Opinion: World Environment Day must remind us that our forests are not fuel


Wood pellets to be burned at Drax power plant.

By Sasha Stashwick

World Environment Day is thrusting the global air pollution crisis into the spotlight. With the UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock recently describing air pollution as a ‘slow and deadly poison,’ this issue is as topical as it is urgent.

While the UK government says it’s committed to cleaning up the air and hitting ambitious climate goals, there’s a huge elephant in the room: burning trees for electricity. The government provides hundreds of millions of pounds per year in public subsidies to bankroll so-called ‘biomass’ energy at Drax Power Station. Burning wood to keep the lights on is anything but green – it accelerates climate change, destroys forests and increases emissions of dangerous air pollutants. But this hasn’t stopped Drax. Each year, the company burns the equivalent of more than the UK’s entire annual wood production.

This voracious demand for wood means Drax imports millions of tonnes of wood pellets, most extensively from the US Southeast where its sourcing area includes the Atlantic coastal plain, an area designated as a global biodiversity hotspot. The wood pellet mills that feed Drax are sited in communities that already live in a region enduring some of the highest logging rates in the world, suffer some of the highest poverty rates in the nation and face the threat of escalating flooding from climate change. Adding insult to injury, these mills also release dangerous air pollution, often at illegal levels. What UK politicians tout as ‘green’ energy fouls the air not only for Britons but also for poor communities in the US. Earlier this year, Drax was found to be in violation of local clean air rules at its wood pellet mill in Louisiana and has sought to delay installing pollution controls to reduce smog-forming emissions at the plant.

The UK government knows that burning biomass is a fake solution to the climate crisis and increases harmful emissions of particulate matter that contribute to an array of health conditions – from asthma attacks to heart attacks to premature death. In its Clean Air Strategy, the government says it plans to close a key subsidy scheme to new coal-to-biomass conversions like Drax. But it lacks the courage to end these handouts to the UK’s existing fleet of giant biomass-burning boilers that belch out the toxic air pollutants UK citizens breathe today.

Every day the government gives £2 million pounds to Drax, money that should be invested in genuine renewables like wind and solar. It’s time for policymakers to wake up and put an end to this scam.

A 2018 study concluded that the UK can decarbonise its electricity system by relying almost entirely on new investments in cheaper and non-polluting wind and solar energy, alongside smart resources like batteries. It also concluded that biomass isn’t needed to ensure the electric grid is reliable on even the darkest, coldest, most windless days of the year.

This year’s World Environment Day should mark the real beginning of the end for this dirty industry. The UK’s climate leadership and the health of people and ecosystems on both sides of the Atlantic are at stake.

Sasha Stashwick, Senior Advocate at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

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