Feature Story | 10-Aug-2023

Bioenergy experts welcome commitment to sustainability in UK’s new Biomass Strategy

Aston University

A group of bioenergy experts have welcomed the Government’s new UK Biomass Strategy, but say urgent action is now vital to shape its ambitions into deliverable policies. 

Researchers at the Supergen Bioenergy Hub - led by Aston University - worked closely with government departments to provide scientific evidence to inform the strategy, which outlines the role biomass will play in supporting the UK’s transition to net zero and how this will be achieved. 

Professor Patricia Thornley, who leads the Hub, says: “This is a comprehensive and considered biomass strategy that, rightly, places sustainability at the heart of UK bioenergy development. The challenge is now to produce actions that can deliver the sustainable system of biomass required to achieve net zero.” 

Sustainability is a major theme within the new strategy. It includes a review of how existing sustainability policies could be improved, as well as a commitment to developing a cross-sectoral sustainability framework (subject to consultation) to ensure sustainability across the many different applications of biomass. This follows previous work led by Dr Mirjam Rӧder, Systems Topic Group Lead in the Supergen Bioenergy Hub, calling for harmonised sustainability standards across different biomass applications, which is referenced in the strategy. 

Dr Rӧder says: “We need rigorous approaches to sustainability governance that go beyond emissions. Considering wider environmental, social and economic trade-offs is essential for true sustainability and building trust in bioenergy projects.” 

The strategy considers the amount of biomass resource that might be available to the UK in the future, highlighting the importance of both imported and domestically produced biomass resources. Professor Thornley comments: “It is important that the strategy recognises the potential of imported as well as indigenous biomass in achieving global greenhouse gas reductions. Sustainable systems should grow, convert and use biomass in the locations where they can deliver most impact, ensuring we take account of all supply chain emissions. We shouldn’t shy away from imports where the source is sustainable and the overall system makes environmental, economic and social sense.”

The strategy also considers how biomass should be prioritised across a variety of applications to best support the transition to net zero. Biomass applications ranging from transport fuels and hydrogen to domestic and industrial heating are recognised as important, but in the medium to long term the focus is on integration of bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS). 

BECCS is an emerging technology where the CO2 that may be released during the production and use of electricity, fuels or products derived from biomass is captured and stored, potentially resulting in negative emissions.

Professor Thornley comments: “The priority use framework outlined in the Biomass Strategy makes eminent sense. The UK (and the global energy system) needs carbon dioxide removals to deliver net zero. BECCS has an absolutely key role to play, as reflected in the strategy. Again, while this is encouraging to see, we must not underestimate the challenges of moving towards such a radically different system at scale.” 

“Relying on future BECCS deployment alone to counterbalance the current excess of greenhouse gas emissions would not enable the full potential and benefits of BECCS. BECCS should be deployed alongside measures to transition away from the use of fossil fuels, not instead of them,” adds Dr Joanna Sparks, Biomass Policy Fellow at the Supergen Bioenergy Hub, who engaged closely with government departments as they developed the strategy.

Dr Sparks led an extensive policy engagement and knowledge transfer process to ensure that those developing the strategy had full access to the breadth and depth of UK scientific and engineering academic expertise, ensuring a robust, independent scientific base.

Professor Thornley believes continued engagement between policymakers, academics and the wider sector is vital in achieving the next steps in the delivery of the Government’s strategy. She says: “The key to successful long-term results is a close partnership between academia, industry and policy stakeholders so that we can anticipate problems and plan the pathways to success.”

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