Bioresources within a Net-Zero Emissions Economy: Making a Sustainable Approach Possible
In its new report Bioresources within a Net-Zero Emissions Economy, the Energy Transitions Commission (ETC) makes plain that, while bioresources are in principle renewable, not all forms of biomass use are beneficial from an environmental perspective: not all biomass is ‘good’ biomass. To be sustainable, biomass production should have low lifecycle GHG emissions. Its production should take into account the ‘opportunity cost’ related to carbon that could be sequestered without intervention, and must not:
- compete with use of land for food production
- trigger any land use change that could release carbon stocks into the atmosphere (especially deforestation)
- negatively impact biodiversity
On the basis of these strict sustainability criteria, the report estimates a prudent scenario for the quantity of clearly sustainable biomass available by mid-century as c.40-60 EJ/year.
There is a potential upside of up to c.60 EJ/year if, and only if, i), productive land is freed up by a major shift to plant-based diets or synthetic meat, improved agricultural productivity and reduced food waste; ii), the production of seaweed-for-energy significantly scales up; and iii), organic waste collection and management is improved.
Potential demands far exceed sustainable supply. Left unchecked, these trends would heighten the risks of unsustainable management of the bio resource, including deforestation, biodiversity loss and soil depletion. The report reveals that current policies often fail to consider claims on bioresources holistically, incentivising uses in sectors where alternatives exist, and jeopardising a sustainable management of the resource.
Industry and policymakers should therefore limit the use of bioresources in applications where cheaper alternatives exist or are within reach. These include road transport, bulk power generation without CCS, residential heating and shipping – with the exception of select specialised niches (e.g. local waste-to-energy district heat networks), especially in those locations where bioresources are locally abundant.
The report concludes that biomass should be prioritised for use in a few sectors where there is limited to no alternative. Biomass is best used for materials rather than as an energy source, including as timber, pulp and paper and other wood products or as a bio-feedstock for the plastics industry. Few uses in the form of energy stand the test of resource efficiency and expected long term cost-competitiveness. Aviation is one key exception where bioresources can play a major role given low scale and technological readiness of alternatives. Also, given the need for carbon dioxide removals in addition to rapid in-sector decarbonisation, to limit global temperature below 1.5°C, with appropriate carbon pricing, applications where carbon capture and storage can be applied could become more attractive uses of biomass.
This report is part of the ETC’s wider Making Mission Possible Series – a series of reports outlining how to scale up clean energy provision within the next 30 years to meet the needs of a net-zero greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) economy by mid-century. The reports in the series analyse and set out specific actions required in the next decade to put this net-zero by 2050 target within reach.