In the rush to eliminate coal, are power producers simply swapping old CO2 emitters for new ones?
Take the case of the United Kingdom’s largest producer of electrical power, Drax. Its vast power station in the north of England was once the biggest polluter in western Europe. Now the plant, which once ran entirely on coal, has four out of its six power plants burning wood. By the end of this year, Britain is expected to have only three remaining coal power stations as the UK government seeks to phase out the burning of coal by 2025.
Why make the switch from coal to so-called biomass? The argument is that trees when pressed into pellets and heat-dried in kilns is a both renewable and “carbon neutral” fuel source. In other words, a climate-friendly way to keep an economy built on burning fossil to continue to produce power at scale.
Great news, right? Not so fast says Michael Norton, environment Program director for the European Academies Science Advisory Council. Norton argues that wood-fired plants actually generate more CO2 than coal. That’s because you need to burn more wood than coal, and because operating the supply chain from forest to power plant creates more CO2 than mining coal. And once cut down, it will take decades for new forests to reabsorb the extra carbon emitted by the wood-burning power stations, which means the plants will have a minimum impact on helping the UK meet Paris Agreement to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius by 2050.
It is for these reasons that a growing number of scientists have been petitioning the EU Parliament to end its support for biomass.