Drax faces complaint about ‘misleading’ biomass emission claims

The owner of one of the UK’s largest power stations is the subject of a complaint to the OECD by campaigners questioning its green credentials.

Drax, which describes itself as a UK-based renewable energy company, has converted four of the six units at its power station in Selby, Yorkshire, from burning coal to woody biomass — in the form of wood pellets sourced from North America and Europe — for electricity generation.

It now faces a complaint made to the OECD alleging that its claims mislead consumers. The complaint has been lodged by the Forest Litigation Collaborative, an umbrella group that includes the Partnership for Policy Integrity, which promotes policies that are protective of the climate.

The complaint focuses on five claims that the group alleges appear repeatedly in Drax’s public statements and relate to its use of woody biomass — which is classified as a source of renewable energy in the UK and EU and therefore attracts state subsidies.

Woody biomass has become a politically charged topic, with a growing number of scientists and campaigners arguing that it is much more environmentally damaging than its proponents claim.

The complaint alleges that Drax’s statements wrongly portray woody biomass as a carbon neutral form of energy. Forest Litigation contends that burning woody biomass emits more carbon pollution per megawatt hour than burning coal, and that it takes years for the felled trees used to make pellets to regrow and capture the equivalent amount of carbon.

The biomass industry says the fuel is carbon neutral if forests are managed carefully — with some parts harvested while others regrow — and the overall volume of carbon stored in the trees remains stable.

Under the UN’s international emissions reporting rules, carbon emissions from biomass are counted in the land sector of the nation where the trees are harvested, rather than the energy sector of the country using the fuel. The rules do not say biomass should be assumed to be carbon neutral.

However, there is little guidance on how companies should account for land sector emissions, including those related to the harvesting and regrowth of trees, so many do not include them in targets and disclosures.

Forest Litigation’s complaint alleges that Drax’s statements misrepresent the UN rules, and breach OECD guidelines that require businesses to provide the public with verifiable information about environmental impact.

“While counting bioenergy emissions in the land sector is appropriate for country-level carbon balance sheets, it does not justify Drax making any public representations that woody biomass energy is carbon neutral,” the Forest Litigation complaint says.

Drax’s claim that it calculates the “lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions for our biomass” is “misleading” because the calculations do not include all the emissions from the land sector, such as soil carbon loss during forest harvesting, the complaint adds.

Forest Litigation wants the company to engage in mediation and agree to “withdraw and/or correct” the statements highlighted in the complaint. The OECD could outline recommendations for the company if it deems that the complaint has merit and mediation is unsuccessful.

Drax said: “The world’s leading authority on climate science, the UN’s IPCC, is absolutely clear that sustainable biomass is crucial to achieving global climate targets.

“The science underpinning carbon accounting for bioenergy is also crystal clear: It was set out by the IPCC and then reaffirmed by them in 2019 following review by thousands of the world’s leading climate scientists,” it added.

Drax’s biomass “meets the highest sustainability standards,” the company said.


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