Four Ways We Know Drax’s Appetite for Trees Is Still Growing

The new annual report released by the world’s largest wood-burning power station shows that it is burning more wood from forests than ever before.

Tree trunks from a clearcut section of mature wetland forest being transported to Enviva Pellets Southampton, a wood pellet facility in Southampton County, Virginia.

Credit: Dogwood Alliance

The new annual report released by the world’s largest wood-burning power station—Drax—shows that it is burning more wood from forests than ever before.

Here are 4 takeaways:

  1. Drax is Burning More Wood Than Ever Before – In 2021, Drax burned more wood to make electricity than ever before, increasing from 7.3 million tonnes to over 8.4 million tonnes of woody material. Since 2015, the first year for which there’s data, these forms of wood—tree trunks, branches, tops, and bark—have made up more than half of Drax’s feedstock.
  2. Half of the Material Drax Burns Comes from Whole Trees – While the industry claims—and many people believe—that wood pellets for biomass come from the wastes and residues of logging, the fact is that a lot of it comes from actual trees in actual forests that are critical to staving off both climate change and biodiversity loss. For several years now, the share of whole trees in Drax’s supply chain has hovered around 50%—an alarming statistic given the importance of trees in sequestering carbon and supporting functioning ecosystems.
  3. Drax Is Burning More Wood from Estonia, Where Protected Forests are Suffering from Biomass Logging – Drax’s burning of trees from Estonia has more than doubled compared to 2020, rising from 55,000 tonnes to over 122,000 tonnes. This is true despite growing evidence that Estonia has been allowing biomass logging in forests protected under EU law in large part because of their abundance of rare plant and animal species (e.g., goshawks, black storks). This problem has been so severe that the Estonian Environmental Board recently halted all logging within these areas for more than two years.
  4. Drax is Also Burning More Wood from Special Forests in Canada and the U.S. – In 2021, Drax also burned 3.2 million tonnes of wood from forests in the US, up from 2.9 million tonnes in 2020. The amount of forest wood that Drax demands from the Southern U.S. requires clearing an area of land twice the size of London. The North American Coastal Plain, a global hotspot for wildlife, is the epicentre of bioenergy logging in the Southern U.S., contributing to the harm of at-risk species like the rusty blackbird and yellow-billed cuckoo. Logging trees from these forests  reduces the amount of carbon stored in the forests.  And dust, noise, and pollution from turning these trees into wood pellets harms the health and wellbeing of local communities, which are predominantly low-income communities of colour.

In 2021, Drax also burned over 350,000 tonnes of wood from forests in Canada, up from about 200,000 tonnes in 2020. Unfortunately, this number is likely to get MUCH bigger given that Drax’s share of British Columbia’s pellet output increased to 66% over the past year with its purchase of Pinnacle (a pellet mill producer), along with the sales contracts of Pacific Bioenergy, another pellet mill. Investigations have shown that logging for biomass in Canada is even occurring in primary forests in BC and the Boreal, despite these forests’ particularly important role in staving off climate change and massive biodiversity loss.

These new figures come only weeks after the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a report on the impacts of climate change, warning that bioenergy poses risks to nature, water supplies, and food production. The IPCC called for a huge shift that focuses efforts on the maintenance and growth of natural systems, like forests. The report also underscores the need to deviate from “maladaptive solutions”, or well-intentioned solutions gone wrong—forest bioenergy at this scale is clearly one such solution.

A committee of politicians in the UK parliament is expected to report on the findings of their inquiry last year on technologies like bioenergy. That politicians are scrutinising these technologies shows that the case is not closed on whether they can safely play a major role in net zero plans (despite what the UK Government seems to think, having put Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage at the heart of its Net Zero Strategy).

The chorus of voices against Drax’s practices has only grown louder in the last year, with financial institutions, government ministers, scientists, and environmental groups all expressing new evidence, doubts, and concerns. Yet, Drax’s new annual report suggests that it will ignore the warnings it’s hearing and double down on a strategy that’s catastrophic for the climate. Perhaps this shouldn’t come as a surprise from a company that switched from burning coal to… burning trees.

Hope may lie in the IPCC’s forthcoming report on how to cut emissions and in the UK Government’s Biomass Strategy expected later this year. These are opportunities for the UK to signal that large-scale bioenergy has no place in efforts to save nature and to achieve net zero.

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