The review concludes that a 10% share of bioenergy in total energy could be required to meet the UK’s 2050 emissions target, compared to the current share of 2%. Bioenergy would ideally be used with CCS, which would allow for the removal of carbon from the atmosphere and for higher emissions reductions to be achieved. The review suggests that a 10% share in 2050 could be feasible within sustainability limits, but any higher than this could be unsafe given sustainability concerns – and even at the 10% level, there may be trade-offs with wider environmental and social objectives.
“The extent to which bioenergy should contribute to economy decarbonisation is highly controversial,” says David Kennedy, Chief Executive of the Committee on Climate Change. “Our analysis shows that there is a crucial role for bioenergy in meeting carbon budgets, but within strict sustainability limits – and trade-offs with wider environmental and social objectives may be needed.”
Stronger regulation and CCS needed
In the report the Committee makes five key recommendations to the Government:
The Committee assessed the role of bioenergy both globally and in the UK and considered how it might best be applied to help meet climate targets. The role of bioenergy in climate change mitigation is controversial and the review illustrates significant uncertainties around its use, in relation to:
The emissions reductions that can be achieved through using it – It is hard to account fully for all emissions resulting from the use of bioenergy and often lifecycle emissions are excluded – so higher than anticipated emissions may be produced.
The sustainable supply of bioenergy - Population growth, coupled with increasing wealth, means that in the next decades there will be an increasing need for land to grow food. Growth of bioenergy feedstocks could risk displacing food production. In addition, there are wider environmental and social impacts associated with the use of bioenergy e.g. negative impacts on biodiversity, natural habitats and deforestation.
Taking these concerns into account, the Committee assessed where bioenergy might best be used to support the UK in building a prosperous low-carbon economy, recommending that the following approach be taken across sectors:
Power generation – biomass could be used alongside or instead of coal in existing coal-fired plants. However, any role for new dedicated biomass without CCS should be very limited given its high cost.
Industry – There is scope to significantly reduce emissions from buildings by using wood in construction as this would lock in carbon and replace high emission building materials e.g. concrete, steel and cement. Biomass can also be used in energy-intensive industries, alongside CCS, as an alternative to coal – this would result in negative emissions.
Aviation – Biofuels could play a role through the 2020s and beyond in supporting emission reductions from aviation, but this should not be seen as a ‘silver bullet’. Efficiency improvements and constrained demand growth will also be required.
Surface transport –there is likely to be only niche use of biofuels in surface transport, which will predominantly require use of electric technologies to decarbonise cars, vans and heavy goods vehicles (HGVs). This underscores the need for Government to support development of electric vehicle markets now.
A range of sensible smaller-scale local uses for bioenergy- this includes using old cooking oil to run buses, making use of food or farm waste in anaerobic digestion plants, or using woodchip from tree surgery waste in biomass boilers.
“Strengthening of regulatory arrangements is required both here and in Europe to provide confidence that bioenergy used over the next decade is sustainable. CCS should be demonstrated and demonstration projects commenced given the crucial role of this technology when used with bioenergy to meet carbon budgets,” Kennedy concludes. “The Government should change its approach to supporting new biomass power generation, which as proposed could raise costs with limited carbon benefits.”
The findings of the bioenergy review will feed in to the UK Government’s new bioenergy strategy and to the Committee’s advice on the inclusion of international aviation and shipping in carbon budgets which will be published in Spring 2012.
[Image: Render of Teeside Biomass Plant designed by Heatherwick Studio for the developers Bio Energy Investments Ltd]
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