Banking on biomass: UK strategy nods towards a sustainable reboot


The UK government’s Biomass Strategy appeared ready to grapple with some of the complexity of ensuring biomass is only used in genuinely sustainable ways, such as in conjunction with Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Sequestration (BECCS), although the level of support available for such approaches remains unclear.

As has become apparent to the public in recent years, much of the biomass being burned in the UK is not carbon neutral. A June article by the NRDC seemed to puzzle over the government’s ongoing plans to make it sustainable. These must surely rest on a move away from burning millions of tonnes of imported wood pellets, and instead relying on home-grown energy crops. But this would require up to 6% of farmland, entailing “drastic implications” for the UK’s food production and nature restoration goals, said the article, citing recent CCC estimates.

The Biomass Strategy published in August seems to acknowledge the complexity of the issue, exploring scenarios that it says, “limit the global land availability for biomass production by only allowing the expansion of bioenergy crops for import to the UK to be grown on abandoned arable land.”

The document produces biomass supply estimates that specifically “assume no land use change from food production”, and which “comply with current sustainability requirements by not including feedstocks produced from forestry regions that are harvested at a rate faster than their growth from deforested areas, so as to preserve forest area and carbon stocks.”
The Strategy says more work is needed to establish appropriate metrics in relation to land use and emissions, for land-derived biomass feedstocks.

The Association for Renewable Energy and Clean Technology (REA) – a trade body representing the UK renewables industry – signalled its approval of the strategy when it was published, and a letter sent to climate minister Graham Stuart welcomed the fact that it “recognises the complexity of the sector” and “has taken a strong evidence-based approach to the development of the strategy.” It called for the development of a cross sectoral common sustainability framework.

ADBA’s Chris Huhne seemed dismayed at the omission of this kind of detail from the Biomass Strategy, and called on the government “to urgently publish the Sustainability Criteria Consultation that was expected to go hand in hand with it”.

The strategy itself alludes to areas of confusion and difficulty, where such a framework might resolve matters. “Currently, definitions for different feedstock categories may differ across support schemes, including in how far a feedstock might classify as a waste or a residue.” It also notes that, “where a feedstock is deemed to be a waste, it is important to have certainty the waste is genuine and not purposefully created.”

The government intends to publish a consultation on this cross-sectoral sustainability framework in 2024, and adds that “any associated governance mechanisms… should be kept under review, and updated regularly…”

Carbon Capture and Storage Association CEO Ruth Herbert seemed more concerned about a lack of detail on the support. to be offered: “We urgently need HM Treasury to set out further detail on the scale and timing of support to BECCS and other potential carbon capture sites.”
“Failure to act this Autumn would risk undermining investor confidence in the UK while others such as the United States race ahead in the development of this vital technology.”