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Bioeconomy: risk or opportunity for nature and climate?


The UK Government is developing a bioeconomy strategy, but is this a risk or opportunity for nature and climate change?

Trees are awesome. They clean our air and help reduce flooding. Woods are great places to walk the dog, and wood is a great material for building and crafting.

The land and water needed to grow trees are also finite and precious. We need them to grow crops to feed hungry mouths – more and more so as the global population grows and develops.

Larch trees, autumn, UK © Global Warming Images / WWFLarch trees on a sunny autumn day © Global Warming Images / WWF

As a general rule in life, if something is precious to you, don’t set fire to it. Unfortunately, we are currently burning a lot of wood and crops in order to meet climate change targets. This doesn’t really make sense. Burning biomass (the catch-all term for organic materials like wood and crops) releases carbon dioxide (CO2) which causes global warming, just like burning coal or oil.

It’s crucial to use land, water and biomass efficiently and effectively to meet demand for food, materials and energy. Instead of burning biomass, we should be using it to make long-lived materials, such as manufacturing bioplastics and using timber in construction. We should also make sure these products are designed to enable their reuse, recycling and eventual use for energy. This keeps the carbon inside biomass locked up for as long as possible.

Sometimes it does make sense to burn biomass, for example, when wood and crops have already been used for food or materials and are on the brink of biodegrading. When biomass biodegrades, it releases the carbon stored inside it back to the atmosphere anyway, sometimes in the form of methane, a greenhouse gas far more warming than CO2.

So better to avoid those methane emissions by burning waste biomass instead, but then what to do with the energy? We can power our economies on wind, sun and storage, so we don’t need it there. We can run our cars on electricity, and potentially trucks too. We can use heat pumps and insulation to keep our buildings warm.

Where we really need this waste biomass, from an energy perspective, is in aeroplanes and factories, with potentially some use in ships, trucks and the gas grid. We have to be strategic, as there simply isn’t enough waste biomass to go around for every possible use.

Planes at Gatwick Airport, London, UK © Global Warming Images / WWFWe need alternative fuels to replace oil in aeroplanes, but sustainability is key © Global Warming Images / WWF

However, the best thing to do with biomass, from a climate change perspective, is to manage our forests to suck up and store as much carbon as possible, while balancing the need to support wildlife, our enjoyment of woodland and other ecosystem services. This is called investing in our natural capital, and it has a key role to play in generating “negative emissions”.

Negative emissions is an increasingly important concept for climate change. It means taking CO2 out of the atmosphere, because even with good progress on our renewable energy and energy saving targets, scientists estimate we will still have too much CO2 in the atmosphere.

This concept came to the fore when a negative emissions target was written into the 2015 Paris Agreement: “to achieve a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century”.

Bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS or bio-CCS) is being touted by some as a solution for negative emissions. This means burning biomass for energy, capturing the CO2 and pumping it underground to keep it out of the atmosphere. We encourage more research into BECCS to see if it could have a role to play, especially as CCS could also help UK industry go low-carbon.

But we don’t think the UK’s climate change strategy should rely on a large scale roll out of BECCS. If every country acted like that, every scrap of spare land in the world would become a biomass plantation, which is not a vision of the world where people and nature can thrive together. And anyway, the UK is yet to successfully roll out CCS, let alone the more complicated bio-CCS.

Biomass power station in Lockerbie © Global Warming Images / WWFBurning wood in power stations emits CO2, just like coal, unless fitted with CCS © Global Warming Images / WWF

We think there should be a lot more talk about the negative emissions potential in investing in our woodland and peatland to maximise the amount of carbon they can suck up and store. We also think there should be more talk about the benefits of making long lived materials out of biomass, destined for reuse and recycling, to help keep carbon locked up in solid form and out of the atmosphere.

As the Government develops its Bioeconomy Strategy, it needs to make sure it is aligned to our climate change and natural capital objectives.

  • It should introduce sustainability criteria in line with the Roundtable for Sustainable Biomaterials to ensure that bio-based products are responsibly produced to benefit, and in no way harm, people and nature.
  • It should phase out the burning of wood and crops for energy – recent proposals to limit the use of crop-based biofuels are a good step in this direction – and strengthen support for the use of waste biomass in aviation and industry, and potentially heating, shipping and freight.
  • And it should tackle the question of negative emissions, unlocking investment in sustainable management of woodland and peatland, and supporting carbon storage in long-life, multi-life bio-based products.

But a final word of warning: scientists are clear that negative emissions are needed as well as, not instead of, deep cuts in carbon emissions. So the Government urgently needs to come forward with robust and detailed plans to boost energy efficiency, low-carbon heat, renewable power, energy storage and electric vehicles.

The UK Government’s forthcoming Emissions Reduction Plan must keep us on track for meeting our climate change goals in a cost-effective way, securing a future where people and nature can thrive.

Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament © Global Warming Images / WWFThe UK Government needs to set out an Emissions Reduction Plan to meet our climate goals © Global Warming Images / WWF

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