Climate Crisis

Can biomass help us make the step to net zero?

As the government draws up a new strategy for the role this alternative energy can play in Britain’s future energy needs, a team from The Bartlett outlines what a clear case in favour of it should consider.

The UK has set the ambitious goal of reaching net-zero emissions by 2050. The scale and breadth of this challenge is significant, and all sectors of the economy need to ramp up efforts to rapidly lower their emissions. One option that could support this shift is to use biomass, with or without carbon capture and storage, to provide clean energy. There are multiple potential applications of biomass in the energy system and understanding the implications of each one is vital.

In December 2021, the UK government set out key principles for the role of bioenergy, in preparation for a new national bioenergy strategy which is due to be published in 2022. Researchers from UCL Institute for Sustainable Resources (ISR) contributed evidence which fed into the call for evidence that supported this process. As we compiled our response, we were thinking about the use of bioenergy in the future UK energy system, and the potential implications for action in the short, medium and long-term.

While we indicated that biomass could make a significant contribution to meeting our climate goals, we also emphasised the need for caution. Not only does biomass have complex national and international supply chains, but even the idea that the use of biomass can reliably remove carbon from the atmosphere remains contentious.

close up of crops

Through responses to the questions set out in the consultation, we explored issues relating to biomass availability, the future use of biomass and supply chain sustainability. Overall, our contributions make ten key recommendations. These include:

1. Engaging with a wide-ranging definition of biomass sustainability, both domestically and internationally, that has a strong focus on social justice, land use, and the health of the environment.

2. Accepting that biomass supply chains are complex, and that work is needed to better understand the implications of scaling up domestic and international supply. 

3. Considering that the land which supports the delivery of carbon removal through these supply chains also has numerous other uses, providing services for both human and natural systems.

4. Prioritising solutions which enhance ecosystems and resilience of natural environments in the face of a changing climate.

5. Accepting that biomass supply should be strongly limited by sustainability constraints and so biomass should only be used in applications which sequester carbon in the long-term, or where there are few low carbon alternatives.

6. Developing biomass supply chains which recognise and protect the needs and social priorities of local and vulnerable communities.

7. Fostering a consistent approach to land and energy policy across government, which must go beyond departmental divisions. This should include efforts to reduce energy demands.

The scale up of sustainable biomass in the UK has the potential to contribute to fast decarbonisation and perhaps to the removal of CO2 from the atmosphere. It is critical, however, that this scale up is informed by careful monitoring, reporting and verification of full supply chains (including biomass imports). It also needs to be seen as one option amongst many others for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, whether through alternative CO2 removal technologies, or through deeper societal changes that fundamentally reduce our demand for energy in the first place. Weighing up the use of biomass against other options or approaches should also centre on wider social and environmental priorities, to ensure that the race to net zero does not damage the social and natural systems that support all human activities.

In the policy statement that our advice contributed to, the Government considers some of these arguments and sets out the foundations for a strategic view on the role of biomass across the short, medium and long-term to deliver net zero. They set out principles for prioritising biomass use, focusing for example on hard to decarbonise or greenhouse gas intensive sectors. They acknowledge its versatility, looking at potential uses across electricity, heat, transport and the industry. Going further, they suggest that some uses could displace fossil fuels by producing materials and products needed across the economy, or by participating in a circular economy where wastes are re-used to produce higher value goods.

Flow chart. Atmosphere leads to growing biomass to biomass transport and storage to biomass processing to bioenergy with carbon capture to CO2 transport to CO2 sequestration to geological storage. Red arrows indicate each step up to geological storage also leads back to atmosphere

Notwithstanding the positive messages that this sends, the details as to how these ideals will be implemented remain very much to be determined. While biomass sustainability is clearly mentioned, it is not yet defined, leaving open questions as to the final life cycle impacts of biomass-based processes such as BECCS (bioenergy with carbon capture and storage) for power or hydrogen production.

Ensuring that the complexities of an increased UK reliance on bioenergy are fully considered in the final biomass strategy is important and discussing this with all actors globally involved is vital. We are part of this discussion as we sit on government stakeholder workshops to contribute science-based evidence from across our active research projects. This is an exciting space to be involved in and our work will continue to feed this fast-moving (bio)energy debate as it develops – providing input to solving the UK’s future energy system challenges.

Redressing our impact on the climate by reducing our emissions to net-zero is the most pressing challenge that our country will face for a generation. Getting there requires energy technology solutions that we have not used before, biomass and BECCS are likely to be part of this portfolio. We must use biomass options sensibly, while understanding their limitations, and addressing the significant risks that they imply for global justice and the environment. If we can build our understanding of what sustainable biomass means, and establish secure ways to safeguard it, then we may yet be able to use it to our benefit in reaching our climate goals.


Dr Isabela Butnar
Senior Research Associate, Bartlett School Env, Energy & Resources

Oliver Broad
Senior Research Fellow , Bartlett School Env, Energy & Resources

Jen Cronin
Research Assistant in Energy and Resources , Bartlett School Env, Energy & Resources

Dr Julia Tomei
Associate Professor, Bartlett School Env, Energy & Resources

Prof Jim Watson
Professor of Energy Policy , Bartlett School Env, Energy & Resources

Dr Alison Fairbrass
Research Fellow in Natural Capital Marine and Coastal Ecosystems , Bartlett School Env, Energy & Resources

Dr Teresa Domenech
Associate Professor , Bartlett School Env, Energy & Resources

Dr Nadia Ameli
Principal Research Fellow , Bartlett School Env, Energy & Resources

Prof Mark Barrett
Professor of Energy and Environmental Systems Modelling , Bartlett School Env, Energy & Resources

Dr Paolo Agnolucci
Professor of Energy and Environmental Economics , Bartlett School Env, Energy & Resources

Dr Will McDowall
Associate Professor , Bartlett School Env, Energy & Resources

Dr Carole Dalin
Associate Professor in Sustainable Food Systems , Bartlett School Env, Energy & Resources


Oliver Broad

Senior Research Fellow, Bartlett School Env, Energy & Resources

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