Maximizing the greenhouse gas reductions from biomass: The role of life cycle assessment


Biomass can deliver significant greenhouse gas reductions in electricity, heat and transport fuel supply. However, our biomass resource is limited and should be used to deliver the most strategic and significant impacts. The relative greenhouse gas reduction merits of different bioenergy systems (for electricity, heat, chemical and biochar production) were examined on a common, scientific basis using consistent life cycle assessment methodology, scope of system and assumptions. The results show that bioenergy delivers substantial and cost-effective greenhouse gas reductions. Large scale electricity systems deliver the largest absolute reductions in greenhouse gases per unit of energy generated, while medium scale wood chip district heating boilers result in the highest level of greenhouse gas reductions per unit of harvested biomass. However, ammonia and biochar systems deliver the most cost effective carbon reductions, while biochar systems potentially deliver the highest greenhouse gas reductions per unit area of land.

The system that achieves the largest reduction in greenhouse gases per unit of energy does not also deliver the highest greenhouse gas reduction per unit of biomass. So policy mechanisms that incentivize the reductions in the carbon intensity of energy may not result in the best use of the available resource.

Life cycle assessment (LCA) is a flexible tool that can be used to answer a wide variety of different policy-relevant, LCA “questions”, but it is essential that care is taken to formulate the actual question being asked and adapt the LCA methodology to suit the context and objective.

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