Last week, the UK Government published its long-awaited Biomass Strategy, which sets out how it intends to use biomass within a net-zero-aligned, circular economy. The strategy is a key document as it knits together many other government policies released over the last two years on sustainable fuels, industrial policy, and air pollution.
The main focus of the strategy is to set out the government’s long-term agenda on biomass and to confirm the key principles underpinning its sustainable use, rather than about announcing specific policies on biomass. However, it does announce a series of government actions to develop a strengthened sustainability framework for biomass sourcing.
What is biomass?
The strategy defines biomass as “any material of biological origin, including the biodegradable fraction of products, crops, wastes and residues from biological origin”.
This broad definition covers everything from purpose-grown bioenergy crops like miscanthus to biogenic waste like human sewage sludge. Biomass can be directly burnt for energy, fermented to release biomethane through anaerobic digestion, converted into bioethanol and biokerosene for transport fuels, and used in other industrial processes.
Currently, the UK produces two thirds of the biomass it uses for renewable energy production. The other third is imported[GCM1] , comprising mostly of wood pellets for large-scale electricity generation. Demand for bioenergy in industry has grown tenfold since 2005.
Purpose-grown bioenergy crops in the UK cover 121,000ha – about 0.5% of our total land area – but only around 12,000ha grow perennial energy crops or short-rotation coppice.
The government’s biomass priorities
The latest strategy outlines the government’s key priorities on biomass, which include:
- Air quality
- Net zero
- The circular economy & resource efficiency
The government is clear that only sustainable biomass has a place in the UK economy, and its use should be prioritised for the hardest-to-decarbonise sectors first. Biomass energy will remain important, even as we get closer to net zero targets in 2050, because it can provide dispatchable, baseload power to a renewable electricity grid subject to weather-related fluctuations. Importantly for CLA members, biomass heating in off-grid rural properties will still be able to use sustainably sourced biomass – though the government has high hopes for heat pumps.
Bioenergy is often viewed in conflict with food production. It is good to see that the government recognises food and bioenergy are not zero-sum games, and that using food and feeds for bioenergy offers flexibility to farmers in selling their surplus or lower-quality crops and residues. The strategy proposes that an additional 17,000ha of energy crops will be planted by the end of 2038 in an ambitious scenario, or 9,000ha in a more restricted scenario.
At the same time, the government is, in its own words: “determined that [supplying biomass] will not compromise Food Strategy goals of maintaining food production or our ability to meet our Environment Act targets.” However, the strategy does not explain how it will nationally balance bioenergy, food production, and nature – that will come in the Land Use Framework to be published later this year.
Biomass energy is not carbon neutral, even if it is renewable. To counter this issue, the government aims to build new bioenergy power plants with integrated Bioenergy Carbon Capture Storage (BECCS), which involves capturing some of the carbon released and either using it as an industrial feedstock (such as for carbonated beverages) or storing it underground in former fossil fuel reservoirs. After 2035, the government aims to “transition away from unabated emission uses of biomass where possible to…BECCS”. Nevertheless, BECCS may remain a prohibitively expensive technology, so the strategy explicitly states that it will not ban unabated bioenergy post-2035.
A strengthened sustainability strategy
The biggest new commitment in the Biomass Strategy is that government will develop a single, tightened sustainability framework which will be standardised across all biomass certification schemes. To achieve this framework, government has announced intention to:
- “Require biomass users to ensure 100% of woody biomass feedstocks used in their operations to be proven sustainable” – up from 70% at present
- “Implement a common GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions calculation methodology for biomass supply chains”, and review soil carbon calculators
- Establish how to assess Indirect Land Use Change within the framework
- Include safeguards for biodiversity, ecosystem services, labour rights, and community welfare.
All of these are welcome from the perspective of improving market confidence.
Anaerobic digestion (AD)
The strategy emphasised the benefits of AD: “increasing the proportion of biomethane in the grid is a practical, established, and cost-effective way of reducing carbon emissions associated with gas usage for heating”.
Its modelling suggests that the amount of biomethane from AD needs to increase five to eightfold to reach net zero. Yet, the strategy does not announce any new policies or funding for AD, beyond a tool to assess the whole-lifecycle GHG emissions from biomethane. With the Green Gas Support Scheme ending in 2025/26, it is frustrating that the government has not outlined a bold plan to provide ongoing stability and growth in this key technology for some farm businesses.
Bioenergy Carbon Capture Storage (BECCS)
In theory, capturing carbon dioxide from burnt biomass and biomethane though BECCS allows bioenergy to become carbon negative – i.e., it removes more carbon from the atmosphere than it emits. However, BECCS remains largely unproven at scale.
Globally, there are only 30 commercial CCS facilities operating of any type. Investment in BECCS is important, and the government’s principles in the strategy for sustainable BECCS are strong. However, many experts urge caution in relying too heavily on BECCS in policy, as deferring emissions reductions to a technology unproven at scale can encourage complacency. In some cases, this deferral can become a form of greenwashing, although government has stretching targets for the replacement of fossil fuel power with renewables.
Overall, the latest Biomass Strategy establishes a welcome direction of travel towards a greater quantity of more sustainable biomass, with safeguards against perverse outcomes for food, biodiversity, and air quality.
There are opportunities for members to leverage the circular economy and find new customers for their agricultural wastes and residues. Some members will be able to diversify income through bioenergy crops. Others may see compelling reasons to keep that biomass on farm – such as to produce compost. The focus on BECCS is a mixed blessing, whilst the lack of policy commitments on AD is a missed opportunity. We must wait for the Land Use Framework to gain a full picture of bioenergy in the context of land use and agriculture.