The Millions of Tons of Carbon Emissions That Don’t Officially Exist

How a blind spot in the Kyoto Protocol helped create the biomass industry. From a report: In essence, Drax [a tiny village in North of England] is a gigantic woodstove. In 2019, Drax emitted more than fifteen million tons of CO2, which is roughly equivalent to the greenhouse-gas emissions produced by three million typical passenger vehicles in one year. Of those emissions, Drax reported that 12.8 million tons were "biologically sequestered carbon" from biomass (wood). In 2020, the numbers increased: 16.5 million tons, 13.2 million from biomass. Meanwhile, the Drax Group calls itself "the biggest decarbonization project in Europe," delivering "a decarbonized economy and healthy forests." The apparent conflict between what Drax does and what it says it does has its origins in the United Nations Conference on Climate Change of 1997. The conference established the Kyoto Protocol, which was intended to reduce emissions and "prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system." The U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (I.P.C.C.) classified wind and solar power as renewable-energy sources. But wood-burning was harder to categorize: It's renewable, technically, because trees grow back. In accounting for greenhouse gases, the I.P.C.C. sorts emissions into different "sectors," which include land-use and energy production. It's hard to imagine now, but at the time, the I.P.C.C. was concerned that if they counted emissions from harvesting trees in the land sector, it would be duplicative to count emissions from the burning of pellets in the energy sector. According to William Moomaw, an emeritus professor of international environmental policy at Tufts University, and lead author of several I.P.C.C. reports, negotiators thought of biomass as only a minor part of energy production -- small-scale enough that forest regrowth could theoretically keep up with the incidental harvesting of trees. "At the time these guidelines were drawn up, the I.P.C.C. did not imagine a situation where millions of tons of wood would be shipped four thousand miles away to be burned in another country," Moomaw said. In the end, negotiators decided only to count land-use emissions. "But these emissions are very difficult to estimate, and the United States and Canada aren't even part of the Kyoto agreement," Moomaw said. The loss of future carbon uptake due to the removal of forests, even the plumes chugging out of a biomass plant's smokestacks -- these did not go on the books.

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