On 7 February, bosses at the Drax power plant, near Selby in North Yorkshire, announced they had started using “carbon capture and storage” (CCS) to remove carbon dioxide from the plant’s emissions.
The operation will remove only a tiny proportion of the carbon dioxide which the plant emits, and as yet has no provision to store it anywhere. The bosses have hailed the operation as a breakthrough, variously claiming that it is the first working “carbon capture” project in Europe, and the first one capturing carbon from the burning of “biomass” anywhere in the world. However, environmental scientists warn that “biomass”, even with more developed CCS, is not a good low-emissions technology.
Drax burns seven million tonnes of wood a year, more wood than is harvested in the whole of Britain. The theory is that the wood has already absorbed CO2 from the atmosphere while the trees were growing, and if CCS extracts CO2 from what is emitted when the wood is burned, then the whole process subtracts CO2 from the atmosphere.
Coal, oil, and gas are generated from organic matter which absorbed CO2 from the atmosphere millions of years ago, but wood and other “biomass” fuels have absorbed it more recently. And (attractive profits alert!) power stations previously running on coal, as Drax was, can be relatively cheaply adapted to run on biomas, as Drax has been since 2003.
The argument cuts several corners. If trees were not cut down and burned, and continued growing instead, then they would absorb more carbon. If land is allowed to develop or continue dense and diverse plant growth, it will absorb more carbon than if it is converted into the sparser, more monocultural plant growth suitable for the harvesting of biomass.
Drax burns large quantities of wood pellets which come from the clear-cutting of carbon-rich coastal wetland forests in the south-eastern USA. A UK government in 2014 reported that increased logging of such forests for bioenergy results in carbon emissions that are up to three times as high as those from coal over a period of 40 years. Even if an area has already been converted to agribusiness use, and theoretically, long-term, CO2 absorption by new-growing trees and plants will match CO2 emissions from burning current trees and plants, there will be a “lag” on the scale of decades. And with global warming, we can’t spare decades.
Reliance on CCS is part of an approach which does lip-service to tackling climate change by gradual changes to the fossil-fuel-based power industry done in a way that doesn’t disturb profits. We need instead a concerted global plan for conversion to low-CO2 technologies — wind, solar power, hydroelectric, probably nuclear too, but not biomass.