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CCC report suggests limiting use of UK biomass in energy to 'most valuable end-uses'

Thu 15 November 2018 | Back to news list

A new report by the Committee on Climate Change concludes that sustainably harvested biomass can play a significant role in meeting the UK's long-term climate targets, provided it is prioritised for the most valuable end-uses. It recommends phasing out biofuel use in cars and vans in the 2030s (as electrification rapidly increases) and that usage in HGVs should be reviewed in the 2020s partly to ensure it does not detract from any other decarbonisation strategies such as electrification in this sector.

Importantly the long-term role of Biomass is closely coupled to the successful development of effective CCS (carbon capture and storage) technology

The CCC recommends that the RTFO mechanism should focus on developing key technologies that enable the use of organic wastes and other sustainable feedstocks.

In terms of biomass use overall, the report says that over the next decade Government policies should only support biomass use where this a) provides cost-effective abatement whilst avoiding ‘lock-in’ to sub-optimal uses, and/or  b) develops key technologies and sustainable supply chains. 

It concludes that biomass can play an important role in meeting the UK’s long-term (2050) emissions targets, and moving towards net-zero emissions, but only with stricter governance to ensure sustainable supplies.

The report’s key findings are:

  • Managing biomass stocks is an important component of global climate mitigation strategies
  • Sustainably harvested biomass can play a significant role in meeting long-term climate targets, provided it is prioritised for the most valuable end-uses

The key recommendations are:

  • The UK should aim to increase the volume of carbon stored in our forests and land
  • Food and biodegradable waste must be collected separately from other refuse in all areas across the UK
  • Rules governing the supply of sustainable sources of biomass for energy need to be improved
  • Biomass must be used in the most effective way. Uses that enable long-term carbon storage should be prioritised

The report says that there is significant potential to increase domestic production of sustainable biomass to meet between 5% and 10% of energy demand from UK sources by 2050. The lower end of this range, it says, can be delivered by fully exploiting the UK's organic waste resource (after reduction, reuse and recycling) whilst maintaining today's level of agricultural and forest residue use. The upper end of the range would require over one million hectares of land to be used for energy crops (around 7% of current agricultural land) and increasing rates of tree planting (to 50,000 hectares every year by 2050).

In its recent major report on limiting global warming to 1.5C, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) pointed out that the pace of transition in the transport sector deemed necessary for a 1.5C-consistent pathway must include more biofuels and electricity in transport’s energy mix. 

The report included some benchmark indicators for sectoral changes in supplementary materials attached to the report, published in October. 

For the transport sector as a whole (including aviation and shipping), the benchmark indicators projected a growing biofuels share for 2020 and 2030, rising to 26.3% in 2050. 

The IPCC report also said that electricity's involvement in the transport mix should increase to 33% in 2050. It anticipates that biofuels will displace more oil in 2020 and 2030 than renewable electricity and that the two solutions will be roughly equal in scale by 2050. 

So-called 'first generation' biofuels made from food crops are currently not taken into account by the EU biofuels policy due to their significant land use impacts. Laura Buffet from the NGO Transport and Environment (T&E) said (reported by EurActiv): “sustainable advanced biofuels from waste and residues can help decarbonise transport, provided they deliver significant GHG savings and comply with strict sustainability criteria.” 

She added: “However, the quantities of advanced biofuels available at sustainable level will remain very limited,” she added. 

“Renewable electricity from solar and wind is the cleanest source of fuel and should be the preferred pathway to decarbonise transport,” Buffet said. 

According to T&E, renewable electricity is also much more efficient in terms of land use than conventional biofuels, since one football pitch of ethanol crops can power 2.6 cars for a year.

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