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UK’s Biggest Polluter Doubles Profits while Raking In Hundreds of Millions in Government Subsidies

The UK gives more to bioenergy firms than any other country in the world, reports Rachel Donald

Photo: PA/Alamy

UK’s Biggest Polluter Doubles Profits while Raking In Hundreds of Millions in Government Subsidies

The UK gives more to bioenergy firms than any other country in the world, reports Rachel Donald

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Energy giant Drax has announced huge profits, with the ‘bioenergy’ company raking in £731 million thanks to the energy crisis. The UK’s single biggest source of CO2 increased its earnings by 84% while claiming almost £900 million in government subsidies.

But new research shows that the majority of Brits oppose the vast subsidies the Government is giving to bioenergy – electricity produced by burning biomass like trees – every year. In fact, the Cut Carbon Not Forests coalition found that just 3% of Brits think that taxpayer money should prop up these energy companies.

The UK gives almost £2 billion to bioenergy firms, more than any other country in the world.

In 2021, the Government gave £893 million of public money to Drax, despite the firm belching out almost 20 million tonnes of CO2 annually, more than any other emitter in the country. But Drax’s emissions, and the emissions of all UK bioenergy, are omitted from the UK’s carbon footprint by the Government on the grounds that the emissions will be accounted for in the country where the trees were sourced.

Matt Williams, a campaigner for Cut Carbon Not Forests, said: “Bioenergy companies have been raking it in at the expense of families facing soaring energy bills, the world’s forests, and the climate. They’ve been allowed to claim that burning trees, instead of coal, is magically zero carbon. It’s clearly not. They’ve ridden off into the sunset, through a landscape littered with tree-stumps, pockets stuffed full of our money.”

Conservative MP Pauline Latham has criticised the Government for spending huge sums on a major polluter as millions of Brits are suffering from yet another economic crisis. “In the context of the cost of living crisis, the Government should be looking into these subsidies and ensuring they are used for proven renewable energy sources and energy efficiency measures, rather than harming nature,” she said.

Drax did not respond to a request for comment.

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Bioenergy is often touted as a renewable energy source on the basis that forests are replantable. However wood-burning in this way produces more CO2 than burning coal, a notoriously filthy fossil fuel. In fact, burning biomass for power has been emitting more CO2 in the UK than coal since 2019. 

“The scale of these subsidies just don’t add up,” according to Phil MacDonald, managing director of independent energy think tank, Ember. “Politicians are finding it more and more difficult to justify any increase to energy bills, and more and more difficult to justify burning biomass as the climate implications become clear. Large-scale burning of forest biomass is a threat to the climate, and should be phased-out.”

The UK is the biggest culprit in subsidising bioenergy in Europe, with last year’s £1.8 billion in subsidies representing a 70% increase from 2015.

While claiming the majority of that subsidy, Drax came under fire last year after BBC’s Panorama exposed the energy giant for importing primary forest from Canada, despite claiming it only uses sawdust and waste wood.

Scientists insist that old forests are not renewable simply because trees can be replanted – old forests support rich ecosystems and thousands of other plant species which equally capture carbon through photosynthesis. They are also home to animal and insect species that are dependent on these rich and ancient ecosystems for survival.

For economist and professor Steve Keen, viewing trees as either carbon capturing devices or furnace fuel is part of the fallacy of thinking economics can solve the crisis, says economist and professor.

“Trees in an old growth forest – as opposed to a plantation – are clearly visible components of an incredibly complex web of life, much of which is invisible,” he told Byline Times. “Damage to this web can’t be offset by planting trees elsewhere. Carbon accounting and the like do trivialise that web. They assume a level of simplicity to biological processes that is simply false and fool us into ignoring the complexity of life, without which there wouldn’t be an economy in the first place.”

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Economic tricks may balance carbon on the books but emissions are on the rise in polluting countries even as they claim to head towards net zero – a practice that justifies the Government writing off Drax’s CO2 emissions despite the energy company being the country’s biggest CO2 polluter.

But Cut Carbon Not Forests and opposition MPs believe that the public is waking up. Scottish National Party MP, Tommy Sheppard, said: “It’s clear that the British public aren’t falling for the myth that biomass is carbon neutral, no matter how many greenwashing PR stunts companies like Drax pull to convince people otherwise.”

Energy firms have made record-breaking profits and claimed billions in subsidies, while millions of citizens struggle to afford to heat their homes.

Frances Sleap, of Fuel Poverty Action, said: “As our energy costs soar, UK bill payers are footing a huge bill to subsidise Drax shipping in and burning trees. This is pushing crippling energy bills up even further, without delivering environmental benefits. What we need is insulation to keep us warm, and renewables that don’t burn anything to power our future.”

Sheppard agrees: “Taxpayer money should be spent on real emission-free energy sources, not on technology that pumps more carbon into the atmosphere and destroys forests worldwide. Burning tees on an industrial scale for electricity does the latter. It’s time the UK Government listened to the public and end wasteful biomass subsidies.”

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