Drax is a UK energy company led by CEO Will Gardiner. Forbes lists Drax’s 2020 revenue at $2.9 billion.
In 2019, its annual emissions totaled 15.1 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent, of which 12.8 million tonnes was from burning carbon-intensive biomass. In 2020, this increased to total emissions of 19.4 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent, of which 13.2 million tonnes was from burning biomass.
The truth behind the greenwashing
Following the company’s move from coal into biomass, Drax’s CEO says that “Biomass has a long-term role to play in the UK and global energy markets”. However, biomass can produce even more CO2 emissions than coal if not regulated properly. Sourcing the fuel for biomass has been linked to deforestation, degrading the natural carbon sinks we need for a safe climate. There is significant controversy over rules that permit biomass emissions to be part-counted.
Greenhouse gas emissions attributable to Drax increased from 15.1 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent in 2019 to 19.4 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent in 2020.
But its ads tell a different story...
Drax frequently repeats the claims that by moving from coal to biomass it is “enabling a zero carbon, lower cost energy future”, that it has slashed its emissions by 85% since 2012, and that its Drax power station is “Europe’s largest decarbonization project” – on its website pages, on YouTube, in its Annual Report for investors, to the press, and so on. However, Drax’s claim that wood biomass – which made up 75% of its electricity generation in 2020 – can actually be considered a ‘zero’ or even low-carbon source of energy, like wind or solar energy, is widely disputed.
Drax’s burning of wood biomass has been found to produce higher levels of CO2 from smokestacks than its coal did, but these combustion emissions are allowed to be counted as ‘zero’ under international carbon accounting principles and EU and UK law, on the basis that any deforestation should be counted elsewhere, at the forest level.
Relying on this carbon accounting practice, the company says it has reduced its reported carbon emissions by over 85% since 2012, since it began moving from coal to biomass. This ‘reduction’ is largely explained by excluding the GHG emissions from burning wood pellets (biomass), which amounted to nearly 70% of Drax’s total emissions in 2020. In reality, these GHG emissions are still coming out of the smokestacks of Drax’s huge power plant in the North of England.
The company’s Head of Climate Change explains this by claiming that:
...emissions from using biomass to generate electricity are balanced by the absorption of CO2 from the forests that are growing. This differs from burning coal where the emissions remain in the atmosphere.
But scientists call into question the assumptions behind the carbon accounting: that forests are actually expanding, including because they are harvested, and that the ‘carbon payback’ from forest growth over decades will happen in time for urgent climate pathways. The climate impact of removing wood depends on the type – sawmill residues or logging by-product that would be burned anyway is not the same as the removal of trees or disturbance of soil which would otherwise capture carbon. However, felling trees for biomass energy can deplete forest carbon sinks.
There is significant controversy over the appropriateness of the carbon accounting treatment of wood biomass energy and over what types of biomass should be permitted. The European Joint Research Centre says that “the governance of bioenergy sustainability is characterised by uncertainty about consequences, diverse and multiple engaged interests, conflicting knowledge claims and high stakes”.
NGOs have also presented evidence that forest biomass harvesting in the US and in Eastern Europe too often involves ‘clear-cutting’ or felling trees, which they argue impacts the forest carbon sink. Drax sources the majority of its wood (4.6 million tonnes of wood pellets in 2020) from the US. Enviva, the US company Drax sources its biomass from, has been accused by campaigners of sourcing wood pellets by felling coastal hardwood forests in the US, contributing to deforestation and the destruction of important carbon sinks and ecosystems in the region. Campaigners point to evidence that Drax’s suppliers in these regions make pellets from whole trees.
In its 2021 report, the European Joint Research Centre found that “the harvest of native, mature, high-biodiversity value trees for energy use would be a clear lose-lose option” for climate change and for biodiversity, as would using larger pieces of wood debris and stumps. It found that only the removal of “fine, woody debris” (or tree tops and branches) both helped fight climate change and had a positive or neutral effect on biodiversity, provided this was “below thresholds defined according to local conditions”.
Drax’s supply appears to involve substantial amounts of this ‘lose-lose’ biomass. The company’s Annual Report says the company used 7.3 million tonnes of wood pellets in 2020, of which 3.1 million came from “sawmill and other wood industry residues”. “Thinnings” and “Low grade roundwood” from forests accounted for 3.8 million tonnes. “Branches and tops” amounted to 196,000 tonnes. Drax does not argue that all this wood would be cut and burned anyway.
For its part, Drax has set up an Independent Advisory Board on biomass sourcing and commissions its own studies of forest growth in the areas where it sources about two thirds of its wood pellet supply. The studies conclude that its forest harvesting is not problematically impacting productivity over large forest areas. The company denies allegations of unsustainable wood harvesting, and says that its supply is in line with recommendations of UK’s Forest Research and UK law. In its Annual Report, the company describes the substantial emissions from burning biomass, the lion’s share of its total emissions, as “[b]iologically sequestered carbon”, explaining in a footnote that “the use of sustainable biomass is considered to be CO2 neutral at the point of combustion”.
Drax’s website says that it is at the forefront of tackling climate change and has “transformed the UK’s biggest power station to become Europe’s largest decarbonisation project”. Whilst Drax’s adverts suggest its biomass energy is reducing emissions, counting carbon emissions from burning wood biomass as ‘zero’ under carbon accounting does not mean that they do not exist. Drax’s switch from coal to biomass is not the same as real world emissions reductions. Because of this, the growing wood biomass energy industry is seen by scientists as worsening, rather than helping, with the fight against climate change.
Drax says it is the world’s leading sustainable biomass energy and supply business. It operates the huge Drax power station in the North of England, which it says is the UK’s biggest renewable power station, providing 6% of the UK’s electricity.
In December 2019, Drax announced that it plans to become “carbon negative” by 2030. This would mean that it plans to absorb more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than it produces.
Drax says it has phased out much of its coal power generation in March 2021 and will completely phase out coal power by 2022, while continuing to produce electricity by burning biomass and with hydro power. The company now mainly relies on biomass - in 2020, biomass was 75% of Drax’s electricity generation. Its CEO argues that “[b]iomass has a long-term role to play in the UK and global energy markets”.
Drax says energy from biomass, produced by burning wood pellets, is sustainable and renewable because the forests from which these are sourced absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, offsetting the emissions released when the pellets are burned. It relies on international carbon accounting rules and EU/UK law which permit it to count biomass burning emissions as ‘zero’.
In addition, Drax is trialing biomass energy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS), a new technology designed to capture and store the CO2 released when the biomass is burned.
As well as its biomass and remaining coal power operation, in 2020 Drax generated electricity from hydro-power and fossil gas. These represented 2% and 15% of its energy output, respectively. Drax has recently completed the sale of its existing gas assets and cancelled its plans to build what would have been Europe’s largest gas plant.
Biomass is a 'false solution'
In February 2021, scientists wrote to world leaders warning that biomass is a “false solution” to climate change. The scientists said that “[i]n recent years there has been a misguided move to cut down whole trees or to divert large portions of stem wood for bioenergy, releasing carbon that would otherwise stay locked up in forests”.
They concluded that “[g]overnment subsidies for burning wood create a double climate problem because this false solution is replacing real carbon reductions.” The letter warned that “there is good evidence that increased bioenergy in Europe has greatly increased forest harvests there”. In 2020, Drax sourced over half a million tonnes of “low grade roundwood” from European forests.
In 2020, Drax is estimated to have received £832 million in government renewables subsidies for its biomass energy, up from £789.5 million in 2019. In 2019 it said that “The vast majority of our business relies on subsidies”, although the company says it aims to avoid reliance on subsidies in the future. Ember’s February 2021 analysis shows that the total public subsidy given to the company has increased steeply in the last five years, and assesses no obvious climate benefit in return for this public money. EU and US authorities appear to be signalling that the treatment of biomass energy may change.
Drax admits that, whilst biomass is treated by governments as a renewable at present “there is a risk that biomass is not accepted either in the UK or in other jurisdictions as a renewable source of energy”. The company also recognises that “[o]ur ability to influence EU requirements on biomass acceptability / sustainability may be impaired post-Brexit” but the company will engage with politicians and officials “to understand and influence perception”.
In the meantime, the company is doubling down on forest biomass, with its wood pellet production up 7% in 2020, plans to invest further in biomass and expand its North American pellet plants. Drax’s 2020 Annual Report says that it wants to grow its own biomass supply to 5 million tonnes per year, from the 2020 level of 1.6 million tonnes. The CEO talks of increasing global demand for wood pellets and “an abundance of unprocessed sustainable biomass material globally”. This is in contrast to the acknowledgment in the UK’s Industrial Decarbonisation Strategy of “limited sustainable biomass supply”.
In February 2021, the company proposed a deal to acquire a Canadian wood pellet production business, Pinnacle Renewable Energy, to double its supply of biomass fuel pellets, as Drax’s CEO talked of the company’s strategy to “create a long-term future” for biomass.
The CEO admitted that parts of the Canadian business currently use fossil gas power to dry out the wood pellets in the manufacturing process, as the alternative of burning yet more wood to dry out the pellets caused too much air pollution. In November 2020, Drax’s Mississippi wood pellet production operation were fined US$2.5 million for having breached US air pollution limits for years, putting local communities at risk.
Greenpeace’s chief scientist was reported as commenting that “[u]sing gas to dry wood for burning in a power station, specifically with the aim of reducing fossil fuel use, provides a great example of the publicly funded madness” of biomass energy.
'Magical thinking' on carbon capture
Drax intends to rely on carbon capture and storage (CCS) to capture the substantial CO2 emissions from burning biomass for its aim to become a carbon negative company by 2030. However, its plans for bioenergy carbon capture and storage (BECCS) technology have also been criticised.
Even the world’s most advanced carbon capture and storage projects remain relatively inefficient, and extremely expensive. The world’s first commercially used CCS project at Boundary Dam in Canada, has recently only managed to store around 60-70% of the carbon emissions it processes. There is a history of repeated failures to scale-up CCS, and plans for economically viable CCS have been called ‘wishful thinking’. In 2010, carbon capture facilities planned to capture a total of around 130 million tonnes of CO2 were under development globally. However, plans did not come to fruition and capture capacity remains tiny – ten years later in 2020 the entire operational global capacity of CCS did not quite stretch to 40 million tonnes of CO2 per year.
Drax’s BECCS pilot project in North Yorkshire cannot store carbon and demonstrated the capture of one tonne of carbon from biomass a day. In 2020, it started a second pilot project with Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, which reportedly captures 0.3 tonne of CO2 per day. In its 2020 report, the company says that BECCS is now proven at scale and it believes can remove millions of tonnes of its CO2 emissions “from 2027”.
Drax’s BECCS project also relies on wood biomass and is subject to some of the same criticisms, because its use would not address any damage done to natural forest carbon sinks or the emissions related to manufacturing wood into pellets and shipping them internationally. Based on experience with coal CCS, capturing CO2 is estimated to use 20-30% of a power plant’s generating capacity – an ‘energy penalty’ which would mean that Drax’s BECCS would require yet more wood fuel to function. The UK Climate Change Committee has also emphasised in its recent Sixth Carbon Budget advice that BECCS must be “contingent on sourcing sustainable biomass, given concerns over the associated lifecycle emissions”. Campaigners call Drax’s carbon negative plans ‘magical thinking’, and scenarios reliant on BECCS are criticised for potentially “encouraging decision makers to lock themselves into high-carbon options in the short term”.
In March 2021, environmental organisations wrote to Drax’s shareholders warning that Drax’s plans will not deliver negative emissions after accounting for the full carbon footprint of biomass, and urging them to vote against the company’s proposed attempt to double its wood pellet supply by buying Pinnacle Renewable Energy for over £400 million.
The future of gas is getting shorter
ClientEarth took the UK government to court over approvals granted for Drax’s plans to build what would be Europe’s largest fossil gas power plant in North Yorkshire. As the UK’s Planning Inspectorate found, the approval risked locking in significant greenhouse gas emissions for decades to come, at odds with the roll out of rapid decarbonisation. In January 2021, the Court of Appeal upheld the approval but set an important climate planning precedent, confirming that the UK government can refuse planning permission on climate and carbon lock-in grounds under the applicable planning policy.
In February 2021, Drax then announced that it was shelving plans for the massive gas plant as it would not fit with their climate strategy. The CEO said "[t]he future of gas power generation fuel is getting shorter all the time". Recent data shows that demand for gas in the UK continues to be displaced by renewables, and Carbon Tracker has assessed that new UK gas power plants would be expensive stranded assets in the making compared to clean energy, posing lock-in risks to the UK’s net-zero target.
More to explore
We’ve put together explainers of some of the key terms and phrases used in these Greenwashing Files.
What are GHGs?
GHGs stands for greenhouse gases - this is the group of seven gases generally seen as contributing to global warming, including carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4).
What are the Paris goals?
The goals which countries agreed on in Article 2(1) of the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change, to hold the increase in global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.
What is CO2e?
CO2e stands for carbon dioxide equivalent, a measure of greenhouse gases. Other non-carbon dioxide greenhouse gases are converted to the equivalent amount of carbon dioxide on the basis of their global warming potential in order to produce a single greenhouse gases measure.
What are Scope 1-3 emissions?
Scope 1-3 emissions are the most widely used international carbon accounting tool. The Greenhouse Gas Protocol categorises a company’s GHG emissions into three groups:
- Scope 1 covers direct emissions from the company’s owned or controlled sources (e.g. burning fuel, company vehicles, emissions from the company’s own industrial processes).
- Scope 2 covers indirect emissions from the generation of electricity, steam, heating and cooling consumed by the company.
- Scope 3 includes all other indirect emissions that occur in a company’s value chain, including emissions from the use of its products.
Is gas clean?
Many fossil fuel companies make questionable claims about the sustainability of fossil fuel 'natural' gas, frequently marketed as ‘the cleanest-burning’ fossil fuel. Burning gas may produce less CO2 than burning coal or oil, but it is still carbon intensive, and not a viable long-term energy source – unlike renewable energy. Climate goals mean that gas use must be reduced, not increased.
On a full ‘lifecycle’ basis, generating electricity by burning gas produces on average more than 10 times the emissions of real low-carbon electricity sources like solar, and more than 40 times the emissions from wind power. As well as emitting significant CO2 when burnt, extracting, transporting and storing fossil fuel gas leaks methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. How much is leaked is critical - if leakage isn’t kept to low enough levels, the overall climate impact of gas can be worse than coal, the dirtiest fossil fuel. Measuring leakage is challenging, and significant advances in reducing leakage are needed.
Is gas a backup for renewables?
Currently gas power is not typically limited to a ‘backup’ function when variable wind and solar renewable energy drops off. Instead, gas is a significant source of regular electricity generation globally, providing electricity that could be replaced by increasingly cheaper renewables. Meanwhile, investments in new gas infrastructure with decades-long operating lifetimes are set to 'lock in' unsustainable greenhouse gas emissions.
Is carbon offsetting the answer to fossil fuels?
Companies’ climate plans increasingly rely on vague talk of huge ‘offsets’ or ‘nature-based solutions’ schemes instead of near-term reductions in fossil fuel production. These plans, even if costed and scalable, can in practice often involve vast commercial monoculture tree plantations, which can cause negative impacts on biodiversity and communities, and struggle to guarantee carbon storage for the hundreds of years which fossil fuel emissions will remain in the atmosphere. Some companies plan to claim the carbon ‘credits’ from existing forests by relying on questionable claims that the corporate offset schemes are the only way to stop deforestation. Carbon removals and offsetting schemes like this can be a part of tackling climate change. But they are not an alternative to prioritising cutting emissions for any sector, let alone for the fossil fuel industry.
Can we rely on carbon capture technology?
Analysis shows that reaching climate targets whilst continuing with today’s oil and gas projects would require a rapid and massive acceleration in carbon capture and storage (CCS). Despite long-running talk of big plans for CCS, companies have never operated it at anything like sufficient scale.
Today, global operational CCS capacity accounts for about 0.1% of global fossil fuel emissions, and the technology cannot capture 100% of emissions. Some companies plan to use, rather than store, captured CO2, often to extract yet more oil. CCS also does not avoid upstream methane emissions and may even increase these due to the additional energy required to run the technology.
There is a history of repeated failures to scale-up CCS, and plans for economically viable CCS have been called ‘wishful thinking’. Experts highlight numerous problems and barriers to short-term deployment and consider that any future development of CCS will now be too little, too late for urgent pathways to a safe climate.
Is biomass sustainable?
Some companies are now turning from fossil fuels to forest biomass energy. Wood biomass is treated as ‘renewable’ under EU and UK law, based on a carbon accounting rule where the GHG emissions from burning biomass are counted as ‘zero’.
However, in reality, burning wood biomass can produce even more CO2 emissions than burning fossil fuels. Sourcing the fuel for biomass through logging is also linked to deforestation - degrading the natural carbon sinks we need for a safe climate. The carbon accounting rule is highly controversial, and does not mean that biomass is in reality ‘low-carbon’ or ‘carbon-neutral’. Because of this, scientists warn that burning wood biomass for energy creates a double climate problem - because it is a false solution to climate change that is replacing real solutions.
What are carbon emissions targets?
Emissions intensity targets – An intensity target is relative to product output, for example the amount of GHGs per barrel of oil produced.
Absolute emissions targets - An absolute target simply refers to the overall amount of GHG emissions attributable to the company. Under many intensity targets, a company can maintain or even increase its overall GHG emissions, provided it increases production enough.
What does CCUS mean?
CCS stands for carbon capture and storage. This is the process of trapping carbon dioxide produced, for example, by burning fossil fuels and then storing it permanently so that it will not contribute to global heating. CCUS, or carbon capture, use or storage, additionally refers to the use of trapped carbon dioxide for some other process.
How do you define capital expenditure?
Capital expenditure is investment by a company on major fixed assets such as buildings, vehicles, equipment or land. This is different from operating expenditure, which represents day-to-day recurring costs like salaries or rent.
The Greenwashing Files have been produced and published by ClientEarth, an environmental law charity registered in England and Wales, with research assistance from DeSmog. For more details, please refer to the registration details in the footer of our website. The information included in the Greenwashing Files is as of 25 March 2021.
The Greenwashing Files have been written for general information purposes and do not constitute legal, professional, financial, investment, shareholder voting or other advice. Specialist advice should be taken in relation to specific circumstances. Action should not be taken on the basis of this publication alone. ClientEarth endeavours to ensure that the information it provides is correct, but no warranty, express or implied, is given as to its accuracy and ClientEarth does not accept responsibility for any decisions made in reliance on this document. The Greenwashing Files contain hyperlinks to other websites as a convenience to the reader. Because ClientEarth has no control over these sites or their content, it is not responsible for their availability, and ClientEarth is not responsible or liable for any such sites or content.