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“Biomass UK is disappointed to see The Telegraph’s misleading framing of the vital role that sustainable biomass is expected to play in the Government’s Net Zero Strategy. The Telegraph’s figures are wrong, and their analysis fundamentally misinterprets the Government’s intentions.

“The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the International Energy Agency and the UK’s Climate Change Committee have all been clear - sustainable bioenergy is an important part of the solution to climate change and achieving Net Zero.

“Bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) is a shovel-ready technology that can generate renewable, flexible electricity and negative emissions whilst displacing fossil fuels, supporting jobs, and driving investment in healthy forests.”


Updated: Jun 17, 2022

IPCC’s conclusions on bioenergy

The IPCC’s latest report has reiterated the need for bioenergy at a much larger scale than today to combat runaway climate change. The report says:

  1. Bioenergy offers an “important” way to mitigate climate change. This is consistent with the IPCC’s previous scientific estimates, the report says. (Ch.7, p.6)

  2. Much more bioenergy is needed to limit climate change. The IPCC’s models project bioenergy use to rise significantly, from 30 Exajoules at present, to between 75 and 248 EJ by 2050, in order to avoid catastrophic climate change. This is within the body’s estimate for sustainable sourcing of bio-based fuels, taking into account environmental and food security constraints. (Ch.3, p.57)

  3. Carbon capture is vital. Carbon dioxide removal technologies, such as bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS), are “unavoidable if net zero CO2 or GHG emissions are to be achieved.” (SPM, p.47)

  4. “Bioenergy could be a high-value and large-scale mitigation option to support many different parts of the energy system. Bioenergy could be particularly valuable for sectors with limited alternatives to fossil fuels (e.g., aviation, heavy industry) and production of chemicals and products and carbon dioxide removal via BECCS or biochar.” (Ch. 6, p.39)

  5. Additional benefits: “Climate-smart forestry” allows production of bioenergy alongside improvements to nature conservation and biodiversity, local economics and carbon storage. (Ch.7, p.78)

  6. Strong regulation is crucial. The report advises policy makers and stakeholders to “draw on lessons from experience…”, noting that socio-economic and environmental trade-offs “can be avoided by well-implemented land-based mitigation options,” including well-developed regulations and best practice. (SPM, pp.44, 53).

"The fact that the use of woody biomass under the right conditions leads to less net CO2 emissions than combustion of coal or gas is virtually undisputed within science, as is also apparent from the reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)."

Dr Gert-Jan Nabuurs

IPCC report co-author - October 2021

Bioenergy, which uses organic materials and wastes as fuel, helps to displace reliance on fossil fuels and could be particularly valuable for sectors with limited alternatives to fossil fuels, such as aviation and other hard-to-abate industries, say scientific advisors.

Combining bioenergy with ‘carbon capture and storage’ could double the potential role of bioenergy in reducing humanity’s carbon emissions (TS, p.86)

Modern bioenergy currently provides around 53% of the world’s renewable energy (IEA). This comes from purpose-grown crops, by-products from forestry and agriculture, and waste materials. These fuels, when sourced sustainably, help to replace damaging fossil fuels. They can be used in electricity, heat and transport, as well as decarbonising hard-to-decarbonise industries like steel and cement making.

Representatives from across the bioenergy industry welcomed the report’s emphasis on tighter regulation to ensure sustainability so bioenergy delivers positive impacts for the climate, environment and communities. At COP26, industry members signed the “Glasgow Declaration on Sustainable Bioenergy” setting out 16 principles for sourcing sustainable bioenergy that can form the foundation for regulations.

Quotes from industry organisations:

Dr Christian Rakos, President of the World Bioenergy Association (WBA), said:

"The scientists at the UN's IPCC have once again confirmed the importance of bioenergy for mitigating climate change. Sustainable bioenergy can displace fossil fuels and deliver negative emissions, which the IPCC says are necessary to achieve Net Zero both at a global and national level.

"We welcome the IPCC's focus on sustainability and regulation to ensure that well-managed bioenergy delivers positive climate, environmental and social outcomes.

"The science is clear. We need every tool in the toolbox to mitigate climate change and hold down global warming as much as possible. Sustainable bioenergy is a crucial part of the pathway to Net Zero, and the world must act now to scale up this important climate solution."

Dr Nina Skorupska, Chief Executive of the Association for Renewable Energy and Clean Technology (REA), said:

“The IPCC’s scientists have again said that sustainable bioenergy is essential for achieving net zero and avoiding catastrophic climate change both as a provider of renewable energy and a way to remove carbon from the atmosphere.”

“The science is clear - sustainable bioenergy use needs to scale up rapidly around the world and we support the IPCC’s focus on sustainability and robust regulations to ensure that biomass delivers benefits for our climate, environment and communities.”

A spokesperson for The United States Industrial Pellet Association (USIPA) said:

Today’s IPCC Working Group III report is the definitive guide on how to mitigate climate change, and its findings are unequivocal that sustainable bioenergy is an essential part of the solution. The IPCC has long recognized the indispensable role of sustainable bioenergy in reaching net-zero, and today’s report puts this in the clearest terms yet stating, “Bioenergy has the potential to be a high-value and large-scale mitigation option to support many different parts of the energy system.”

We welcome and support the IPCC’s emphasis on the importance of sustainable forest management as a precondition to ensure biomass delivers positive outcomes for the climate and environment. Scientific research backed by real-world data continues to show that the US Southeast is a sustainable and dependable sourcing area, that can help meet growing demand abroad while providing important ecological and economic benefits at home.

The unmistakable message from today’s IPCC report is the urgent need to transition away from fossil fuels. This is the core purpose of sustainable biomass, which has displaced millions of tons of fossil fuels, and will play an even greater role on our net-zero journey in decarbonizing the power, heat, transport and heavy industry sectors, while also delivering critical negative emissions through BECCS.

Jean-Marc Jossart, Secretary-General of Bioenergy Europe said:

Bioenergy Europe welcomes the new IPCC WGIII Report on Mitigation of Climate Change. Scientists once more confirm the need for urgent measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to end fossil fuels use.

The report validates that sustainable biomass remains a solid ally to accelerate the green transition and eventually reach a climate neutral economy in the EU by 2050. It is an integral part of the EU’s efforts to achieve the ambitious climate and energy targets envisaged within the European Green Deal.

Globally, bioenergy already enables the replacement of millions of tonnes of fossil fuels in some of the sectors that are the hardest to decarbonise such as industry, heating, and transport. The IPCC recognises that bioenergy will continue to remain an important contributor to emissions reductions. Negative emissions technologies such as Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS) are, once more, confirmed as viable options to “reduce emissions from large-scale fossil-based energy and industry sources”.

The upscaling of bioenergy, along with other renewables, needs to be fully supported through a solid, consistent, and implementable policy framework to ensure a functioning market and prevent the discouragement of investments which would jeopardise achieving the EU’s climate neutrality goal.

The IPCC report sends a strong signal on the potential of bioenergy within the limits of feedstock availability, through established Sustainable Forest Management practices essential to preserve biodiversity and forest health, and strict sustainability rules. The bioenergy sector is leading the way to achieve our climate and energy objectives.

A spokesperson for Enviva said:

“Today’s IPCC report provides the world’s most authoritative scientific and policy-making analysis on how to mitigate climate change, and re-affirms the indispensable role of sustainable biomass. All pathways that limit global temperature rise to 1.5°C include substantial use of biomass because of its versatility in both reducing and removing emissions at scale.

“Sustainable biomass has been a cornerstone in decarbonizing Europe’s power and heating sectors, and is increasingly recognized as an innovative solution for hard to abate industries like steel, cement and aviation. The science is clear, the use of sustainable biomass must increase rapidly to help meet our national and global net zero goals.”

Drax CEO Will Gardiner said:

“The latest IPCC report clearly states the critical role for sustainable biomass and the need for carbon removals from technologies such as BECCS to meet global climate targets. It’s time to put words into action and begin scaling up these important technologies.

“We support the report’s increased focus on sustainability and agree that it’s vital that the feedstocks used deliver climate, environmental and social benefits and we’re confident that this is aligned with the biomass we're using."

It’s a question that causes a lot of confusion: why are carbon emissions from biomass electricity counted as zero in the electricity sector? Some people think this equals a ‘black hole’ in the carbon accounting of biomass, but that isn’t true. The emissions are always counted, but in a slightly different way to most electricity sources.

The UN's IPCC is the world's leading scientific body on climate change.

International carbon accounting

The international carbon accounting rules are decided by the world’s top independent climate science body, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which is made up of thousands of scientists, all focused on specific areas of climate policy. It regularly reviews and refines the ways in which greenhouse gas emissions are reported, to take account of changes in science and technology and to ensure it’s being done correctly. The last review was in 2019, when it confirmed the current arrangements.

The rules state that each country must report their carbon emissions, as set out in the Kyoto and Paris climate agreements. They do so by sector, so there are emissions numbers specific to the electricity sector, various parts of the transport sector, and so on. You can find the UK’s latest accounts here.

Of course, bioenergy used for power and heat sits across two sectors – forestry, agriculture and other land uses and energy.

Accounting for bioenergy

The fuel for bioenergy is accounted for in the ‘Agriculture, Forestry and Other Land Use’, or AFOLU, sector. Biomass from this sector plays a central role in absorbing carbon from the atmosphere, thereby helping to balance carbon levels. In the AFOLU sector’s accounts, carbon emissions are recorded whenever there are harvests. For example, if a tree is cut down, that’s counted as an ‘emission’ of carbon from the AFOLU sector. When a tree grows, capturing and storing carbon in the process, that growth is subtracted from the emissions of the sector. So, if deforestation occurs, this will be shown in the accounting as an increase in the emissions from the AFOLU sector. If a forest is experiencing net growth, then it will show as lower or possibly negative emissions in the AFOLU accounts.

In the electricity sector, most fuels are counted when they are used as fuel. This is because they don’t have a carbon impact until that point – a lump of coal is fairly inert until you burn it. So, when it’s burned, it is counted as an emission. But the fuel in bioenergy has already been accounted in the AFOLU sector, where it forms an active part of the carbon cycle.

In effect, the IPCC is saying that the forest and the power station form part of one carbon system. As the IPCC puts it, “This provides a complete picture of a country’s energy system and avoids double counting of emissions with those reported in the AFOLU sector.

Accurately reporting all emissions

It’s important to remember that carbon emissions from the supply chain – things like production, processing and transport – are recorded by the electricity sector and audited independently, so biomass isn’t seen as ‘zero carbon’. Methane and nitrous oxide emissions are also counted in the energy sector, as these are more a matter of power station operations and can’t easily be linked to biomass harvesting.

Because we count the CO2 emissions from bioenergy in the AFOLU sector, we don’t then count them again in the electricity sector (known as ‘stack emissions’ – a ‘stack’ is a power station’s chimney). Doing this would lead to double counting – the same carbon emissions counted twice. That would lead to inaccuracies in the carbon inventories, making it harder to understand what’s happening with global emissions. It might also falsely make bioenergy appear to have worse carbon emissions than it really does. Given that bioenergy is potentially one of the most abundant renewables in the world, it would be wrong and counter-productive to apply inaccurately stringent accounting conditions to it.

Some critics have argued that carbon emissions should not be counted in the AFOLU sector at all, but in the electricity sector, since that’s where the fuel is converted to energy. However, doing this would mean that we ignored what’s happening in the AFOLU sector. This is a vitally important sector, partly because it’s where a great deal of carbon absorption happens. Carbon is removed from the atmosphere by the oceans, forests, grasslands, peats and soils of the world. We therefore need to have a close eye on carbon emissions in this sector and can’t afford to ignore deforestation. Carbon emissions for bioenergy are therefore “counted in the forest”.

The IPCC approach to carbon accounting doesn’t remove the need for strict sustainability regulations, which the UK has had in place for over a decade, and also certification schemes such as the Sustainable Biomass Program. But it does ensure that the numbers are reported accurately.


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