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Biomass & litigating against Drax's costly little game

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As noted here before, there’s something ludicrous and indeed ultimately dangerous in governments making targets that are “legally binding” - particularly targets of the purely aspirational / virtue-signaling[1] kind – thereby inviting lawsuits when somebody can find an argument that the target won’t be met.  My earlier observation was that governments will soon tire of this costly game, and will find ways to imunise themselves against it.  The best thing is not to set “legally binding targets” in the first place, because the alternative remedy against endless litigation is to put government beyond the law, a very dangerous step indeed.  

Anyhow: someone has seen fit to litigate against HMG for its ridiculous “BECCS” policy – bioenergy with carbon capture and storage.  For those unfamiliar with the notion: some kinds of bioenergy may fairly reckoned to be (almost) carbon neutral.  If one captures this energy output (e.g. as electricity), and permanently sequestrates the CO2 emitted in the process, one may with equal fairness be reckoned to have achieved “negative emissions” (subject to having accurately reckoned on the extra energy, emissions etc needed for this entire operation). 

Even on its own terms[2], there’s a gigantic flaw in this logic (along with some smaller difficulties).  In practical terms and with existing technology, to do this on the industrial scale required to be useful, the range of biofuels that may be employed is essentially confined to rather high-quality wood, which only comes from the trunks and boughs of mature trees.  But using these as fuel is far from carbon neutral over anything like a sensible timeframe.  Even with perfect counterfactuals the resulting “carbon debt” is measured in decades or even centuries; or maybe it’s outright irrecoverable.  Drax – the world’s biggest tree-burner, likes everyone to believe they are burning bits of old bark and sweepings from the carpenter’s floor – but that’s utter bollocks.  The bio-stuff that genuinely doesn’t incur much carbon debt when it’s used as fuel (e.g. the aforesaid crud; the products of coppicing; fast-growing reeds etc) just can’t be used by Drax – it simply ain’t the right quality to be used by their kit.

But.  The UK’s plans for achieving NZC 2050 are wholly dependent on BECCS – just as indeed are the UK’s credentials as regards its current CO2 performance significantly dependent upon Drax and a handful of other industrial-scale tree-burning power stations, whose contribution to the UK’s numbers (not to mention whose subsidies) depends upon a “carbon accounting” sleight of hand which allows them to ignore the carbon debt they run up when burning high-quality timber.  Drax isn’t reducing CO2 emissions right now (as it is being subsidised to do), it is in fact increasing CO2, because burning biomass with long carbon debt is even more CO2-intensive than coal-burning; and twice as much as burning gas, which in the UK is nowadays the only practical alternative[3].  

The whole thing is a multi-billion pound scam that consumes our money and whole forests every year; and should never have seen the light of day (courtesy of the two successive LibDem energy secretaries, Huhne and Davey, the former of whom has benefitted financially from the biomass industry, post his other disgrace).  We’re stuck with it until 2027 (when the subsidies run out), but there is absolutely no need to extend Drax’s scam beyond that date and allow it to be the pioneer of BECCS, as it intends – and as HMG seems intent on encouraging.

Why is it tolerated?  Easy: as well as the spurious CO2-reduction credits for both Drax and HMG, the electricity is flexible (“despatchable”); the fuel can be obtained from friendly nations; and there are lots of UK jobs involved – the logistical side of shifting millions of tonnes of wood pellets every year has become quite an industry, not to mention the jobs that are envisaged for building the BECCS set-up.  

The parties bringing the litigation with the aim of calling a halt to all this, are drawing the High Court’s attention to the total lack of scientific logic behind the BECCS concept in practice.  

It will be interesting to see what the justices make of it.  Much as I dislike the “lawfare” phenomenon, on this occasions I reckon the lawsuit has merit.



[1] Nobody will do anything about this before the next GE: and we then run the risk of a Starmer government legislating for “legally binding targets” on a range of ghastly woke social-engineering goals.  Plenty on the redistributive / reparationist left will welcome this with open arms.

[2] There is absolutely no point in arguing against it on other terms.  You may like the sound of your own voice but otherwise you’ll not get a hearing.

[3] Incidentally, there’s evidence Drax may not even be living up to the crazy low standards of “sustainability” they are obliged to meet now, sleight-of-hand and all, let alone any stricter ones that would be appropriate in terms of the genuine science and logic of the situation.


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