Biomass UK is a subsection of the Association for Renewable Energy and Clean Technology (REA), the largest renewable energy trade association in the UK. Biomass UK is the members’ forum within the REA which advocates for the Biomass Power industry, championing sustainable biomass use for low-carbon energy and its supporting supply chain.
Climate change is one of the main drivers of ecological decline and biodiversity loss. The UK, a pioneer in the use of biomass power at scale, is currently demonstrating how the use of biomass can support wholesale and systematic change in the emissions profile of power generation. This has helped the UK to drastically phase out its use of coal for electricity, whilst supporting the development and use of intermittent sources of renewable power such as solar and wind. So far, this has resulted in a 62.8% reduction in emissions from UK energy supply since 1990. The UK biomass industry is proud of both its role in supporting the UK’s decarbonisation agenda and its stringent sustainability criteria, which protect biodiversity and ensure positive climate outcomes.
The UN Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, in its 2019 Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, set out the major drivers for global changes in nature. These are, in order of significance: changes in land and sea use; direct exploitation of organisms; climate change; pollution; and invasion of alien species. The UK’s biomass supply chain and regulatory framework provide robust protections against such drivers of change.
The biomass industry in the UK works to prevent these harmful changes to nature by promoting and funding careful and sustainable management of forests, disincentivising negative land-use change, reducing the causes and effects of climate change, and encouraging the development of new forests and biomass feedstocks. This is done by harnessing healthy markets for forest products within a robust regulatory framework.
Top three threats to Biodiversity (IPBES) in order of significance
How UK biomass supply chain helps to protect against negative outcomes
Changes in land and sea use
UK Sustainability Criteria disallow biomass supply where it is associated with land use change. The UK Government’s most recent investigation into the operation of the biomass market found that biomass supply did not lead to land use change. In fact, biomass is part of an economic system that has invested in forestry and tree cover, protecting forests from land use change pressures.
Direct exploitation of organisms
The UK’s Sustainability Criteria require that productivity of a forest must be maintained – i.e. deforestation must not occur. This ensures that the forest’s resources are maintained and not exhausted. This reflects normal practice in sustainable forestry. In the Southern USA, the largest single source of the UK’s biomass, it has led to an increase, not a depletion, of the forest resources.
Prevention of climate change:
Biomass has been key to the UK’s removal of coal from its electricity system, by directly replacing coal plant with a low-carbon renewable alternative. It also supports other variable renewable technologies such as wind and forms the basis for Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage, which the CCC has suggested will be required to achieve Net Zero.
Adaptation and protection of forests:
Climate change poses a serious threat to forests, as wildfires in Australia and California have shown. It also creates a growing risk of tree blights and infestations. Forests often need support from active management by trained foresters. The biomass industry provides extra revenues to pay for this.
Where forests are under threat, this is because landowners or local communities see trees as a cost liability, rather than an economic asset. Forests are therefore cleared for urban or agricultural use. As well as environmental protections, which require political support, forests can be protected by market demand for wood products, including timber, joinery wood, bioenergy and pulp and paper. This also helps to pay for sustainable forest management.
Strong markets for wood products, allied to effective regulation, help to deliver positive outcomes on the ground for the environment and biodiversity. The UK biomass power industry is predominantly supplied from the working forests of the Southeast US. These working forests have seen steady year-on-year growth for many decades, both in terms of area and in the amount of wood growing there (and therefore total carbon stored). Figure 1 below shows that forests benefit from the presence of properly regulated markets, across both hardwoods and softwoods, and across forest area, forest inventory and growth rates.
(Figure 1: Private Removals vs Acres, Inventory and Growth by Species, 1968-2015)
This is also evident in long-term official data. Since the 1950s, forest productivity in the US Southeast has increased, yet growth has continued to outstrip removals, meaning that total forest inventory has doubled over the last seventy years (see Figure 2). Reliable markets for wood products have demonstrably supported the protection and preservation of the forest environment.
(Figure 2: Annual Growing Stock Inventory by Ownership, 1953-2015 – US South)
This is a wider success story in which biomass only plays a small part. Despite the publicity over biomass use in the UK from certain NGOs, in reality the harvesting of wood for use in the biomass power industry is equivalent to <0.1% of the forest inventory in the Southeast US every year. The export of wood pellets from the Southern US to the UK has only really grown over the last fifteen years or so. Despite the addition of this new demand, growth in these forests has continued apace (see Figure 3).
(Figure 3: Inventory and removals for wood categories in Enviva’s combined supply regions, 200-2018)
The biomass industry has helped to support these forests by providing a market for forest owners to sell their thinnings, smaller branches and other low-value wood which is often underutilized or simply has no other buyer. The economic incentives created by markets for forest products helps to preserve these forests for the future and guard against the dangers to biodiversity and ecosystems caused by land use change.
The biomass industry in the UK is governed by effective, comprehensive sustainability criteria which ensure that biodiversity and ecosystems are protected. The UK’s sustainability criteria ensure that power-generating plants using biomass cannot source their feedstock from land associated with climate and ecological risks. These criteria require forest management to protect feedstock areas from land-use change and negative biodiversity impacts. It is imperative that the UK continue to implement rigorous sustainability criteria for biomass feedstock as its subsidy system evolves. There is also no peer-reviewed evidence that biomass supply leads to biodiversity loss.
The IPBES notes that land-use change is the biggest driver of change to nature, and therefore it presents the greatest threat to biodiversity and sustainable development. The UK has safeguards in place to ensure that the use of biomass for energy does not contribute to detrimental land-use change. These safeguards should be maintained throughout any future changes to energy policy and regulation. Bioenergy provides a model for how supply chain regulation can positively influence environmental outcomes, and the government should seek to emulate this approach across a wide range of sectors as it updates the policy landscape.
In addition to its facilitation of the UK’s greater decarbonisation agenda, the deployment of effective biomass sustainability criteria presents solutions to other climate change dangers, especially in areas prone to natural disasters. Sustainable forest management can help to combat the risk of wildfires, such as those currently devasting the West Coast of the US. Removing dead wood and managing the underbrush helps to remove the so-called “ladder fuel” which makes these fires so widespread and difficult to deal with.
Fires are not the only natural threat to forests and the climate. Sustainable forest management also helps to guard against the risks of infestations and diseases which kill trees and hurt ecosystems, undermine carbon sinks and threaten rural industries. One example comes from Canada, where pine forests have been plagued by the mountain pine beetle, which bores beneath the bark and prevents the tree from transporting nutrients up and down the trunk. Markets for forest products, supported by well-designed regulation, provide the resources to remove infested trees and help protect the forest as a whole.
Policies to encourage the use of bioenergy in the UK would also provide an effective mechanism for improving environmental outcomes whilst protecting and developing natural habitats. The UK has large amounts of neglected woodlands which are increasingly at risk from climate change and invasive alien species (such as the fungus which causes ash dieback).
This is being done to some extent, but not enough. The UK Wood Fuel Strategy of 2008 set out a target of sourcing an additional 2 million green tonnes per year for the energy market by 2020. The Renewable Heat Incentive built upon this, but the future is unclear due to policy uncertainty. Clear and well-directed support for the UK biomass supply chain will encourage investment in land management which will bring direct ecological and climate benefits.
The Committee on Climate Change (CCC) has set a target of net zero emissions by 2050. One key tool for this will be afforestation. Currently, around 9,000-10,000 hectares are forested throughout the UK each year, mostly in Scotland. In order to meet the proposals of the CCC, we would need to afforest 30,000-50,000 new hectares per year – an area equivalent to 75,000 football pitches and at least three times the current rate at a minimum. Policies which recognise the importance of markets for wood products, including bioenergy, will mobilise both public and private sector funding towards crucial ecological restoration and positive climate outcomes.