Shaw-Wright said.

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