Challenges for delivering sustainable domestic supply of biomass to support net zero

The Supergen Bioenergy Hub recently collaborated with the Carbon Recycling Network, the Biomass Biorefinery Network, and the High Value Biorenewables Network (three of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council Networks in Industrial Biotechnology and Bioenergy (BBSRC NIBB)) to submit a joint response to a Department for Business Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) Call for Evidence on The Role of Biomass in Achieving Net Zero.

The responses to the Call for Evidence will inform the development of the new UK Biomass strategy, which is due to be published in 2022. This is the first in our “Biomass for net zero?” blog series exploring some of the key points from our evidence submission. As we get closer to COP26, the series will also highlight some of the challenges that need to be addressed in order to realise the potential of biomass systems to support the transition to net zero. 


Authored by Rebecca Rowe (UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology) and Iain Donnison (Aberystwyth University)

The Climate Change Committee and others have highlighted the need for increased utilisation of biomass to support the UK and wider global transition to net zero [1], not least due to the potential of biomass to support greenhouse gas removal through the use of biomass with carbon capture and storage (BECCS), or in green manufacturing to make long lived products. Whilst increased utilisation of biological waste streams is key, waste alone will not to be sufficient to support the transition to net zero and the utilisation of other biomass resources including non-food biomass crops will be an important part of the transition to net zero [1,2].

There is an urgent need for positive action to support and expand non-food biomass crop production in the UK over the next few years, and because of this the UK government has taken steps with funding for biomass crop innovation and demonstration projects [3]. If we are to “kick start” large scale biomass crop expansion for the benefit of rural economies and to help the UK achieve its target of being net zero by 2050, we will need to convert the outcome of these projects and ongoing work of industry and researchers working on biomass supply into clear effective action.  This is a big challenge for everyone involved in the biomass value chain.

Increased production of non-food biomass crops should also be done sustainably, protecting if not enhancing natural resources such as soil and biodiversity, and taking into consideration the economic and social impacts (including impacts on food production). The impacts of biomass production are linked to how and where it is produced. For example, in locations where cultivation is likely to minimise soil loss from arable farming into rivers, the introduction of non-food crops can help to mitigate flooding.

Research by Supergen and others has shown that done well, increasing domestic production of non-food biomass crops could result in multiple benefits for the UK, but achieving this will only be possible with guidance informed by trial sites and modelling [4]. Economics will to a large extent dictate which crops are favoured, but policy can be used to influence this and to guide the development of the new energy landscape in the most sustainable way. This could include payments to landowners, by the government or even private companies, for the delivery of environmental benefits, (e.g. increased soil carbon or biodiversity). Such payments would require robust verification but they could help shape the most sustainable energy landscape.

Regardless of if payments are used, to guide the development of sustainable biomass supply the impacts of planting biomass crops need to be understood at field scale and modelled to the landscape, regional and national levels. This is a grand but not unsurmountable challenge, especially for the UK where there is already substantial data, including high resolution land use maps and the outcomes of research on biomass crop cultivation (i.e. how much yield is possible where and with which environmental benefits). Work to address this challenge is underway [5], driven by an overarching need to help ensure maximum greenhouse gas emission reductions whilst also incorporating wider environmental and societal considerations.

The research community, scientists, policymakers, landowners, and other stakeholders will need to work together to achieve real world positive outcomes and ensure that research and modelling provides the evidence base needed to support decision making and policy formation. This type of engagement is a core part of the work carried out within the Supergen Bioenergy Hub.

Our submission to the BEIS Call for Evidence considers the challenges associated with scaling up sustainable production of biomass from non-food crops in more detail, and also looks more broadly at the challenges associated with increasing our supply of biomass, from resources such waste or algae, and also the potential for (and potential impacts of) importing biomass.


Please send queries to Dr. Joanna Sparks, Biomass Policy Fellow via j.sparks@aston.ac.uk.


References

[1] Committee on Climate Change. (2019). “Net Zero The UK’s contribution to stopping global warming,” [Online]. Available from: <https://www.theccc.org.uk/publication/net-zero-the-uks-contribution-to-stopping-global-warming/>.

[2] A. Welfle, P. Gilbert, and P. Thornley. (2014). “Securing a bioenergy future without imports,” Energy Policy, vol. 68, pp. 1–14, May 2014, doi: 10.1016/J.ENPOL.2013.11.079.

[3] UKRI. (2021). “UK invests over £30m in large scale greenhouse gas removal” [Online]. Available from: <https://www.ukri.org/news/uk-invests-over-30m-in-large-scale-greenhouse-gas-removal/>.

[4] C. Donnison, R. A. Holland, A. Hastings, L.-M. Armstrong, F. Eigenbrod, and G. Taylor. (2020). “Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS): Finding the win–wins for energy, negative emissions and ecosystem services—size matters,” GCB Bioenergy, vol. 12, no. 8, pp. 586–604, Aug. 2020, doi: 10.1111/GCBB.12695.

[5] Welfle, A., Holland, R.A., Donnison, I., Thornley, P. (2020). “UK Biomass Availability Modelling Scoping Report” – Supergen Bioenergy Hub Report No. 02/2020 [Online]. Available from: https://www.supergen-bioenergy.net/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/Supergen-Bioenergy-HubUK-Biomass-Availability-Modelling-Scoping-Report-Published-Final.pdf