Ministers have been accused of lacking a “joined up strategy” on woodlands, as one government department spends six times more on a timber-burning power station than another spends on tree planting.
Annual subsidies for Drax power station in North Yorkshire, a former coal-fired power station which now runs on “biomass” made up of imported waste wood, reached £832m in 2020, while the budget for tree planting and peatland works out at just £130m a year.
Drax was recently named the UK’s biggest single source of CO2 emissions. It releases over 13 million tonnes of CO2 a year, using around 7 million tonnes of wood pellets, the equivalent of about 25 million trees, scientists have said.
Meanwhile, environment minister Zac Goldsmith admitted this week just 2,000 hectares of trees had been planted in England this year. The government has said it is aiming to plant 30,000 hectares of new woodland across the UK each year by 2024, including 7,000-10,000 hectares in England by the end of this parliamentary term.
Labour MPs claimed the “massive subsidies” for burning imported wood at Drax, combined with the low level of tree planting, meant the government’s plan to tackle the climate crisis through planting trees “is in flames”.
Lord Goldsmith has been quizzed by MPs from the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Efra) Committee over why the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) was on one hand providing such large subsidies to Drax, while the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), was given less than this one company for expanding forests and peatlands.
He told the hearing: “Drax is a huge beast which requires feeding.”
Though he said he needed to further study the environmental impact of the power station, he added that he “would question the model which requires the import of a vast amount of timber”.
Pressed on this issue, he suggested it was a matter for BEIS. But the chair of the committee, Conservative MP Neil Parish, suggested the environmental impact of the plant was something Defra could comment on.
Labour MP Geraint Davies, who sits on the committee and asked Lord Goldsmith for clarity on the logic of providing greater subsidies to Drax than for tree planting, told The Independent that as the host of the recent Cop26 climate summit, the UK “should hold its head in shame”.
He said: “It is clear that there is no joined up government strategy on climate change, with budgets to plant more sapling trees dwarfed by massive subsidies for burning imported wood leading to the UK making wood more of a problem than a solution for climate change and encouraging deforestation.
“The government’s plan to tackle climate change through planting trees is in flames as it gives over £800m a year to Drax to be the biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions from burning imported wood, compared to £650m over five years on tree planting and woodlands.”
He added: “BEIS is in the hands of big business, burning imported wood as if there’s no tomorrow. Meanwhile Defra is not empowered to counteract the impact of wood burning on climate change by protecting and growing forests.”
Luke Pollard, Labour’s shadow environment secretary, told The Independent: “Lord Goldsmith’s evidence made clearer than ever how the Tories are utterly failing on tree planting. Last year, ministers managed to deliver less than half their target of 5,000 hectares of new trees in England. Now he has revealed they will do little better this year or next.
“Not only are they failing spectacularly to plant trees, their planned spending on tree planting is dwarfed by subsidies to Drax to ship and burn timber from around the world with few checks to make sure it’s not from virgin forest. How can the public expect them to deliver the promises they made at Cop26 let alone the faster action required to cut carbon?”
When asked by the Efra Committee about England’s role in reaching the 30,000 hectares of trees which will need to be planted every year by 2050 to reach the UK’s legally binding net-zero target, Lord Goldsmith said Covid had disrupted planting in England.
“Last year we planted around 2,000 hectares, which in truth is less than we’d hoped for,” he said. “Things were heavily disrupted as a consequence of Covid.”
Lord Goldsmith said that although £650m was available for tree planting, it was not the case that the money would be allocated to a tree-planting drive resulting in 7,000-10,000 hectares of trees being planted each year over the five years, but would be used more sparingly to begin with, with an ultimate goal at the end of the five-year period for tree planting to reach that level, with more spending towards the end of this timeframe.
Speaking about the low level of existing planting, Lord Goldsmith said: “The reason that I’m not concerned about the fact that we’re starting at a much lower level than the 7,000 hectares is that we’re trying new things.”
He said: “We are the second-biggest importer of timber in the world, and have been for a long time. And we are one of the most nature-denuded countries on Earth, so we are starting from a pretty low point.”
A spokesperson for BEIS told The Independent: “We are totally committed to eliminating our contribution to climate change by 2050, which is why we only support biomass which complies with strict sustainability criteria. In 2020, sustainable biomass made up around 12.6 per cent of the UK’s total electricity generation.
“Our tree planting plans complement our strictly regulated biomass commitments as part of this government’s wider strategy to slash carbon emissions, and we are proud to have pledged to treble tree planting rates by the end of this parliament, allowing us to protect our peatlands and boost biodiversity as we build back greener from the pandemic.”
Despite concerns about the disconnect between the two government departments raised by Labour, and though The Independent made several requests for comment from Lord Goldsmith and Defra officials, neither Defra, nor the environment minister offered a response, with a spokesperson saying the BEIS statement incorporated Defra input.
A Drax spokesperson told The Independent: “The world’s leading climate scientists at the UN’s IPCC and the UK’s Climate Change Committee agree that sustainable biomass has an important role to play in the decarbonisation of energy systems globally – both by displacing coal and in conjunction with carbon capture and storage to deliver negative emissions.
“Converting Drax power station to use sustainable biomass instead of coal has transformed the business. Drax is the biggest renewable power producer in the UK, generating 12 per cent of the country’s renewable electricity – enough for four million homes. Drax plays a crucial role in supporting the energy system, enabling more renewables to come online, as well as supporting thousands of jobs throughout our supply chains in the north. The conversion has also paved the way for us to deploy the vital negative emissions technology bioenergy with carbon capture and storage – by 2030 we could be permanently removing 8 million tonnes of CO2 each year.”