Biomass: A Renewable Reckoning

Over the past two decades, bioenergy has expanded to account for more than half of global renewable energy production. Despite its renewable designation, harvesting and burning forest biomass, in particular, has resulted in astronomical emissions and raised questions about industry regulation. 

A recent investigation by the BBC revealed that a Yorkshire-based biomass plant has been sourcing wood from primary (old-growth) forest in British Columbia. The plant, owned by Drax Group, supplies 6% of the UK’s electricity, and 12% of its renewable power. Drax Group operates seventeen biomass plants worldwide, including in the U.S., where they also source and generate wood pellets for use in the U.K. Drax’s global facilities also source trees and pellets from Europe, Canada and South America.

Classified as renewable energy, Drax’s use of biomass has been lauded as “the biggest decarbonization project in Europe.” However, experts say that Drax cannot contribute to critical emission reduction efforts under their existing model, which relies on deforestation, long-distance shipping, and high direct point-source carbon emissions. Though consistently found to be compliant with environmental standards and regulations, watchdog organizations such as Biofuelwatch and the National Resources Defense Council have condemned the Yorkshire facility for releasing high levels of particulate matter and carbon dioxide. The recent revelation about Drax’s sourcing practices adds to a consistent wave of opposition to the plant’s presence in England and British Columbia. Past protests by workers and community members have highlighted the company’s deforestation practices, dangerous emissions, and poor working conditions within the Yorkshire facility itself.

The biomass used in Drax facilities falls under the umbrella category of “bioenergy.” A range of bioenergy sources currently account for 6% of the global energy supply, and 55% of renewable energy production. Biomass and biofuel are subcategories of bioenergy, with biofuels being liquids such as biodiesel and bioethanol and biomass being made up of solid organic material like sawdust or municipal waste. Forest biomass—a form of bioenergy derived from wood—is favored because harvested trees could hypothetically grow back and continue to sequester carbon. According to Drax’s 2015-19 supply reports for U.S-sourced wood pellets, about 25% of the wood used for pellet burning came from sawmill residues, while 51% came from whole trees.  Drax maintains that they only use forest biomass from “sustainably managed forests” that would have otherwise gone to waste.

In 1992, the Kyoto Protocol laid out requirements for nations to reduce emissions by at least 20% by 2020. The I.P.C.C stipulated that countries should report emissions produced by biomass combustion in their land-use sectors, creating an illusion of carbon neutrality in the emissions accounting process. At the time, policymakers assumed that forest biomass would account for a small portion of global energy production, so forest regrowth would easily keep up with small-scale tree harvests. Instead of investing in other renewable energy sources, the U.K. utilized the carbon accounting loophole to transition their coal plants into biomass facilities. In 2017, the Yorkshire Drax plant received 2.5 billion pounds in U.K. subsidies, having transitioned from coal in 2012.

Though forests can be managed to improve carbon sequestration potential, they are being destroyed faster than they are being restored. Cutting down old trees and planting new ones releases decades or even centuries of sequestered carbon without making meaningful contributions to carbon sequestration in the short term. Sasha Stashwick of the NRDC says that terminology like “forest thinning” and the use of “low-grade ground wood” simply translates to harvesting trees. Biomass companies like Drax use a loose narrative about sustainable sourcing practices to conceal the true impact of their business on the climate and forests.

Despite Drax’s claims, there is little regulation or oversight of proportional replanting efforts by biomass companies, and there is no requirement that they replant using species ecologically equivalent to trees. Drax imports biomass from the around the world according to its own sustainability standards, and relies on the Sustainable Biomass Program (SBP) for further certification. However, the SBP board is made up of member company representatives, and the NRDC asserts that the SBP evaluation procedure cannot be objective without independent assessments and other “crucial aspects of forest carbon accounting” that the process currently neglects.

The Kyoto Protocol’s lenience around biomass emissions has allowed the industry to scale up massively over the past two decades. 6.1 million tons of wood pellets were exported from North America in 2015, nearly four times what was exported in 2010. 60% of European renewable energy is derived from biomass fuels, and emissions are woefully underreported across the board. The European Union and the U.K. collectively reported a 26% reduction in energy related emissions between 1990 and 2019. However, close to half of that supposed progress on emissions came from scaling up biomass energy.

The recent Drax controversy brings long-tolerated industry shortcomings to light. While biomass might be a necessary transitional fuel, it should no longer be considered a renewable energy solution without increased regulation and oversight. Since biomass has become key to energy production in the U.K. and elsewhere, the I.P.C.C.’s charitable approach to regulation has begun to do far more harm than good. In order to advance global emission reduction goals, the environmental impact of each stage of biomass production and use must be meticulously tracked by independent bodies, not company CEOs. Old-growth forest must be protected and seen as a key tool for carbon sequestration, not short-term fuel.

Lucy Corlett

Research Associate
Lucy Corlett is a research associate at the Kleinman Center. She assists with research and programming initiatives at Kleinman, working to support visiting scholars, students, and grant recipients.