Biomass Strategy: Sustainable potential of biomass
The UK Government has published its Biomass Strategy, outlining their view on the role biomass will play in supporting the UK’s transition to net zero and how this will be achieved.
We worked closely with teams from the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero and other government departments to provide scientific evidence, context and insight to inform the strategy.
The information below provides context to the Biomass Strategy along with comment from lead academics in the Supergen Bioenergy Hub.
The sustainable potential of biomass
As the world faces an ever-growing threat of climate change, the need for sustainable, renewable energy sources has become paramount. Biomass can help in mitigating carbon emissions and paving the way for a sustainable energy transition. Biomass is renewable: unlike fossil fuels, which take millions of years to form and are finite in supply, biomass sources can be replenished and harvested in relatively short cycles. As plants grow, they absorb carbon dioxide through photosynthesis, effectively capturing and storing carbon. When biomass or biofuels are used for energy or when bio-based products are broken down, this carbon dioxide is released to the atmosphere again.
One main goal of bioenergy deployment is to decarbonise the energy sector. However, it is important to consider the broader implications of biomass production beyond just carbon reduction. For bioenergy to be considered truly sustainable, it needs to adhere to sustainability standards that go beyond simply reducing carbon emissions.
Bioenergy sets itself apart from other renewable and traditional energy sources because it is closely linked to the farms, forests, ecosystems and waste management that provide biomass resources. This connection between bioenergy systems and their supply chains gives rise to a range of environmental, economic and social implications, which can be both positive and negative. Countries around the world have recognised the importance of sustainable biomass sourcing and have implemented guidelines to mitigate negative effects, in particular as biomass production can provide benefits for land and land use. For example, perennial energy crops can be grown on low-quality or contaminated land that isn’t suitable for food or livestock production. This allows such lands to be brought back into productive use while also being remediated. Additionally, perennial energy crops are increasingly being used for flood prevention and soil protection during floods. In certain regions, the growth of biomass as intermediate crops helps improve soil quality and reduce erosion by reducing fallow periods.
In addition to the environmental and conservation implications, bioenergy can also have positive socio-economic effects and improve people’s livelihoods. Instead of disposing residues unsustainably, these residues can be used for energy purposes, which not only reduces the environmental impact but also provides farmers and foresters with an extra source of income and improved access to energy. In the case of forests, utilisation of residues, low-value and low-quality trees can improve economic feasibility and encourage sustainable management and improved forest health, resilience against natural disturbances (wildfires and pests) and carbon balances. It’s important to note that introducing bioenergy doesn’t mean replacing existing systems; instead, it becomes a part of them by integrating renewable energy sources into agricultural and forest practices.
By carefully evaluating these aspects, we can ensure that bioenergy integration brings about positive outcomes while addressing various goals such as improving energy security and promoting conservation.
In order to meet strict sustainability standards, it is crucial to take into account a number of factors that vary depending on the specific agricultural or forest system, location of biomass production and utilisation, market conditions and target audience for different products. This consideration of multiple drivers and trade-offs is essential to ensure sustainable practices across sectors and satisfy the needs of various stakeholders.
Biomass stands as a viable and sustainable option for reducing carbon emissions and mitigating climate change. Its renewability, ability to sequester carbon and lower net emissions make it an essential component of the transition to a sustainable future.
Lead Author: Mirjam Röder, Associate Professorial Research Fellow at Aston University and Lead on Systems in the Supergen Bioenergy Hub
Patricia Thornley, Director of the Supergen Bioenergy Hub and Energy Bioproducts Research Institute, Aston University
Andrew Welfle, Senior Research Fellow, University of Manchester and Topic Group Representative for Vectors and Resources of the Supergen Bioenergy Hub
Joanna Sparks, Biomass Policy Fellow, Supergen Bioenergy Hub, Aston University