A Biomass UK blog, REA member forum for Biomass Power, written by Jamie Horton, REA Biomass Power Advisor.
In an increasingly polarised public debate, biomass has often been presented in a binary way: it is either ‘good’ or ‘bad’ for the planet. The reality is much more nuanced. Under the right conditions, biomass is an important climate solution, even at large scale. Leading climate authorities in the UK and around the world, such as the UK’s Climate Change Committee, the International Energy Agency (IEA) and the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), are clear that bioenergy has a vital role to play in our net zero future. In the interest of a more balanced conversation, below are some biomass ‘need-to-knows’.
1. Biomass displaces fossil fuels – it is not “worse than coal”
Critics of biomass make the claim that it is “worse than coal” – this is simply inaccurate. The key point is that bioenergy systems operate within the biogenic carbon cycle, meaning that, when sourced sustainably, emissions are balanced out by regrowth as part of a continuous cycle. On the other hand, burning fossil fuels transfers carbon from geological storage and causes a permanent increase in atmospheric CO2. Ignoring this fundamental difference and only looking at smokestack emissions is deeply misleading. By displacing fossil fuels, bioenergy keeps fossil carbon in the ground.
“The fact that the use of woody biomass under the right conditions leads to less net CO2 emissions than combustion of coal or gas is virtually undisputed within science, as is also apparent from the reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).”
Dr Gert-Jan Nabuurs
IPCC report co-author – October 2021
2. Accurate carbon accounting for biomass
The UN IPCC guidance for counting greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from biomass is designed to allow complete coverage of emissions across multiple sectors and avoid double counting. The IPCC’s methodology has been reviewed and reaffirmed multiple times since its development in 1995, most recently in 2019. It is important to understand that the UN IPCC framework for carbon accounting does not stipulate that the use of biomass is carbon neutral. It says that carbon stock loss associated with harvesting is counted as a CO2 emission in the land use change and forestry (LULUCF) sector.
The UK follows these internationally-agreed carbon accounting practices, and also has strict sustainability criteria for greenhouse gas emission savings. The GHG criteria require that life-cycle emissions associated with the use of biomass (including production, cultivation, harvesting, collection, transportation, and processing of biomass) meet certain thresholds to ensure they deliver significant savings compared to fossil fuel counterparts.
Critics of the sector sometimes question the length of carbon payback periods, but it is important to understand that forests are managed at the landscape level, not tree by tree. In forests which are demonstrating net growth (or maintaining carbon stocks), removals are balanced out by regrowth as part of a continuous cycle. By focusing on an individual stand and the time it takes an individual tree to regrow, critics of the sector miss the bigger picture and wider forestry system of which bioenergy is only a small part.
3. Biomass working in harmony with other renewables
It is clear that the UK needs to scale up all of its renewable technologies if we are to effectively combat climate change. According to the Climate Change Committee, “sustainable biomass is essential for reaching Net Zero.” In every feasible pathway to Net Zero, bioenergy plays an important role alongside wind, solar and other clean technologies. Different technologies will play different roles in our future net zero energy mix. Biomass is a valuable provider of low-carbon, flexible, dispatchable power i.e. it can be ramped up and down as needed. Biomass’ flexibility helps to stabilise the grid and support variable renewables such as wind and solar.
As well as complementing other renewables, biomass is also uniquely valuable as the foundation of negative emissions through bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS). We will not be able to deliver the scale of BECCS required without building on the existing supply chains, knowledge, and investments of the current biomass sector.
4. The role of BECCS and negative emissions
Bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) is unique in its ability to deliver both renewable energy and negative emissions. By capturing CO2 and permanently storing it, BECCS creates a ‘carbon conveyor belt’, tapping into the natural carbon cycle in order to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere permanently.
The world’s leading authorities on climate change are clear on the need for negative emissions. The UN IPCC said in its most recent report that carbon dioxide removal techniques (such as BECCS) are “unavoidable” if we are to achieve net zero emissions. In the UK’s Net Zero Strategy, BECCS provides the single largest source of negative emissions required to offset residual emissions in 2050. BECCS plays a similarly important role in the CCC’s Sixth Carbon Budget and National Grid’s Future Energy Scenarios.
As Chris Skidmore’s independent review of Net Zero made clear, policy must also take into account the cost of “Not Zero”. Attempting to deliver Net Zero without BECCS will not only be far more challenging, but also significantly more expensive.
5. A small but important part of the wider bioeconomy
Biomass used for energy is a small but vital step in a much broader bioeconomy. As well as displacing fossil fuels, bioenergy markets provide additional revenues to support the efficient and circular use of a wide range of bioresources. Biomass used in the UK comes from a variety of feedstocks, including waste wood, energy crops, agricultural residues and forestry by-products.
Waste wood arises from the construction sector or civic amenity waste sites – using it for energy provides a valuable waste processing service along with power generation. In the UK, the use of waste wood sees 3 million tonnes of waste wood diverted from landfill annually.
The use of energy crops and agricultural residues, such as straw, short rotation coppice, willow or miscanthus, provide valuable additional revenue streams to the agricultural sector, often utilising less economically productive land. The CCC has called for the expansion of the planting of UK energy crops to around 23,000 hectares per year for use in bioenergy applications.
In the forestry sector, biomass provides a market for residues and low-value material not wanted by other industries. Working forests are managed for high-value industries such as timber for construction or joinery, not for biomass. The wood that is used in biomass production does not divert material from these traditional uses. It is a simple case of economics – commercial forests are managed to produce the highest value wood products, and biomass is at the very bottom of the value chain. In fact, biomass supports sustainable forestry and the forests that supply construction materials by offering land owners financial incentives to recycle their waste, grow more trees, and maintain their land as forests.
6. Strict sustainability governance
The UK’s bioenergy sustainability governance arrangements are regarded as one of the most comprehensive frameworks in the world. Bioenergy is one of the most scrutinised, highly regulated parts of the energy sector and the UK’s Sustainability Criteria monitor emissions all along the supply chain. All government support schemes have associated bioenergy regulations and reporting requirements that must be fulfilled. Power projects supported under the Renewable Obligation or Contracts for Difference schemes must provide information on the land from which the biomass is sourced, to minimise any impacts on carbon stocks and biodiversity.
In addition, sustainability criteria include greenhouse gas (GHG) emission savings criteria, which require that life-cycle emissions associated with the use of biomass meet specific thresholds to ensure they deliver significant savings of GHG in comparison to fossil fuel counterparts. N.B. the life-cycle analysis includes production, cultivation, harvesting, collection, transportation, and processing.
Voluntary independent certification schemes, such as the Sustainable Biomass Program (SBP), provide a route for the industry to comply with and exceed national requirements. They offer assurance that government regulations are followed, as well as setting out clear, auditable standards for “good biomass” which in many cases go well beyond legal requirements. The SBP includes a comprehensive set of requirements covering carbon and other environmental, social, and economic criteria. It is designed to ensure that forests are maintained or increased, biodiversity is preserved, and forests of high conversion value are protected.
7. Protecting and enhancing biodiversity
The world is faced with twin ecological and climate crises. Biomass should be seen as part and parcel of delivering a stronger, healthier, more resilient land sector. In the forest, bioenergy provides additional revenues for landowners, motivating the continued growth and maintenance of forest land, and incentivising active forest management which helps to protect forests and biodiversity from the effects of climate change. In the past few years forests have suffered globally, from forest fires in Australia and California, tree diseases like ash dieback in the UK, and exotic pest infestations like mountain pine beetles in Canada; climate change and a lack of management are factors that contribute to these disasters. When forests are left unmanaged, these threats pose greater risks of damaging ecosystems, undermining carbon sinks and threatening rural industries.
In the agriculture sector, perennial energy crops (PECs) and short rotation forestry (SRFs) provide various environmental benefits through biodiversity protections, carbon fixing within roots and soil, flood mitigation, pollination services, and reductions in noise and air pollution. Dedicated bioenergy crops, such as fast-growing grasses and trees, also add ecosystems structured similarly to naturally occurring biomes which then require less pesticides to maintain. This can support the diversity and populations of bird species, insects, plants, and other organisms.
As with any land management practices, strong sustainability regulation is important to ensure that benefits are being delivered. Independent certification schemes such as the Sustainable Biomass Program (SBP), set detailed feedstock standards for woody biomass which include a number of provisions aimed at protecting and nurturing biodiversity. Examples include:
- “Management of the forest ensures that features and species of outstanding or exceptional value are identified and protected.”
- “Management of the forest ensures that ecosystem function is assessed and maintained, through both the conservation/set-aside of key ecosystems or habitats in their natural state, and the maintenance of existing ecosystem functions throughout the forest.”
- “Management of the forest ensures that forest ecosystem health and vitality is maintained.”
What next for biomass?
Sustainable bioenergy is vital to delivering Net Zero. The biomass sector will continue to build on the points above in order to play its part in helping the UK (and the world) meet its climate goals. The UK Government is expected to publish a new Biomass Strategy in 2023, setting out in more detail the important role that biomass will play across the economy. The biomass sector is continuing to engage with Government on how the UK can develop existing biomass expertise, supply chains, and frameworks to ensure that biomass makes its full contribution to securing our clean energy future.
 For further Information see: for the RO: ‘Biomass Sustainability Reporting’ https://www.ofgem.gov.uk/environmental-and-social-schemes/renewables-obligation-ro/applicants/biomass-sustainability And for the CfD: LCCC “Guidance in Sustainability Criteria Reporting” https://www.lowcarboncontracts.uk/sites/default/files/publications/LCCC%20SC%20guidance%20final.pdf