The UK Government yesterday released a new set of reports on bioenergy. Bioenergy can pose risks to both the climate and to wildlife and our recent Energy Vision report called for measures to ensure that only sustainable bioenergy is used. Scientific evidence shows that some types of bioenergy can result in meagre emissions savings or even increases in emissions. And because of its significant reliance on land use, and often using materials from forests or habitats, biomass used for energy can sometimes put wildlife at risk.
The timing of these reports could hardly be more apt: the UK Government is currently preparing its Emissions Reduction Plan, a blueprint for how it will meet future emissions reductions targets. The new bioenergy reports should serve as a stark warning to Government (based on their own evidence) that bioenergy is far from a safe bet for delivering meaningful emissions reductions and that any role for it in the Emissions Reduction Plan should be limited. We hope that this warning is heeded and urgent action, including temporary measures to stop classification of bioenergy as carbon neutral, is taken to safeguard against bioenergy that actually undermines emission reduction efforts.
Likely use of high carbon biomass from North America
One of the new reports focuses on the likelihood of high carbon biomass from the US and Canada being used in UK power stations. It is the follow-up to a 2014 report (the Biomass Emissions and Counterfactual (BEaC) report) by the UK Government which found that many of these types of biomass could be very carbon intensive, some of them higher carbon than the fossil fuels they might replace.
The new report finds that four of the high-carbon scenarios assessed are likely or moderately likely to be happening now or to happen in the future (the other scenarios were assessed as unlikely or there was no consensus on their likelihood). These results indicate that some of the biomass that is likely to be used (at present or in the future) in UK power stations is, when properly accounted for, failing to meet the Government’s own emissions reduction threshold. It could even, in some cases, be resulting in emissions higher than those from fossil fuels.
The introduction openly admits that ‘bioenergy is not carbon neutral’ because of direct and indirect land use changes. And it goes on to admit that its own emissions calculation methodology is the reason that high-carbon bioenergy is being classified as low carbon and as eligible for subsidy. This is an astonishing admission in a Government-produced report, and suggests the need for urgent action to fix a broken bioenergy policy that could be failing to deliver emissions savings.
The large quantity of emissions from land use is completely ignored in the UK’s accounting method for renewable energy because it is assumed that the emissions will be fully captured by the rules for accounting for emissions from land use, land use change and forestry (LULUCF). However, as recent reports published by research institute Chatham House showed, the global and EU LULUCF rules contain gaps which mean that the emissions can go ‘missing’, never being accounted anywhere, even though their impact on the climate is very real.
The new report is not perfect by any means: it relies solely upon a survey of stakeholders, a ‘rapid’ (to quote the report itself) search of the literature (which is surprising given the long delays in publishing it) and on modelling. However, no on-the-ground evidence was gathered. In just a two-week trip to the southeast US last April I saw with my own eyes how clear it is that high-carbon biomass is being turned into wood pellets for UK power stations. It is a shame that no such on-the-ground evidence was gathered for this new study. Had better evidence been used, it may have been possible to show that more of the high-carbon scenarios are not only likely, but a reality today. As it is, the report rings clear alarm bells that the UK’s bioenergy policy is likely deeply flawed at present.
New constraints on the supply of sustainable biomass
These results are accompanied by a new analysis of the biomass supply available to the UK. Previous figures are updated based on new factors, including the inclusion of sustainability constraints on solid and gaseous biomass feedstocks. These new figures result in a (sometimes substantial) downgrading of the estimated available supply of biomass to the UK.
The combined results of these two new reports suggest that the UK’s future biomass supply is limited, and far from secure, particularly if new evidence on the needs to safeguard the climate and environment emerges; and that the types of biomass that are most likely to be used are mostly those which result in high emissions that don’t even meet the Government’s emissions threshold.
The Government’s own new evidence signals that it must urgently act to limit the contribution of bioenergy to the UK’s energy system and to introduce stronger measures to protect the climate and nature. There are several opportunities to do so: