UCL Institute for Sustainable Resources


Bioenergy: informing decision-making about a controversial energy source

2 November 2021

The complexities of bioenergy systems explained by researchers Jen Cronin, Oliver Broad, Isabela Butnar and Julia Tomei.

Forest path

Recent news coverage around the IPCC report and the conversion of Drax power station to biomass have brought bioenergy to the forefront of public debate. But the topic is far from new. It has been discussed in the UK, Europe and globally for many years. 

Modern bioenergy can provide low-carbon electricity, biogas, liquid transport fuels and hydrogen. In some cases, it can even remove carbon from the atmosphere if combined with carbon capture and storage (CCS). It is now increasingly argued that this will be vital for addressing the climate crisis, a statement that continues to raise concern. One reason is that bioenergy supply chains are complex – stretching from areas of biomass production, through processing and conversion to power and fuels, and CCS. Poor planning along these chains can lead to emissions that partly or fully negate the carbon originally captured by the plants. Another is that the business practices involved can cause negative impacts on communities and biodiversity.  

Because bioenergy systems are complex, interdisciplinary research – a key strength of ISR – is vital.

ISR has researched bioenergy since the institute was established. At that time, conversations centred on EU mandates for biofuel blending in transport fuels. But the discussion was restricted: it privileged certain types of knowledge (i.e. technical assessments) and narrowed the framing of important topics, such as biomass sustainability, to focus solely on unforeseen carbon emissions. This affected the political debate, overlooking the social impacts that rapidly expanding biofuel production could have on local communities around the world.  

To shine light on this issue, ISR research focused on first-generation biofuel producer countries such as Brazil, Guatemala and Mozambique, and assessed livelihood and community impacts of growing demand. This evidence on environmental and social impacts raised awareness, highlighting the consequences that “land grabs” and changes to land use could have for local communities.  

This issue remains highly relevant and advanced uses of biomass risk repeating similar mistakes if we do not learn from earlier experience. To address these risks, ISR researchers, together with the UCL Energy and Development Group, recently published a transdisciplinary research agenda for embedding justice at all levels in the 1.5C transition

Advanced biomass solutions are increasingly represented in techno-economic models which underpin national energy strategies. Running these models is a key component of research at ISR and the institute has worked to understand the role these options can play in reaching our national climate targets. We look at optimistic or precautionary assumptions of biomass availability, technology progress, or carbon content. One repeat focus has highlighted the risks involved in high reliance on bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) for the UK. A recent ISR report highlighted that in order to reduce the pressure on developing BECCS at scale, policy incentives should focus on reducing energy demand though efficiency measures and support a diverse range of removal options. Recognising the complexity of BECCS supply chains, policy support should be incremental and conditional, and subject to rigorous evaluation and performance review.  

Overall, this extensive bioenergy and modelling expertise has positioned the institute as a trusted partner to UK policy decision making. Researchers at the ISR now collaborate regularly with the BEIS Central Modelling Team. In 2020, the ISR seconded energy modelling expertise to the Department to co-develop the bioenergy sector of the UK TIMES tool used for Carbon Budget 6 analysis. In July 2021, the institute drew together the social and technical perspectives to produce its response to the government’s bioenergy consultation. This highlighted that for a sustainable scale-up of bioenergy in the UK, it is key to prioritise social justice and land use. In the face of changing climate, it is paramount to prioritise solutions which enhance ecosystems, promote sustainable livelihoods and support resilience of natural environments. Accepting that biomass is a scarce resource, it should only be used in applications which sequester carbon in the long term, or where there are few low carbon alternatives. 

Some of the above recommendations are being taken forward into a new UK greenhouse gas removal (GGR) hub, CO2RE Hub, dedicated to investigating routes of sustainable scale up of GGR options in the UK. ISR researchers are coordinating the development of a multi-disciplinary GGR evaluation framework, drawing the latest science from teams across the CO2RE Hub, UK and abroad, GGR Demonstrators, and feedback from a wide group of stakeholders, including the general public. The evaluation framework will develop robust and harmonised criteria for assessing the removal provided by different GGRs at different scales, also characterising the permanence of that removal and trade-offs with social and environmental goals, and policies and regulations which need to be developed to foster sustainable GGR scale-up in the UK.  

Excitingly, much more research is ongoing and further ideas are brewing. It is vital to ensure we make robust decisions about the potential for biomass to sustainably lower our emissions. Important questions remain, such as how to represent the complexity of the carbon cycle in our long-term energy models to include the impact of carbon debt? How do we broaden our understanding of what “sustainable” means to place global social justice and land governance front and centre, and how do we embed these in policy? What about permanence of carbon storage in natural systems as the climate changes? These are questions the ISR is working hard to answer – watch this space! 

Photo by Lukasz Szmigiel on Unsplash