A new report sets out how demand for bioresources could outstrip sustainable supply, undermining climate mitigation efforts and harming biodiversity, unless alternative zero carbon options are rapidly scaled up.
The report, Bioresources Within a Net-Zero Emissions Economy: Making a Sustainable Approach Possible, produced by the Energy Transitions Commission (ETC) stated that while bioresources are in principle renewable, not all forms of biomass use are beneficial from an environmental perspective.
In other words, not all biomass is “good” biomass, it stated.
To be sustainable, biomass production should have low lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions and its production should take into account the “opportunity cost” related to carbon that could be sequestered without intervention.
The report said sustainable biomass 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), or negatively impact biodiversity and ecosystem health.
It advised that biomass sources for use as energy should be limited to waste and residues, dedicated energy crop production on degraded and marginal lands, or where current crop/pasture land 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.
They include ArcelorMittal, Bank of America, BP, Development Research Center of the State Council of China, EBRD, Heathrow, HSBC, Iberdrola, Orsted, Tata Group, Volvo Group and the World Resources Institute.
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, ETC said.
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, the report said.
Industry and policymakers should therefore limit the use of bioresources in applications where cheaper alternatives exist or are within reach, the report highlighted.
These include road transport, bulk power generation without CCS, residential heating and shipping with the exception of select specialised niches, such as 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.”