New paper on sustainability of bioenergy – mapping the risks and benefits to inform future bioenergy systems

A new paper exploring the sustainability risks and benefits of bioenergy, written by a large and diverse group of our researchers, has been published in the journal Biomass and Bioenergy.

A team representing 15 UK research groups developed and applied our open-source Bioeconomy Sustainability Indicator Model (BSIM), to map and analyse the sustainability of 16 UK bioenergy case studies. The case studies reflect the broad range of current bioenergy research projects, including multiple biomass feedstocks, conversion and pre-treatment technologies, end uses and vectors.

Figure 1: Bioenergy Sustainability Indicator Model Architecture

Our research highlighted consistent sustainability risks and benefits that could be attributed to different resources and technologies. It also showed that a growing research and knowledge base has reduced the uncertainty that has historically overshadowed certain bioenergy projects regarding their sustainability credentials.

This research suggests that rather than taking a rigid approach to assessing sustainability, policy and decision makers should take a pragmatic approach that is able to improve, respond and adapt to changing circumstances. An approach of awarding ‘credit’ across a broader range of sustainability indicators, in addition to requiring minimum benchmark performance in key areas, may be a better way of assessing and regulating bioenergy sustainability.

Figure 2: Range of Sustainability Performance Score (SPS) across the Research’s 16 Bioenergy Case Studies, mapped at each Resolution of the BSIM’s Sustainability Assessment Framework. High and low error bars represent the maximum and minimum SPS values across the case studies. Shaded bars represent the 1st and 3rd quartile SPS values across case studies. Bars are shaded red where sustainability risks are calculated and shaded green where sustainability benefits are calculated.

Our analysis also indicated that assessment of bioenergy sustainability must increasingly broaden in scope beyond the emissions and environmental considerations that are often the focus of policy frameworks. Bioenergy projects can also provide potential for benefits far beyond emissions. Assuming a project delivers emissions reductions, there is an argument that projects should also be supported, promoted and replicated based on the ecosystem services or economic stimulation they may deliver.

Bioenergy technologies will have to be deployed at scale to meet the targets of energy strategies and climate change mitigation, and consequently increasing biomass resources will have to be grown, harvested and mobilised to balance future demands. We need to understand both the sustainability risks and sustainability benefits associated with bioenergy to ensure we mitigate the risks and maximise the benefits.

Trends highlighted in the research should inform policy and decision making focused on facilitating innovation and interventions that enable a just and fair transition to net zero in the coming decades and beyond 2050.

Access the full paper here.

Modelling expertise

Our Bioeconomy Sustainability Indicator Model (BSIM) is a flexible tool to map the sustainability of bioeconomy projects. The BSIM can be used to analyse specific elements within bioeconomy projects from specific biomass resources, supply chains, technologies or whole bioeconomy project value chains.

We have extensive expertise within the Hub in modelling and lifecycle assessment (LCA). Please contact us for more information: supergen-bioenergy@aston.ac.uk.

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