Britain will continue to produce electricity from burning the equivalent of more than 25 million trees a year – despite Boris Johnson’s pledge to end the destruction of forests, The Telegraph can reveal.
The Prime Minister agreed with 100 world leaders at Cop26 to halt and reverse tree loss.
However, he has been accused of “conveniently ignoring” the alleged harm to forests done by Drax biomass power station, which burns fuel pellets made from processed wood.
Leading scientists have warned that Drax’s North Yorkshire biomass plant, which receives £2.3 million a day in green subsidies from consumers, is releasing more carbon into the atmosphere than the coal it used to burn. The energy is treated as renewable, largely because the burnt trees are replanted.
However, academics say the saplings will take decades, if not centuries, to reverse the damage done to the environment – time which Mr Johnson has admitted the world does not have.
Lord Randall, who was environment adviser to Theresa May, said on Thursday that the subsidies were “incompatible” with Mr Johnson’s Cop26 pledges.
He described biomass as a “fourth fossil fuel” which is contributing to climate change in the short-term “as much if not more” than oil, gas and coal and damaging forests and biodiversity.
Adam Eagle, chief executive of Lifescape, a group of ex-city lawyers which has filed a complaint against Drax for alleged greenwashing, said: "Boris Johnson is focused on getting countries like Brazil and Indonesia to protect their forests, while conveniently ignoring the huge engine for global forest destruction that Drax provides here in the UK".
Biomass is undermining ‘climate goals and the world’s biodiversity’
Hundreds of scientists, environmentalists and policy experts have warned world leaders that the “renewable” energy is undermining “both climate goals and the world’s biodiversity”.
Drax says it only uses the bi-products of other industries – such as sawmill residues, branches and material which “has no other use”. It says that the maintenance keeps the forest healthy.
In Latvia, trees which have no use in other industries – largely because they are the wrong shape or have cracks or disease – made up 67 per cent of the 668,001 tonnes Drax imported in 2020. In Estonia, it was just over 50 per cent.
Sites used by Drax's suppliers have been completely clear-cut, including rare habitats which are supposed to be protected under EU law
Credit: Geoff Pugh
But it is these trees that environmentalists believe should be left standing to aid biodiversity, to protect the ecosystem and to sequester carbon.
Graanul Invest, Drax’s main supplier in the Baltics, says that most of its wood comes from clear-cut sites because it is the best way to manage a forest, both environmentally and economically. Clear-cutting is when whole swathes of forest are entirely cut down.
But the company, which provides pellets for the UK’s electricity supply, has been accused of sustainability breaches in some of Europe’s most important forests.
The Telegraph visited one clear-cutting site in peatland near Keeri, in south Estonia, which had been logged by the state-owned forestry company. Freedom of Information requests showed some of the harvest was sold to Graanul.
Graanul's pellet mill in Estonia, with smoke billowing from its chimneys
Credit: Geoff Pugh
The huge tracks left by the harvester lead through the remote forest into a churned-up mess marked with tree stumps. Birds can be heard through the forest, but the site of the logging is silent.
Damage and draining of peatland has been found by the UN to emit huge amounts of carbon into the atmosphere.
Mr Kuresoo said an inventory of the area had been done by an NGO, which found that it was a woodland key habitat and they were attempting to register it for protection when it was felled. More than a third of Estonia’s forests have never been assessed to see if they require protection.
Investigations by the Estonian Fund for Nature and the Dutch Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations have raised a number of serious concerns about the wood going into Graanul’s pellet mills.
Are Drax’s green energy plans going up in smoke?
By tracing land ownership and sales information, the Greenpeace-funded research found that trees from woodland key habitats, areas that were home to protected species and environmentally important watersheds and peatlands – like the one visited by The Telegraph – had all gone to Graanul mills.
An industry-funded report has refuted the claims. It said there was not enough evidence to prove that the wood breached sustainability rules. In the case of peatland, it is argued that damage had already been done during Soviet rule, and therefore the areas do not qualify for protection.
Drax said that they looked at the allegations and they were “unfounded”.
Drax has repeatedly said it does not use whole trees, but The Telegraph has found its suppliers rely heavily on 'roundwood' – trees with no other commercial value
Credit: Geoff Pugh
But the technicalities of the criteria do not alleviate the fear that irreversible damage is being done to the environment.
The Otepää Nature Park, in southern Estonia, is part of Natura 2000, a network of special areas of conservation protected under EU law as rare natural habitat types.
A six-hectare site in the park logged by a subsidiary of Graanul in 2018 is beginning to show signs of recovery, but the towering trees on neighbouring plots – some of which have stood for more than 100 years – dwarf the saplings that make the area look like scrubland.
The pellet producer has also been linked to intensive logging in nearby Haanja Nature Park, also protected by EU law.
All logging was signed off by Estonian officials. But the European Commission has begun enforcement action against the Government for allowing logging in Natura 2000, alleging that the legal system “fails to fully implement the environmental assessment requirements of EU law”.
Graanul has said that all allegations against them have been investigated 'without any wrongdoing detected'
Credit: Geoff Pugh
Graanul said that all allegations against them have been investigated “without any wrongdoing detected”. They said they are “closely monitoring the infringement proceedings and completely trust our government to implement any corrective actions should they be necessary”.
Estonian law means that when a site is clear-cut, foresters can leave as little as five cubic metres of trees per hectare to maintain biodiversity. A forest is considered regenerated when trees reach half a metre tall.
Under those rules, calculations for The Telegraph estimate that the forest could sequester just 7,080kg of carbon per hectare, compared to 50,000kg in an average mature forest.
“You could cut down almost every tree in Estonia and it would still be classed as a forest as long as you didn’t change the usage of the land”, says Liina Steinberg, from Save Estonia’s Forests. It is among a conglomerate of environmental groups which has lodged a complaint against Drax with the OECD, alleging that it is making misleading claims about its environmental credentials.
Liina Steinberg, from Save Estonia's Forests, in a cleared woodland where mature trees have been felled
Credit: Geoff Pugh
Driving across a heavily logged area that “looks like a chessboard”, she pointed to the trees that are left towering over a sea of stumps, and says that alone they too will probably fall in the next storm.
Planet does not have the time to repay ‘carbon debt’
Even if every felled tree is replanted, scientists warn that there will be a “carbon debt” that the planet does not have the time to repay as the saplings grow. Estimates of how long it will take for new forests to sequester the same amount of carbon range from decades to centuries. One Norwegian study estimated 190 years.
Carbon accounting rules mean the emissions from Drax are counted not in the UK but in the forests where the pellets are sourced, a system signed off by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to avoid double counting.
Estonia supplies a small proportion of Drax’s bioenergy pellets, but the country provides a unique insight as it is one of the few places in the world where the supply chain can be traced publicly.
Graanul also owns six mills in Latvia and, as you drive toward its facility in Launkalne, smoke can be seen billowing into the air from the processing of the pellets.
Calling into question “repeated” insistence from Drax’s spokesmen that they do not use whole trees, huge logs can be seen piled up outside the processing mills.
Both Latvia and Estonia have seen an increase in harvested areas, according to a study published in Nature, when comparing the periods 2016 to 2018 with 2004 to 2015. The areas increased by 32 per cent in Latvia and 85 per cent in Estonia.
Drax says that logging decisions are being driven by the timber industry, not the need for biomass.
But the situation in Latvia may have already reached a tipping point. According to the Government and the UN, Latvia’s land sector – in which emissions for biomass are counted – has now become a net emitter of carbon rather than a carbon sink. Both identify logging as a central driver.
Current Estonian law stipulates that when a site is clear-cut, foresters can leave as little as five cubic metres of trees per hectare to maintain biodiversity
Credit: Geoff Pugh
When approached by this newspaper, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) failed to explain how wood sourced from those forests can be considered to be removing the greenhouse gases emitted by Drax.
Duncan Brack, a policy analyst, warned in a Chatham House study that this is one of the “incentives” of biomass for both governments and the industry – because it is treated as carbon neutral and they have “no responsibility to compensate for the associated emissions elsewhere”.
The Sustainable Biomass Programme, an internationally recognised certification system for the pellets, said that they are aware of these issues and are currently revising the country risk assessment for Latvia.
Both Graanul and Drax say that they follow strict standards set by the SBP. Graanul said that they have “implemented the best and most precise control mechanisms available in the wood industry. If a load enters our gates, we have full traceability”.
As well as questions of carbon debt, extra emissions come from shipping the pellets to the North Yorkshire power station, with the largest amount coming from the United States and Canada.
Analysis for this newspaper estimates that it creates 1.7 billion kg more carbon than shipping the coal it previously used, the equivalent of the average emissions of 903,687 Ford Fiestas driven across the UK.
The burning of wood also emits more carbon from the chimney stacks, scientists agree.
Switch to burning wood estimated to emit 3bn kg more carbon a year
In total, the switch from burning coal to wood is estimated to emit around 3 billion kg more carbon a year than coal, calculations show. That is the equivalent of the annual emissions of around 3 million Ford Fiestas driving around the UK.
“Confidential” sustainability reports, submitted by Drax to Ofgem in order to obtain a large chunk of their subsidies, contain no evidence on where the trees were sourced from or how many have been replanted but they do identify the country.
An independent audit of the documents, which comply with government requirements, is only required to provide “limited assurance” that they are correct. Other UK companies conducting carbon audits must provide “reasonable assurance”.
Drax says it has a stringent process for checking sustainability and it knows where “every tonne of fibre originates”.
Biomass energy features in all the modelling examined by the IPCC to reach net zero, which makes it “absolutely clear that sustainable biomass is crucial to achieving global climate targets”, Drax said.
Drax's suppliers have been accused of logging in areas protected under EU law
Credit: Geoff Pugh
The current subsidies will run until 2027. A government source told The Telegraph that they have “no plans” to end them early.
Drax is currently working on carbon capture and storage technology in order to ensure continued government support. It is estimated that the system could cost British energy bill payers £31.7 billion over 25 years.
But as the scientific community, environmental groups and even financial organisations turn their attention to the true cost for the planet of biomass, its future is a question that ministers may not be able to ignore as the eyes of the world remain on Britain for Cop26.
A Drax spokesman said its biomass “meets the highest sustainability standards and these ensure that we do not use biomass that causes deforestation, forest decline or carbon debt”.
A Government spokesman said it was not “an ‘either/or’ situation”, and they were committed to end the destruction of forests whilst “standing by the support being given to biomass, which is strictly regulated with some of the most stringent sustainability criteria in the world”.