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IPCC highlights bioenergy potential and concerns in latest report

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Bioenergy and BECCS have an important role to play in climate change mitigation, but there are concerns over sustainable feedstock sourcing and large-scale deployment, according to the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report.

Without immediate and deep emissions reductions across all sectors, limiting global warming to 1.5oC is ‘beyond reach’, the IPCC said in its Climate Change 2022: Mitigation of climate change report.

From 2010-2019, average annual global greenhouse gas emissions were at their highest levels in human history, but the rate of growth has slowed. Despite the IPCC’s stark warning, scientists also said there is ‘increasing evidence’ of climate action.

Since 2010, there have been sustained decreases of up to 85% in the costs of solar and wind energy, and batteries. An increasing range of policies and laws have enhanced energy efficiency, reduced rates of deforestation, and accelerated the deployment of renewable energy.

“We are at a crossroads,” said IPCC chair Hoesung Lee. “The decisions we make now can secure a liveable future.

“We have the tools and know-how required to limit warming. I am encouraged by climate action being taken in many countries. There are policies, regulations and market instruments that are proving effective. If these are scaled-up and applied more widely and equitably, they can support deep emissions reductions and stimulate innovation.”

IPCC report and bioenergy

While bioenergy and BECCS were highlighted as important tools to achieve climate change mitigation, the IPCC warned that ‘large-scale or poorly planned’ deployment of bioenergy could pose risks to land and water resources.

The report states: “…Some mitigation options can increase competition for scarce resources including land, water, and biomass. Consequently, these can also reduce adaptive capacity, especially if deployed at a larger scale and with high expansion rates, thus exacerbating existing risks, in particular where land and water resources are very limited. Examples include the large-scale or poorly planned deployment of bioenergy, biochar, and afforestation of naturally unforested land.

Additionally, “…the use of bioenergy can lead to either increased or reduced emissions, depending on the scale of deployment, conversion technology, fuel displaced, and how, and where, the biomass is produced”.

The IPCC said net-zero energy systems will share common characteristics, but the approach in every country will depend on national circumstances. Common characteristics include: alternative energy carriers, such as hydrogen, bioenergy, and ammonia, to substitute for fossil fuels in sectors ‘less amenable’ to electrification, and the use of CO2 removal, including direct air carbon capture and storage and BECCS to offset residual emissions.

The provision of biomass for bioenergy (with or without BECCS) and other bio-based products represents an ‘important share’ of total mitigation potential associated with the agriculture, forestry, and other land use (AFOLU) sector, said the report, though these mitigation effects accrue to other sectors.

The IPCC report also said bioenergy is the most land-intensive energy option, but the total land occupation of other renewable energy options can also become ‘significant’ in high deployment scenarios. While not as closely connected to the AFOLU sector as bioenergy, other renewable energy options can influence AFOLU activities in both synergistic and detrimental ways.

“Land occupation can be large uniform areas, e.g., reservoir hydropower dams and tree plantations, and more distributed occupation that is integrated with other land uses, e.g., wind turbines and agroforestry in agriculture landscape,” said the report.

“Deployment can be partly decoupled from additional land use, e.g., use of organic waste and residues and integration of solar PV into buildings and other infrastructure.”

The IPCC also warned: “Large-scale bioenergy deployment could increase risks of desertification, land degradation, and food insecurity and higher water withdrawals, though this may be at least partially offset by innovation in agriculture, diet shifts and plant-based proteins contributing to meeting demand for food, fibre, and bioenergy (or BECCS with CCS).”

Industry comments

Dr Nina Skorupska, chief executive of the Association for Renewable Energy and Clean Technology, said the Association supports the IPCC's focus on sustainability and robust regulations.

“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," said Skorupska.

“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.”

Will Gardiner, CEO of Drax, commented: "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 is vital the feedstocks used deliver climate, environmental and social benefits, and we're confident that it is aligned with the biomass we're using."