Reeds against the sky, Otmoor RSPB reserve, Oxfordshire

Bioenergy

Bioenergy is the catch-all term for energy from organic materials.

There is a limited supply of sustainable bioenergy available across the world, which can play a role in the transition to low-carbon energy sources.

About bioenergy

Bioenergy has the potential to play an important, but limited, role in reducing fossil fuel emissions and contributing to climate change mitigation.

In some instances, there may also be opportunities for benefits to wildlife, for example, through bringing important semi-natural habitats such as woodlands and reedbeds back into management in order to create biomass for small-scale heat and power generation.

  • Feedstocks include solid biomass, such as dedicated energy crops, forestry products and organic waste plus 'wet' feedstocks, which include manures, slurries, food waste etc. that can be digested to produce biogas.
  • Biogas is used for electricity and/or heat production, or it can be injected directly into the gas grid.
  • Bioliquids, used for electricity and heating purposes, include vegetable oils, tall oil and black liquor.
  • Biofuels are vegetable oils or plant based ethanol – known as biodiesel and bioethanol respectively – that are used in vehicles for transport.

What are the risks?

There are also serious risks, however, including the loss of important habitats for wildlife and in some cases, an increase in net greenhouse gas emissions from biofuels and biomass compared to their fossil fuel equivalents.

Producing large quantities of bioenergy feedstocks requires considerable changes in land-use, both in the EU and the rest of the world. If the carbon released is taken into account when these land use changes take place, some biomass feedstocks actually contribute to enhancing climate change. 

Current UK policies on bioenergy are leading to impacts on biodiversity and to the use of biomass that could be causing increases in emissions. This could undermine emissions reductions that the UK makes elsewhere in the power sector and the wider economy. For example, the UK currently imports several millions of wood pellets every year from the US to be burned in power stations. Many of these pellets come from the harvest of hardwood forests which are home to threatened wildlife and which lock up valuable carbon.

In addition, the use of crops for bioenergy generation has the potential to compete with food production and result in indirect land use change. This change in land use elsewhere in the world can result in more emissions and in the loss of wildlife and habitats.

As such, we are calling for all subsidies only to be awarded to bioenergy (for heat, power and transport) which genuinely reduces emissions and does not cause harm to the environment. Priority should be given to bioenergy which is part of the solution, not the problem, and which in some cases can even help wildlife.

RSPB's Hope farm, at the time of the wheat harvest, Knapwell, Cambridgeshire

Biomass for heat and power

Areas of forest 'threadbare' from deforestation on the northern borders of the Harapan Rainforest, Sumatra, Indonesia

Biomass can be used in the production of heat and electricity, as one alternative to fossil fuels. Its use is expected to increase significantly in the coming years in order to meet renewable energy targets.

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