Biomass - a burning issue

Clear cutting in Rapla county, Estonia (C) Karl Adami

Todays blog is written by Alex Mackaness, Senior Policy Officer. He reflects on the recent publication of the governments' Biomass Strategy and what it means for nature and the economy.

Now the dust has settled after the publication of the government's new Biomass Strategy, it’s a good time to reflect on the approach we’re taking to biomass. What does this matter, you might well ask? Well ultimately, how much and the way we use biomass impacts our ability to reverse nature’s decline, meet climate targets and provide affordable electricity to households.

Back to basics

Biomass is biological material derived from living (or recently living) organisms that we use for other purposes like heat or power or as building materials in construction, and it includes things like farm manure, food waste, energy crops and trees.

When zero is actually huge

Owing to its vast scale and significant impacts on important forest ecosystems overseas, the RSPB has been particularly focussed on ‘woody’ biomass (or trees) burnt to produce electricity. 

In 2022 the UK imported 7.5 million tons of wood pellets from forests around the world, particularly from the US, Canada and Europe whose forests are home to precious and at risk species like caribou, Canada warblers and golden eagles. Most of this is burnt at the UK’s largest bioenergy power station which is also its single biggest emitter of carbon dioxide. Despite this, emissions from this power station are counted as zero. 

Drax is the UK's largest bioenergy power station

Faith in negative emissions? 

Looking ahead, we’re increasingly concerned about the government’s reliance on bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS). BECCS, which doesn’t yet exist at scale, adds carbon capture technology to biomass power plants before storing the captured CO2 underground. Government anticipates delivering large volumes of ‘negative emissions’ through BECCS by 2050, and this will require lots of biomass. 

What did the Biomass Strategy say?

This Strategy was highly anticipated, but it doesn't massively change the government’s overall approach to biomass. It’s good to see analysis on the ‘best uses’ for biomass, but ultimately it missed an opportunity to phase out the burning of trees for electricity once and for all. Below are some of the key headlines, and what we think needs to happen next. 

1. Government is ‘minded’ to improve aspects of the UK’s Biomass Sustainability Criteria (the framework surrounding sustainable sourcing of biomass) and will be consulting on these in the near future.

What do we think? 

This is long overdue, and alongside moving quickly, the government must be ambitious here. This review is likely to be the last opportunity to strengthen the Criteria before 2030 and we must get it right. The proposal to ensure that 100 percent of woody biomass feedstocks come from sustainably certified sources is welcome (albeit belated) but ultimately we still need government to formally acknowledge that the Criteria say nothing about the emissions generated when biomass is burnt. 

2.Government has set out its best uses for biomass through to 2050, but has no plans to end support for biomass power generation in the short-medium term.

What do we think?

The Strategy failed to set a clear end date for large-scale unabated biomass electricity generation. This is a missed opportunity to set a clear direction of travel and align with the CCC’s advice that large-scale unabated biomass generation is incompatible with net zero. Support must end from 2027

3. BECCS is viewed as the best use of biomass resources into the future and will be relied upon heavily to get to net zero. An accompanying report by the Chief Scientific Advisor of the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero did not identify any ‘insurmountable scientific barriers to the net removal of CO2’. 

What do we think?

Whilst this may be true in theory, in practice this applies to only a very small number of feedstocks. It is vital that BECCS projects are proven to be carbon negative after accounting for emissions from combustion, harvesting, collection, processing and transport as well as the lost opportunity for sequestration if the forest wasn’t harvested for bioenergy. 

Furthermore, BECCS at scale will place significant pressure on nature and constrains our ability to grow food and so it must be constrained by the volume of truly sustainable and low carbon biomass available. To reduce our reliance on BECCS, the government should reward farmers for nature restoration, scale-up renewable energy and reduce demand for energy across society. 

4. The Strategy implies an increasing reliance on imported biomass for BECCS, with domestic supplies not changing materially between now and 2050.

What do we think?

In particular, the Strategy assumes that the UK will import a high volume of energy crops and agricultural wastes from 2025 onwards without exploring whether this is feasible or desirable. The Strategy concedes that in a world where these biomass supplies are constrained, the UK could miss hitting net zero. The government is failing to take this seriously, and must minimise its dependence on BECCS into the future; upcoming research commissioned by the RSPB shows that this is possible.

What does reliance on BECCS mean in practice?

There is a long list of drawback when it comes to BECCS:

- Often, burning trees for electricity is not carbon neutral - despite being counted as such. 

- Other sources of biomass, like energy crops, require vast amounts of land, which competes with food production, timber production and nature restoration. 

- Many investigations have shown that woody biomass for the UK harms nature and degrades forests. As global demand rises, pressure on forests is likely to increase. 

BECCS is extremely expensive (being 3-4 times more the cost of wind power), and will add costs to household bills.

Rising biomass prices and reliance on imports could threaten rather than improve energy security.

We call on government to:

- End support for unabated large-scale biomass generation from 2027

- Go further and faster on renewables, nature restoration and cutting demand for energy (including home insulation) to limit our reliance on BECCS

- Fully calculate life-cycle emissions from bioenergy and BECCS and use this as a measure for whether it is eligible for subsidy

- Strengthen the UK Sustainability Criteria so that biomass does not harm nature

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