The unique benefits of bioenergy and bioproducts on the path to 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 second 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 Adrian Higson, NNFCC

To address climate change, we must break the constant flow of fossil carbon from geological deposits into the atmosphere. Unfortunately, we have a developed a powerful economic and social dependence on the use of fossil fuels as energy carriers (for heating, cooking, electricity generation and transport), and as a source of carbon for making chemicals and materials. The petrochemical industry transforms fossil fuels into thousands of everyday products used by industry and taken for granted by consumers, from fertilisers to plastics. Fortunately, many of the resources and technologies required to break this dependence already exist. The challenge we face is not a lack of options, but making the right decision on how to use these resources to best effect.

When it comes to energy sources, we have a whole range of non-fossil fuel options: solar, wind, nuclear and biomass can all offer a source of electricity that can provide the power for heat and some forms of transport without reliance on fossil fuels. However, biomass is alone in its ability to act as an energy carrier, as a non-fossil source of carbon, and as a route to capture atmospheric carbon thereby providing the opportunity for negative carbon emissions. When thinking of how biomass can be best used to meet our net zero aspirations, we need to consider what other decarbonisation options are available. It’s also important to consider how the whole life cycle greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of biomass use compare with alternative options such as wind, solar or the continued use of fossil feedstocks. This should include the unique potential of biomass systems to deliver the negative emissions that are needed to achieve overall net zero emissions across the economy. This happens when the carbon that was originally sequestered from the atmosphere during the growth of the biomass source is sequestered for a long period of time, either through the use of carbon capture technology or through the formation of long-lasting carbon-based products, such as building materials.

Unlike energy applications, the production of carbon-based chemicals and materials cannot be ‘decarbonised’. These products – which we use on a daily basis, such as food and drink packaging – result in the release of carbon dioxide at the end of life (when they decay or are incinerated in energy-from-waste facilities). According to the Center for International Environmental Law, the annual emissions from plastic production and incineration could grow to over 2.75 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent per year by 2050 [1] – that’s the equivalent of 598,069,760 passenger vehicles driven for one year or the annual energy use of 331,163,757 homes [2]. The transition to a circular economy, increasing product recycling rates and implementing efficient production routes are all critical to addressing these issues. However, materials cannot be recycled indefinitely and a source of renewable carbon such as biomass will be required to manufacture products.

Luckily the chemical industry has a long history of using biomass to produce chemicals and materials. In fact, material production using vegetable oils and animal fats, along with the pulp industry, actually predates our use of petrochemicals. Consumer demand and innovative technologies are now creating new economic opportunities with cleaning and personal care ingredients. While materials – such as polyethylene and polyethylene terephthalate (PET), commonly used in packaging, and polyvinyl chloride (PVC), commonly used for plastic piping – derived from biomass are all commercially available now. These bio-based products can offer significant GHG emission savings over their fossil counterparts and, given that they’re relatively new, they may offer further savings as processes and supply chains develop. Some bio-based products actually offer opportunities for long-term carbon sequestration or storage, as carbon that was originally sequestered from the atmosphere during the growth of the biomass source remains trapped for the product lifetime. Bio-based products that have long lifetimes, such as durable construction products, can act as long-term carbon sinks.

In order to achieve net zero, we must look at biomass with a whole-systems approach. A biomass strategy should be based on a long-term vision of how to minimise GHG emissions across all sectors of the economy using all available options. Biomass should be directed (where technically, geographically and environmentally appropriate) to those applications where decarbonisation options are limited or non-existent, where the alternative approach is particularly GHG intensive, and where there are opportunities for carbon storage and negative emissions. In the drive towards net zero we should not lose sight of the economic opportunities provided through the use of biomass as a feedstock for chemicals and materials production. New chemistry and biotechnologies provide the opportunity to produce innovative and environmentally friendly products, in turn creating jobs and stimulating economic growth.

Our submission to the BEIS Call for Evidence contains a more detailed discussion of how biomass can and should be used to decarbonise various sectors, and how we should determine which uses are prioritised.  

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

 

References

[1] Center for International Environmental Law (2019) ‘Plastic & Climate: The Hidden Costs of a Plastic Planet’
Available from: https://www.ciel.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/Plastic-and-Climate-FINAL-2019.pdf 

[2] United States Environmental Protection Agency Greenhouse Gas Equivalences Calculator
Available from: https://www.epa.gov/energy/greenhouse-gas-equivalencies-calculator