Recording from webinar on net zero governance in a post-COP26 world, 26 January 2022

Following their submission on behalf of the Supergen Bioenergy Hub and the University of Nottingham Energy Institute to the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee call for evidence on Net Zero Governance, Alison Mohr and Mirjam Roeder led a webinar interrogating the evidence submitted and discussing their recommendations.

To deliver cross-Government climate action at the pace and scale needed to meet the net zero target, the evidence submission argues that governance structures must engage with and act upon context-specific societal views at multiple levels to overcome the net zero policy gap.

This webinar examined what is needed in terms of policy support, coordination and resources at the local and regional level to ensure meaningful action and systemic change. The event featured presentations from:

  • Alison Mohr, independent researcher and adviser on energy systems governance (overview of net zero governance in the UK and consultation response)
  • Mirjam Roeder, Aston University (global overview and community engagement)
  • Joanna Sparks, Aston University (the role of researchers in influencing policy and inspiring action)
  • Birmingham City Councillor Lisa Trickett, Places in Common (community action, engagement and the role of devolved power)

Presentations were followed by a panel discussion and Q&A, chaired by Rhiannon-Jane Raftery from Creating Climate Conscious Communities and Community Rail Network.

A multi-modal, multi-actor, multi-level approach is needed for net zero governance

By Alison Mohr,  independent researcher and adviser on energy systems governance

Alison Mohr and Mirjam Röder recently collaborated to submit a response to the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) Committee Call for Evidence on Net Zero Governance. This blog explores some of the key points from our evidence submission that highlights both governance challenges and opportunities as we strive to transition to net zero. Considering the crucial decisions on the collective actions needed to effectively and equitably address the impacts of climate change recently negotiated at COP26, getting the governance right will be critical to achieving net zero and securing a sustainable future for all.

To counter the negative effects of climate change and embrace the opportunities that positive change can provide will require collective and sustained action by individuals, communities, regions and nations. But how can countless actions and activities across disparate locations and scales be coordinated and managed to ensure the best chances for net zero success? This is a key question that the world leaders at COP26 grappled with and one which leads the BEIS call for evidence on net zero governance. The answer in theory is through multiple modes of policy and decision-making involving multiple actors across multiple levels, but which in practice is no easy feat.

Delivering cross-Government climate action at the pace and scale needed to meet ambitious carbon budgets and net zero targets will require societal support and action at multiple levels, including individual and community, or net zero risks being an unrealised ambition. However, the scale of the climate change challenge and of the action required for net zero is often perceived as an intangible, distant problem beyond the control of the individual who may think their small contribution will not be sufficient or that it is not their responsibility to take a lead. A transition of this pace and scale therefore needs to be led by clear government policy, incentives and fiscal support commensurate with the scale of the challenge. This includes support of governance process at the level of local and regional authorities, as a key barrier to effective local/regional governance is a lack of devolved resources and skilled and knowledgeable staff to help promote, implement, and monitor low-carbon energy systems, activities and practices. This dynamic interrelationship is critical to accelerating the speed and scale of implementation of distributed energy systems across multiple levels.

Devolved community net zero governance processes can help avoid the public resistance and protest that remote governance structures and private development schemes can produce because they tend to be more inclusive of local people and priorities, and therefore more locally appropriate and beneficial. Not only does this render a seemingly intangible, distant problem more tangible and manageable but it also helps to develop trust through interactions and relationship building between local governance and supply chain actors and community members. Working with community members is typically expected to result in the consensual deployment and use of sustainable low-carbon technologies and services and the embedding of individual behaviour change and social practices.

Yet much of the current UK net zero governance framework is built around the ‘old’ centralised fossil energy supply system and its powerful incumbents. In a decentralised energy system, the focus shifts to energy demand, bringing to the fore people and the ways in which energy use shapes and is shaped by their daily lives. Alternative governance structures that are fit for purpose will require institutional reform that focuses on end user preferences, facilitating local markets, open and transparent access to data, greater coordination in and across levels of governance, and long-term policy stability, as well as transparency and legitimacy in policymaking. They must also be sensitive to local context.

Bottom-up, end user social intelligence-gathering processes such as the 2020 Climate Assembly UK are vital for insuring the representation of multiple actors, their voices and decarbonisation priorities and preferences. The Climate Assembly UK reported strong agreement that people in different parts of the country should be offered different decarbonisation solutions and allowed to choose the best technologies for their needs, highlighting that social acceptance of some technologies may not be automatic but contingent upon numerous contextual factors including cost, performance, convenience, perceptions of safety and equity, awareness of the need to decarbonise certain aspects of everyday life, and personal and social judgements about the legitimacy of proposals by more or less trusted stakeholders.

In a complex multi-actor, multi-level governance process, how should we measure progress towards net zero? Measurement of economic value or environmental impacts alone will not capture the diversity of stakeholder perspectives and values around decarbonisation, nor the multiple solutions and non-economic values needed for a just transition. Equally important is asking value-based questions about the kind of future society we aspire to, including which sustainable resources, processes or products should be used and where, which problem-framing and assumptions should guide the transition, and who is included in agenda-setting and who else could/should be.

Webinar: Net zero governance in a post-COP26 world

26 January 2022, 2-3.30pm, online

This webinar will examine the net zero policy gap and discuss what is needed to deliver meaningful action.

Find out more.

Biodiversity and Climate Change COPs – where does bioenergy fit in?

By Robert Holland, University of Southampton

You wait a year for one COP and then two come along together! Autumn 2021 marks the arrival of international meetings that have the potential to shape how society deals with two of the most pressing issues that it faces – the loss of biodiversity and climate change. Starting on 11 October is the 15th Conference of the Parties (COP) to the Convention of Biological Diversity. This meeting, and a subsequent one early next year, will see the adoption of the post-2020 global biodiversity framework for the “conservation, protection, restoration and sustainable management of biodiversity and ecosystems” to 2030 and beyond. Later in the month COP26, held jointly between the UK and Italy, will ask countries to come forward with emission reduction targets that will keep the global ambition of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees within reach, and to take actions to limit the impact that the already changing climate will have on them in the future. Although these conferences are being held independently, there is increasing recognition that our ability to achieve the goals of either one is inextricably linked to the success of the other.

Bioenergy is seen as playing a critical role in our ambitions to meet net zero by the middle of the next century. However, the projected scale of deployment, with some pathways suggesting up to 7 million km2 of bioenergy by 2050, raises important questions about how compatible our ambitions for the climate are with our ambitions for biodiversity and ecosystems. Although context and feedstock dependent, at the scale of an individual field conversion of arable land to bioenergy production can lead to significant improvements in biodiversity. Importantly such benefits seem to accrue across all taxonomic levels from the charismatic fauna such as birds and mammals, to the plants, invertebrates and microbes that underpin much of the function of our ecosystems and so are essential for life on Earth.

As we scale up from the individual field towards deployment patterns in line with those projected to meet 1.5C, there are important questions to ask about whether such benefits will also scale. It is widely recognised that since the start of the great acceleration, when the level of human activities such as agricultural production sharply increased, land cover and land use change has been the most significant driver of the loss of biodiversity and degradation of ecosystems globally. The question is therefore whether a similar ‘great acceleration’ in the production of bioenergy as a way of meeting our climate ambitions will simply increase the pressures on biodiversity and ecosystems undermining global targets related to them. If this is the case, then we might rightly ask ourselves whether the actions we are taking to limit the environmental consequences of climate change may result in a greater environmental impact than would be experienced were we to do nothing. Or, as Boris Johnson would undoubtedly put it, could it be the case that Aegrescit medendo – the remedy is worse than the disease? If so, we need to radically rethink how our climate ambition can be achieved.

Evidence collated in the IPCC Special Report on Climate Change and Land indicates that 1.5C pathways that rely on large-scale land conversion to bioenergy could have substantial adverse effects on biodiversity, water resources and food security, and drive land degradation. However, these negative impacts are not a foregone conclusion. An approach to deployment of bioenergy that embraces best land and farm management practices, recognises the social, economic and cultural context in which production occurs, and brings in stakeholders at the local level will deliver co-benefits to biodiversity and ecosystems.  So win-wins are possible, but only if done right.

This brings us back to autumn 2021. Although there are still gaps in our understanding around deployment strategies for bioenergy, particularly at the scale that may be required to meet our climate ambitions, we are at a point where we do understand the policy and practices that must be put in place to expand bioenergy production in a way that supports our ambitions for both the climate and biodiversity. We are also aware of the limits of our knowledge, where care must be taken, and where further research is needed. Be it as a farmer, a researcher, in government or as part of an NGO, it is our duty to look across the agendas at COP15 and COP26 and consider how bioenergy can best support the ambitions they set out for our planet’s future.


Photo credit: Dr Silviu Petrovan

Chocolate to power our cars? Not so crazy an idea after all

“Instead of using car petrol, maybe I can use a special type of chocolate.”

This suggestion, made by schoolchildren to Alok Sharma MP as part of the National Grid’s Voices for a Green Future competition ahead of COP26, is not as outlandish as it seems. The waste residues from chocolate production can be processed into a fuel to power cars as well as other forms of transport, while also providing benefits for rural communities in developing countries.

Cocoa waste fact sheet
  • Globally each year, we produce around 5.6 million tonnes (Mt) of cocoa beans, which we use to make chocolate and other products.
  • This produces around 50 Mt of waste, as the cocoa beans only account for about 10% of the cocoa fruit.
  • From this waste, we can extract around 1.2 Mt of ethanol, which can be used as fuel.
  • 1.2 Mt of ethanol could be used to drive 12,289,209 miles, which is 494 times around the world.
  • Using ethanol derived from cocoa waste in place of petrol would reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 2.6 Mt, the equivalent of taking 1.2 million cars off the road in the UK.
  • Most cocoa is produced in Africa, Central and Southern America, and Indonesia, where it is an important income source and provides employment opportunities for local communities.
  • Using the waste from cocoa to produce fuels like ethanol can provide an additional income for people and communities in the developing world, as well as providing a solution to the environmental problem of waste disposal.

Want to hear about other ideas and research helping to tackle climate change? Sign up for our Net Zero Conference taking place online, 1-3 September.

How UK plantations can help mitigate the climate crisis

Professor Patricia Thornley, Director of the Supergen Bioenergy Hub, responds to Patrick Barkham’s article in The Guardian on 10 March 2020: Trees on commercial UK plantations ‘not helping climate crisis’.

There is a need to be careful with the logic used in this article. Plantation forests cover a certain land area in the UK at present. Every year they absorb carbon from the atmosphere, and that is helping to regulate climate change. When the trees are mature, they are chopped down and used (that is why they were planted in the first place). So, the first thing to realise is that the carbon that is released when those trees eventually decompose is not fossil carbon, so it is not transferring carbon that was long ago locked up from the atmosphere back to the atmosphere, thereby adding to the long-term burden. Instead it is carrying out a medium-term cycling. The carbon was absorbed over the last 15 years during growth and will now (according to the report) be released in the following years (almost immediately if used as wood fuel, up to many decades if used for construction). That does not necessarily mean that the release is exacerbating climate change. If the forest area is maintained then more carbon will be sequestered in the years while that product is used. In fact, the fastest sequestration rates are in the earlier growth years, so we actually need to chop these trees down to allow the land to be freed up to do more sequestration.

To draw a parallel with which most people will be more familiar: The plantation trees operate on a timescale that is short in comparison to the increase in carbon concentration we have seen since the industrial revolution. So, you can think of the fossil fuel oil, coal and gas reserves as being like your savings account. These are your long-term stocks that you have laid down to provide a buffer against all eventualities, and squandering those by releasing to the atmosphere will have a huge negative effect on the planet, in much the same way that raiding your savings account to pay for luxuries will have a negative impact on your financial status.

But plantations work on a shorter timescale and it makes sense to think of these as more like your current account. The account balance (carbon stock) increases as we gain income and decreases as we spend. It doesn’t matter too much how low it gets before payday as long as net over the year we remain roughly in balance and don’t go overdrawn. So it is with trees and the planet. There will always be perturbations and these can seem large if we focus in on a very small timescale or land area. But the key is to look at the long-term trend over the whole planet – that is what the atmosphere sees. And if that continues to extract each year an amount of carbon that is not that dissimilar to what is released when those trees are used, that is fine. The problems arise when the carbon stock (the long-term reserves that have been laid down by the tree growth) are affected. That is generally caused by reductions in land area under forest cover or sometimes by changes in management or climate that affect the actual standing amount of biomass in a plantation – again this needs to be viewed holistically, as different plots of land will be at different points in their overall cycle.

So, yes it is best to use trees in a way that lays down carbon long term, for example in construction, but not all trees or tree parts are suitable for that. Forestry is a business and landowners grow what they know they will be able to sell. So while we all might love to increase the broadleaf coverage in the UK, this is only going to be viable if there is a market for the wood products from long-rotation forests (so, buy more hardwood flooring and less laminate!).

I am concerned about how agricultural expansion is driving deforestation in the Amazon. That is causing loss of carbon stock (raiding our planet’s carbon savings account) and limiting our capacity to absorb carbon each year (reducing the payments into our planetary carbon current account). But I’m not worried about whether we return carbon that we removed from the atmosphere over the last 15 years in the next four, 10 or 25 years. That is like getting worried about whether my annual salary is paid weekly or monthly. It doesn’t actually matter that much in the long run as long as we do maintain the area of land that is forested and use tree species that are sensible for the location.

Important notice for all academic journal reviewers

Patricia Thornley from Aston University has published an article on LinkedIn with a personal reflection on the value of peer review in science and the risks associated with changing this system as we move towards more open access.

Yesterday I worked with colleagues to finalise our author response to reviewer comments and submit the revision of our most recent paper. The reviewers (three of them) all agreed it was a good paper (phew!), but they each took the time to challenge us about what we had done, why and how we had described it. They meticulously scrutinised our figures and data, making helpful suggestions about how presentation of these could be improved. They encouraged us to go further with our conclusions, take a risk and really spell out the consequences. The reviewer comments alone ran to several pages and so it took quite a bit of effort to consider, adapt, revise and respond.

But I can honestly say it was worth it – the paper is much improved and the revision will be submitted next week. So I mainly wanted to say a very public thank-you to those three reviewers for giving so generously of their expertise and their time. I honestly felt we were ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’, being supported by our scientific community to improve our work, our message and what we do next.

But I also wanted to extend that thank-you to all journal reviewers. As editor-in-chief of an Elsevier journal, I see evidence every day of experienced and insightful reviewers giving freely of their time to improve the knowledge base in our community.

So, to each and every one of you who has ever reviewed a paper for Biomass and Bioenergy or any other journal: THANK YOU! You are so important to the integrity and credibility of our science.

Yet I worry about reviewers (the unsung heroes of this peer-review process): about the demands we put on them, with so many invitations to read so many papers with authors demanding increasingly short turnaround times.

And I worry about open access. I do a lot of work on policy relevant issues and so I am a really big fan of making science more accessible. But that requires more than just putting scientific ‘gobbledygook’ on open websites. A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing and I think it is important that we put into the public domain material that we are absolutely confident is robust and that we equip readers with the tools to understand the implications. We have seen in recent years how easy it is for fake news to become accepted truth, and recent rises in measles cases have been a sharp reminder of the ethical concerns we should have about ensuring that material put in the public domain is appropriately explained to those who may read it and (heaven forbid!) actually act on it. So, yes let’s put more science in the public domain, but let’s also ensure that what we put out is independent, rigorous and appropriately interpreted.

I work in bioenergy, a very contentious area with different opinions on the sustainability issues. Some days I see papers that I really like, some days I see some that make me think hard (the best ones!) and some days I see some that just make me roll my eyes and think “Oh no, not another one …”. I can (usually) see through the different levels of rigour and analysis and know which ones to value in my area, but I wouldn’t be able to discern the good from the indifferent in say microbiology or artificial intelligence.

The public trusts scientists and it is really important that we respond to that trust by taking care to share robust, rigorous, peer-reviewed science with an appropriate level of guidance and interpretation. So I worry about how we maintain that trust in an open access world, where the scientists are customers paying to have their own work put in the public domain and exercising consumer rights in their choice of journal and their expectations of turnaround time and favourable outcomes.

And that brings me back to reviewers. I have a willing database of thousands of reviewers in my journal. They know their job is to review, to challenge and to uphold the standards of scientific integrity on which we all depend. Does that relationship change when they review a paper for open access publication? Do they still have faith that the editor will take on board their valuable concerns even if it means turning away an author income stream? Do authors still respect the reviewers’ and editors’ contribution when they are consumers not applicants? Do we get the same level of ‘value added’ to the raw science that I have just experienced this week when we prioritise reviewers who can review quickly to meet promised journal benchmarks over those who review thoroughly?

I don’t know the answers to these questions, and so it makes me incredibly nervous that we are embarking upon a change to the publishing system that will alter those finely balanced relationships between author, reviewer and editor, without fully understanding the potential consequences.

Disclaimer: Note that while I am a professor at Aston University, Director of the Supergen Bioenergy Hub and Editor-in-Chief on an Elsevier journal, these musings are entirely my own independent thoughts – as they rightly should be!

Photo credit: Flickr/afagen