Energy Transitions Commission Warns Demand for Biomass Likely to Exceed Sustainable Supply

The Energy Transitions Commission's (ETC) latest report sets out how rapidly increasing demand for bioresources could outstrip sustainable supply, undermining climate mitigation efforts and harming biodiversity, unless alternative zero-carbon options are rapidly scaled-up and the use of bioresources carefully prioritised.

July 07, 2021. By News Bureau

The Energy Transitions Commission's (ETC) latest report sets out how rapidly increasing demand for bioresources could outstrip sustainable supply, undermining climate mitigation efforts and harming biodiversity, unless alternative zero-carbon options are rapidly scaled-up and the use of bioresources carefully prioritised.

The report, 'Bioresources Within a Net-Zero Emissions Economy: Making a Sustainable Approach Possible', 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 and ecosystem health.

Thus, biomass sources for use as energy should be limited to waste & residues, dedicated energy crop production on degraded / marginal lands, or where current crop / pastureland can be released.

The ETC is a coalition of more than 45 leaders from global energy companies, energy-intensive industries, financial institutions and environmental advocates – including ArcelorMittal, Bank of America, BP, Development Research Center of the State Council of China, EBRD, Heathrow, HSBC, Iberdrola, Ørsted, Tata Group, Volvo Group and the World Resources Institute among others.

On the basis of strict sustainability criteria, the ETC estimates that a prudent scenario for the quantity of clearly sustainable biomass available by mid-century without major changes in land use, technology, and consumer behaviour is 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. This prudent scenario is much lower than many climate mitigation scenarios assume, including IEA and IRENA scenarios.

As countries and companies endeavour to reduce their GHG emissions, the use of biomass as an alternative lower-carbon fuel has grown dramatically due to its easy substitution as a "drop-in" substitute for fossil fuels for industrial combustion and feedstock purposes. Many sectors and applications across the mobility, industry and buildings sectors currently plan to use biomass as a key decarbonisation route. But 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.

Alternative zero-carbon solutions, such as clean electrification or hydrogen, must be developed rapidly to lessen the need for bio-based solutions. Dramatic cost reductions have already been seen and further reductions are expected in renewable power generation, clean hydrogen production, and grid stability management.

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.

Adair Turner, Chair of the Energy Transitions Commission, said: "Biomass can make a really valuable contribution to the world's decarbonisation. But truly sustainable biomass is limited in volume; so its use must be restricted to priority sectors where alternative decarbonisation options don't exist. The good news is that clean electrification and hydrogen often provide a cheaper solution. The challenge for policymakers is to develop those alternatives fast, while supporting targeted use of biomass where it is most needed – in materials, aviation and for carbon removals – with a constant attention to ensuring supply of biomass is truly sustainable."

Nigel Topping, UK High Level Climate Action Champion, COP26, said: "The ETC's latest report illustrates the need to reprioritise sustainable biomass use to those sectors with limited decarbonisation options. Current trends are leading us to unsustainable levels of bioresource use, putting climate mitigation goals and biodiversity at risk. Alternative zero-carbon solutions, such as clean electrification or hydrogen, can and must be developed rapidly to lessen the need for bio-based solutions".

"A renewable energy future – built on cheap, abundant zero-carbon electricity – is within our grasp. In this timely report, the Energy Transitions Commission reviews the role of low carbon, sustainable bio-energy across the economy. The world has a fixed quantity of land, while demand for food, fiber, carbon storage and biodiversity continues to grow. We can't have an 'all of the above' strategy; there are real trade-offs in play, requiring informed decisions. This analysis helps open that dialogue," said Manish Bapna, WRI Interim President and CEO.

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