Recent months have witnessed a whirlwind of debate in the bioenergy space, with letters signed by academics on both sides, white papers and responses wielded between think tanks, civil society and industry groups squaring off in special reports, and a hung Science Advisory Board of the EPA unable to make a determination about their guidance on biogenic carbon accounting. It has been a confusing time, even for the experts.
At WWF, we follow these debates and review the scientific literature to inform our position, which is then grounded in the expert field experience of our global network. For those of you seeking to green-up your energy supply and navigate these confusing times, here is our best advice when it comes to bioenergy, while understanding that new studies are coming out every week and that the IPCC won’t issue their guidance on national inventories until 2019.
Use sources of sustainable renewable energy first.
If you are in a sector where there are commercially viable low/no-carbon alternatives to fossil fuels and bioenergy (e.g., solar, wind, geothermal) use those first and get creative on how to shift as much energy demand as you can to those systems through electrification. If you are in a sector where these solutions are not commercially viable (e.g., industrial process energy or aviation) then we have two additional pieces of advice.
Only use bio feedstocks that deliver significant climate benefits over fossil fuels and without compromising biodiversity.
The most important question to WWF in the bioenergy debate is “What types of bioenergy provide a significant climate benefit over fossil fuels and do not significantly impact biodiversity?” The first point is crucial given that there are types of bioenergy that, whilst technically ‘renewable’, can have higher impacts on climate change than the fossil sources they replace. Additionally, the connection between climate and biodiversity is important to understand, because the concept of mitigating trade-offs is not so simple. Climate change will have negative impacts on biodiversity and maintaining biodiversity will increase ecosystem resilience to climate change. A benefit to one at the expense of the other is not a sound solution.
With this as context, our cautious recommendation is to look to industrial or municipal wastes and byproducts that are available for energy production, while applying an approach of cascading use. These classes of biomaterials do not increase harvest levels, are unlikely to cause displacement affects (i.e. remove feedstocks from other industries) or further impact soil or biodiversity conditions. These are the lower risk feedstocks for supply, but need to be assessed on a case by case basis while considering local supply, production management practices and potential alternative uses. Before investing in bioenergy infrastructure or long term contracting, develop a rigorous sourcing policy consistent with the above, including what feedstocks are acceptable and conduct an assessment of the availability of policy-compliant, bioenergy feedstocks for the duration of the project.
Assumptions of carbon neutrality leave you exposed to serious risk.
WWF supports life-cycle carbon accounting for any technology that is making climate benefit claims, so that the true impacts are understood and informed decision-making can occur. Assumptions of carbon neutrality limit your understanding of the system and the potential risks, leading to poor decision-making and unwise investments. Given the growing awareness amongst policy makers of the sustainability concerns relating to many types of biomass, they are also subject to significant regulatory risk. We would like to see more companies calculating and reporting their biogenic carbon emissions, including (when important): land use change; impacts to all five carbon pools; forgone sequestration and for forest ecosystems carbon debt over a climate-relevant timescale. Calculation methodologies exist to do all of this and their intent is to understand the full picture of climate impacts, so we can design energy transitions in line with a less than 2-degree future.
There are not many simple answers on this topic given the interlinkage between climate impacts and competing land uses, including biodiversity, but these difficult challenges need to be addressed. WWF will continue to look to the science and engage constructively with other stakeholders to grapple with these complex trade-offs.