On 22nd October, activists against coal, against forest destruction for bioenergy, and for climate justice will be protesting outside the UK’s biggest power station: Drax in North Yorkshire.
10 years ago, Drax was the site of the first Climate Camp, a direct action movement against the root causes of climate change. Several hundred people camped in a field ‘in the shadow of Drax’ to take part in a week of discussions, workshops and, above all, protests against the country’s single biggest carbon emitter. It was the start of six years of annual Climate Camps and year-round actions and protests against those most responsible for causing climate change in the UK, and experience which has continued to inspire and inform ongoing actions for climate justice.
Drax has been burning millions of tonnes of coal every year since 1974. In 2008, Drax started to ramp up what had previously been relatively small-scale co-firing of biomass. Since 2013, Drax has been gradually converting half its units to wood pellets. Far from replacing coal, Drax’s partial biomass conversion is allowing the plant to avoid closure under EU emissions regulations, and to continue burning as much as 6 million tonnes of coal a year long-term.
According to Drax’s latest Annual Report, Drax burned around 6 million tonnes of coal in 2015, 46% of it from UK, with the remainder imported. Investigations by Coal Action Network in 2015 showed that much of the UK coal comes from opencast mines in Northumberland in the north of England, with imports coming from Russia, the US, and Colombia. Some of Drax’s coal comes from the notorious Cerrejón mine in La Guajira, northern Colombia. Cerrejón is Colombia’s biggest opencast coal mine and one of the largest in the world. Earlier this year, Witness for Peace organised a delegation to La Guajira, which met, amongst others, with members of the Comité Cívico por la Dignidad de La Guajira. In recent years, at least 4,770 indigenous Wayuu children in the department have died from malnutrition and the Comité Cívico has shown a direct link between the ever-expanding Cerrejón mine and the widespread malnutrition which has led to those deaths. Since the mine opened in 1985, the shares of agriculture and livestock, of industry and of commerce in La Guajira’s economy have steeply declined. Mining now accounts for 61% of the department’s GDP, but a mere 3% of jobs. Food production has collapsed, unemployment has rocketed, and child malnutrition and anaemia rates are far above the average across the wider region. The mine is diverting rivers, depleting freshwater resources and destroying forests, with half the department now at risk of desertification.
(Colombia’s Cerrejon mine, Photo: London Mining Network)
Even if Drax’s biomass burning was carbon neutral and sustainable – which is far from the case – stopping the £1.3 million biomass subsidies which the company receives every single day would still be vital for ending coal burning in the UK. The UK Government has announced a phase-out of coal burning for electricity by 2025 – which of course would mean ten more years of coal burning in power stations, which could and should be stopped immediately. Even this unambitious aim is far from a firm government commitment, and Drax represents one of the biggest obstacles to any phase-out of coal burning for electricity. In 2015, Drax’s biomass subsidies amounted to around £470m, whereas its profits were a mere £46m. Without the subsidies, it would not be economically viable for Drax to remain open.
(Clearcutting of coastal swamp forests in North Carolina, which supplies wood to a pellet plant belonging to Drax’s key supplier, Enviva. Photo: Dogwood Alliance)
But Drax’s biomass burning is far from carbon neutral or sustainable It relies on the same extractive model as coal mining, with similarly disastrous effects: Drax is burning more wood annually than the UK produces in total every year. Virtually all of the wood is imported, most of it from the southern US. There, conservation NGOs such as Dowood Alliance are campaigning against the destruction of some of the last remaining coastal wetland forests to make pellets which are shipped to Europe. Last year, around 82% of those went to the UK. Drax is currently the only UK power station burning imported wood pellets, though at least two new big import-reliant biomass power developments are in the pipeline. Many of Drax’s pellets are sourced from the clearcutting of wetland forests. Those are amongst the world’s most biodiverse temperate forests and aquatic ecosystems. They play a vital role in regulating the rainfall and water cycle – essential in a region at a particular risk of flooding, such as this year’s disastrous flood in Louisiana. Local communities are seriously affected by wood dust, other pollution and noise from pellet plants. Wood dust is a known carcinogen and also linked to allergic and non-allergic respiratory and nasal diseases.
For the climate, burning wood pellets is no better than burning coal. In fact, the smokestack CO2 emissions from burning biomass are even greater than those from burning coal (per unit of energy). There are no universally agreed methods for comparing the full long-term lifecycle impacts of coal and biomass but the question exactly which is worse is ultimately futile: The urgency of the climate crisis means that we cannot afford to keep burning coal (nor other fossil fuels), nor to further destroy and degrade forests and other ecosystems. Shutting down Drax is a necessity for stopping coal burning and forest destruction.
What you can do
Almuth Ernsting is a co-director of Biofuelwatch and has been reseasrching and campaigning against large-scale industrial biofuels and biomass electricity since 2006.