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


8-12-2021 The Newyorker

How a blind spot in the Kyoto Protocol helped create the biomass industry.

In the North of England, in a tiny village called Drax, there is a power plant, also called Drax. The name is ominous: the sad honk of a mistake, ending in a hazardous-chemical “X.” 

In the taxi there, from my hotel in nearby Selby, in North Yorkshire, we travelled through flat, green countryside in cool, gray weather, until all at once the plant came horribly into view—it attacked the horizon, beyond enormous, beyond ugly, a row of twelve concrete cooling-tower children, each standing three hundred and fifty feet tall, but dwarfed by their mean and looming dad, an eight-hundred-and-fifty-foot chimney.

“Dear God,” I said to the taxi-driver. “How utterly terrifying!”

“The chimney is the tallest one in all of the United Kingdom,” the driver said. He was sixtyish, jolly but absent. His car smelled of ashtray. “It’s so tall that they used to get the acid rain from it over there in—well, in Scandinavia and the like!” He snickered. “They weren’t too pleased about that, Sweden.” He dragged out the long “E.”

“Well,” I said, trying to match his spirit, “I suppose they all should have thought about that before they decided to live there!”

He loved this. He slapped his knee. We were pulling up to the entrance of Drax: neat corporate shrubbery, fencing, a small reception building. “Should have thought of that before they lived there, heh heh heh,” he said as I paid the fare. “Have fun at Drax, luv,” he called after me.

I had come to Drax to understand how this power station is “enabling a zero carbon, lower cost energy future,” as described by the annual report of the Drax Group, which operates four renewable-energy plants across England and Scotland. The Drax plant, which dates back to 1974, used to burn coal, but it has spent the last few years transitioning to “sustainably sourced biomass,” more commonly known as wood pellets.

In essence, Drax is a gigantic woodstove. In 2019, Drax emitted more than fifteen million tons of CO2, which is roughly equivalent to the greenhouse-gas emissions produced by three million typical passenger vehicles in one year. Of those emissions, Drax reported that 12.8 million tons were “biologically sequestered carbon” from biomass (wood). In 2020, the numbers increased: 16.5 million tons, 13.2 million from biomass. Meanwhile, the Drax Group calls itself “the biggest decarbonization project in Europe,” delivering “a decarbonized economy and healthy forests.”

The apparent conflict between what Drax does and what it says it does has its origins in the United Nations Conference on Climate Change of 1997. The conference established the Kyoto Protocol, which was intended to reduce emissions and “prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.” The U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (I.P.C.C.) classified wind and solar power as renewable-energy sources. But wood-burning was harder to categorize: It’s renewable, technically, because trees grow back. In accounting for greenhouse gases, the I.P.C.C. sorts emissions into different “sectors,” which include land-use and energy production. It’s hard to imagine now, but at the time, the I.P.C.C. was concerned that if they counted emissions from harvesting trees in the land sector, it would be duplicative to count emissions from the burning of pellets in the energy sector.

According to William Moomaw, an emeritus professor of international environmental policy at Tufts University, and lead author of several I.P.C.C. reports, negotiators thought of biomass as only a minor part of energy production—small-scale enough that forest regrowth could theoretically keep up with the incidental harvesting of trees. “At the time these guidelines were drawn up, the I.P.C.C. did not imagine a situation where millions of tons of wood would be shipped four thousand miles away to be burned in another country,” Moomaw said.

In the end, negotiators decided only to count land-use emissions. “But these emissions are very difficult to estimate, and the United States and Canada aren’t even part of the Kyoto agreement,” Moomaw said. The loss of future carbon uptake due to the removal of forests, even the plumes chugging out of a biomass plant’s smokestacks—these did not go on the books.

The result was what many scientists call the “carbon accounting loophole.” By international agreement, if a nation or industry burns megatons of wood, thereby emitting megatons of carbon, it can be defined as a largely carbon-neutral event. “The wood biomass energy claims of carbon neutrality are incorrect and misleading,” Beverly Law, a professor of global climate-change biology at Oregon State, told me. “It can worsen climate change even if wood displaces coal.”

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