The Other Side Of The Drax Controversy
Earlier this month, the BBC Panorama programme went through an investigation that exposed the practices of Drax - one of Britain’s largest power stations. In its nearly 30-minute-long video, the programme goes into detail about how this ‘green’ energy plant was importing wood pellets from old-growth trees in British Columbia, Canada, and generating energy for UK citizens.
Combined with a published piece, the BBC paints Drax as somewhat of an evil corporation, taking money from the UK government and the people twice over, and the finished product is energy from a source that is highly dubious in many ways. Getting scammed probably would’ve been better.
But is that the whole story?
With every argument comes a counterpoint, another side to the story. And this story stems from Drax itself. Buried under news coverage portraying Drax as the evil corporation, people have conveniently omitted Drax’s response to this scandal.
I would encourage you to look at the full response, but in order to summarise, here are some key takeaways from that overall response.
The Science Isn’t With Them
“The UN’s IPCC – the world’s leading science-based climate authority, backed by thousands of scientists – restated in their latest report the critical role that biomass will play in meeting global climate targets when sourced sustainably. Biomass is used by countries around the world to provide reliable renewable energy, whatever the weather, which displaces fossil fuels like coal from energy systems, supporting climate targets.” - Drax statement
The first sentence is interesting. Arguing that what they’re doing is scientifically proven to be beneficial, and even citing the UN’s IPCC report, it seems like the BBC Panorama programme is just attacking them.
But they’re not. Drax is lying.
To Drax’s credit, the IPCC report did talk about the fact that nature is the most effective and cost-effective for climate solutions. The fact this report urged the cutting of greenhouse-gas emissions in various sectors also feels validating to Drax, which made the switch in 2012 to biomass.
However, Drax is stretching the report to say that what they are doing is correct and scientifically-backed, because the report also states three actions we should be taking to cut emissions:
Reducing the destruction of forests and other ecosystems
Improving the management of working lands, like farms
The first two points are the most important here because the BBC proves they’re using logs, which are turned into pellets. And even if you dismiss the programme, there are personal accounts that wood pellets aren’t the best. This is in addition to plenty of scientists proving burning wood produces more emissions. That, and wood pellets are clearly still a form of deforestation, which clearly isn’t a good thing.
Delving further into the science, we know that replanting trees is a slow solution to what is a growing problem today. Trees planted now will take years or decades to capture enough of the carbon that was emitted today. There’s a reason planting trees right now won’t solve the growing climate crisis right now.
It Shows We Need To Talk More About The Trees
“In this edition of Panorama, the BBC has focused primarily on the views of a vocal minority who oppose biomass. The programme makers have sought to repeat the inaccurate claims about biomass which have for years been promoted by those who are ill-informed about the science behind sustainable forestry and climate change and those who have vested interests in seeing the biomass industry fail. Good journalism should start from a neutral position to seek out the facts.” - Drax statement
Drax continues to show its ignorance because even the slightest bit of research can prove some of their claims to be false. First is the “vocal minority that opposes biomass”, along with “those who are ill-informed about the science behind sustainable forestry”.
Not long into the programme, we are introduced to Professor John Sterman, from MIT. One quick look at his credentials and you can find he isn’t a vocal minority. To begin with, his research is all about improving decision-making in various complex systems - the most relevant being energy policy and environmental sustainability. This pursuit netted him various awards, and an honorary doctorate, and it’s prudent to say that, all around, this might be someone who knows what they’re talking about when it comes to climate change.
What Professor Sterman explains in the show is what was mentioned above. Trees take a long time to grow and they’re unable to offset the carbon that’s being emitted today. This is especially true if a company is replanting trees they’re cutting down.
Even Bob Simpson, the mayor of Quesnel, B.C., who has investments in forestry, agrees the pellet industry is nothing but greenwashed.
The general consensus is that it’s ‘green’ energy because when you compare it to coal, trees have the opportunity to grow. Fossil fuels don’t have that ability. What is conveniently left out in both policy, marketing, and discussions is that young trees are faced with a lot of dangers and uncertainty.
Drax could be planting more trees, but those trees could be destroyed by harsh weather that’s spurred on by greenhouse gases emitted today.
Drax Needs To Make Serious Changes
“At Drax, we are open and transparent about our operations and since becoming aware of the production team’s visit to Canada, many people across our business have collectively spent hundreds of hours engaging with them in an effort to encourage an accurate portrayal of our business and the wider forestry industry.” - Drax statement
Drax has been in the spotlight before about this issue and what this tells me is Drax isn’t going to be changing much at all until there are more serious consequences. In October 2021, Drax was faced with a complaint from the OECD which questioned its green credentials.
It’s worth noting the complaint was sent from the Forest Litigation Collaborative (FLC). The FLC is a conglomerate of groups that include the Partnership for Policy Integrity, a group that’s all about protecting the climate in policy-making.
Overall, the claims are echoing the same claims the BBC Panorama programme is making:
Biomass isn’t good or clean energy.
It takes years for any fallen trees to regrow and capture the same amount of carbon.
The government policies have glaring issues.
Billions of dollars are being spent going in the wrong direction.
If they were transparent, Drax would be mentioning this and would have a different approach than what has been stated. Instead of taking a more humble approach and making massive overhauls - as they did in 2012 - they have suggested they would have lawyers involved as this programme was a one-sided attack on them.
What this statement truly reveals is more about the company. This is a company that bought logging licences in a country with “tight forestry regulation”. And Canada does. Because Drax purchased two patches containing areas of rare forest. This is despite the fact that Canadian officials warned the company to leave those trees alone.
Bigger changes need to be made to the government in these circumstances. However, bigger changes need to be made to many big companies. After all, they clearly don’t mind greenwashing their products and presenting themselves as the victims when they get caught.