A discredited notion of the carbon “benefits” of burning trees for electricity has gotten a new lease on life by the UK’s Tony Juniper, a paid promoter for the Drax power station in the UK.

Tony J. is a figure of some repute, or at least that’s the impression one gets looking at his website, where he's described as “a leading British environmentalist.” Probably that’s what the UK branch of the World Wildlife Fund thought they were getting when they hired him to join the staff starting in 2018.

We assume Tony’s leaving his firm Robertsbridge, which had a contract with Drax, the massive power plant in the UK that has recently switched to burning wood in addition to coal. Drax can afford the best – they got £536 m in subsidies for wood-burning in 2016 from UK billpayers, or nearly £1.5 million a day. Given all that gorgeous money, we assume that continuing to work on behalf of Drax would constitute a conflict of interest, which is why it’s somewhat amazing to see Tony continuing to promote the company in the last days of 2017, with a film and an article in the Guardian that continues the theme. Describing a trip to the U.S. where he visited forests of the Southeast being logged for forest products and wood pellets, he says that

“Those managed ecosystems are taking carbon out of the atmosphere, while supplying various industries including, lumber, paper and bioenergy. I saw how, at the level of the landscape, there is no carbon debt.”

Translation for the uninitiated – “carbon debt” means the net amount of CO2 emitted by burning wood that hangs out in the atmosphere, warming the climate, until trees have regrown and offset the emissions by taking up an equivalent or greater amount of CO2. Thus in saying there is no carbon debt from forest harvesting at the landscape scale, Tony is saying that millions of tonnes of CO2 emitted by cutting and burning trees in the Drax power station are instantaneously offset, because, basically, trees are still growing somewhere else.

For an environmentalist who cares about climate change, claiming that bioenergy emissions are instantaneously offset betrays a startling lack of understanding about the role of forests in climate mitigation and the basic math of counting carbon emissions. It’s like claiming that after you liquidate a bank account (cut and burn trees), the bank still owes you money because other peoples’ accounts are still accumulating interest (forests are growing elsewhere).

Certain people – perhaps those who understand fiscal responsibility – seem to get this immediately. As Tommy Sheppard (SNP Member of Parliament for Edinburgh East) writes,

To be carbon neutral, an equal amount of CO2 needs to be taken out of atmosphere as is released into it over the same period of time. Even fast-growing trees take many years to photosynthesise carbon dioxide into wood. If you can’t see that incinerating the same tree in a matter of seconds adds to CO2 levels in today’s atmosphere, then you’re not thinking about this hard enough.

Even the UK Department of Business, Energy and Industrial strategy is starting to get it, admitting recently that “When compared with [other genuinely low-carbon renewable] technologies, carbon savings from biomass conversion or co-firing are low or non-existent.”

Drax’s own annual report shows the plant emits more carbon pollution from burning wood than burning coal, both in absolute terms and per megawatt hour – and as a UK government science report determined, so those “trees growing somewhere else” would have less of a job to do if the station just kept burning coal (in fact, forest growth in the US and EU currently offsets only 10 – 15% of emissions – if they were capable of offsetting more instantaneously, CO2 levels would not be increasing so alarmingly fast). 


The claim that Drax burns only wastes and thinnings is similarly bogus.  As documented by the Dogwood Alliance, Enviva, a major supplier of wood pellets to Drax, harvests both pine plantations and native wetland hardwood forests for fuel. UK government data show the majority of US wood pellets burned by the Drax power station is sourced from logs that “formed part of the trunk of a tree which grew for at least 10 years” and from harvesting that was a “mix of clearfell and thinning.”

Rather than giving Drax spokesmen a hearing, let’s listen what scientists say about the role of forests in greenhouse gas mitigation. It’s clear that to avoid dangerous temperature rise, we need to reduce emissions, but also increase carbon uptake. A new paper in Nature, written up in the Washington Post, highlights the potential of degraded ecosystems to store more carbon. The study found that it’s not just deforestation that has degraded carbon storage, but also

 “large-scale grazing and other uses of grasslands, as well as forest “management.” With the latter, many trees and other types of vegetation are subtracted from forests — often the larger and older trees due to logging — but the forests as a whole don’t disappear. They’re just highly thinned out.

In other words, it’s exactly the “thinning” that Tony J. lauds as providing carbon benefits that is responsible for an “unexpectedly massive” loss of carbon, according to the lead author of the study.

Tony J concludes his piece in the Guardian saying,
“There are many questions about biomass (and indeed all energy choices), but in the case of biomass I fear that some advocates have gone from questions to opposition rather too quickly.”

The concern trolling that opposition came “too quickly”  shows ignorance of ten years of careful work by scientists and NGO’s pointing out the greenhouse gas impacts of burning trees for electricity.

We’re sure there’s high-fives all around the tree-burning industry to have such a “leading British environmentalist” advocating for them at the heart of a UK environmental organization. But to us, the scientists and NGO’s that believe harvesting forests for fuel hurts the climate, it’s really cuckoo.  

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