An opinion piece written by Dr Nina Skorupska, Chief Executive at the REA, following the publication of the Biomass Strategy. Initially published for BusinessGreen.
We will not get to Net Zero without biomass. Every feasible pathway to decarbonise our economy has a crucial role for biomass, whether in power, transport, heat, industry, or all of the above.
Transitioning our energy system to a more sustainable footing is not straightforward. We need every tool in the toolbox. We simply do not have the luxury of disregarding solutions, even though they may be more complex.
The Government’s new Biomass Strategy includes a forward from the Chief Scientific Advisor, Professor Paul Monks, that makes clear “Biomass can play a significant role in decarbonising nearly all sectors of the economy”. It is little known, but bioenergy is the UK’s largest source of renewable energy (across power, heat and transport), and the second-largest source of renewable power (after wind).
Unfortunately, in recent years the public debate on biomass has become increasingly polarised. Biomass is often presented in binary terms as either ‘good’ or ‘bad’ for the planet. The reality is more nuanced – biomass is an important climate solution, when done correctly.
The world’s leading climate authorities back this conclusion. The UN’s climate science body, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the International Energy Agency, and the UK’s Climate Change Committee are all in agreement – sustainable biomass is key to meeting our Net Zero targets.
Sustainability is absolutely mission-critical for any use of bioresources, and the new Biomass Strategy is correct to refer to it as its “top-priority”. The UK has been at the forefront of developing stringent regulations that ensure that biomass is always sustainable, whether imported or grown in the UK. The Biomass Strategy recognises that feedstocks come from a complex range of sources, including forestry, agriculture residues, energy crops, waste wood and other residual waste streams. The industry looks forward to working with the Government as they consult on the development of a new cross sectoral common sustainability framework that will ensure sustainability governance arrangements remain strong and aligned with the scientific evidence.
Publication of the Biomass Strategy is a welcome boost for the sector, but we can and must go further. At a time when all eyes are on America’s Inflation Reduction Act, new policy certainty on bioenergy will help to drive investment in the UK, creating jobs and maintaining the UK’s leadership on biomass.
It is critical that Ministers urgently provide workable routes to market for “negative emissions” through bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS). This proven technology acts like a carbon conveyor belt, removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and directly addressing the cause of our hotter climate. The Government must act now to make it possible to deliver BECCS at all scales, or we will be left without a crucial tool for tackling climate change.
The Government must also act to further support the rapid scaling up of production of homegrown bioresources. Perennial energy crops such as miscanthus, and short rotation coppice such as willow, offer alternative revenue streams to farmers, as well as environmental benefits for soils, water management, and biodiversity. Recognition of the role of bioenergy in providing a market for forestry residues that will support active management of new and existing woodlands, underpinning our ambitious afforestation targets. Equally, the Strategy reiterates the connection between waste policy and ensuring the UK makes the most of its biogenic resources through the establishment of a circular economy that sees feedstocks like food waste, waste wood and used cooking oil used to contribute to meeting our energy needs.
The UK has been a pioneer in the use of sustainable biomass to displace fossil fuels. We would not be able to lead the world in leaving coal in the ground and close coal-fired power stations, for example. This is a genuine UK climate success story. We have the skills, supply chains, and infrastructure to deliver the next generation of bioenergy technologies, but we must build on this foundation if we are to fully realise the potential of the sector.
To solve climate change, we need every tool at our disposal. Sustainable biomass will undoubtedly be a key part of the mix. The Biomass Strategy is a chance to celebrate the important contribution that it has made in UK decarbonisation to date. We must now redouble our efforts to meet Net Zero – there’s still plenty of work to be done.