New report predicts that biomass crops are unlikely to cause major land use tensions

A new policy statement produced by the Institute of Mechanical Engineers is calling for the Government to invest in the development of biomass with Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) technology.

CCS is a process where the carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions produced when a power plant burns fossil fuels like coal are prevented from entering the atmosphere. Instead the CO2 is collected and for example transported underground and stored in rock formations.

Dr Tim Fox, Head of Energy and Environment at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, said:

“Using CCS technology with biomass-fired power stations presents us with an opportunity to remove around 10% of global CO2 emissions from the atmosphere each year, effectively cleaning up emissions from other difficult to get at sources. Biomass electricity produces low levels of carbon emissions, on a lifecycle basis, and combining it with CCS technology effectively creates so-called ‘negative emissions’ which can make a useful contribution to mitigating climate change.

The policy statement also suggests that in contrast to widespread concern about growing energy crops on farm land (See our blog on the “Food versus fuel” debate) the use of biomass to produce electricity need not cause significant land-use tensions. The statement cites work by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and International Energy Agency (IEA) which estimates electricity production from biomass by 2050 to be around 3,400 terra watt hours per year (TWh/yr). Based on typical yields of miscanthus this would require between 0.18 Giga hectares and 0.27 Giga hectares of land globally. This equates to just 2-3% of the available land.

Dr Fox adds:

“Our analysis shows that at the scale of current global ambitions, the cultivation of biomass for use in electricity generation need not necessarily threaten the availability of land for food production, other energy sourcing and the preservation of ecosystems.

“The demand for biomass in power generation is currently very low, and even with projected future growth of this form of electricity production, the land needed to grow these crops remains relatively small compared with that required to meet future food demands. An integrated approach to the management of land use for agriculture and crops for power generation could ensure that any potential tensions are effectively eliminated.

The policy statement makes the following recommendations to the UK Government:

  • Undertake a thorough and detailed investigation into the potential use of biomass-based technologies for UK electricity generation, taking account of future international food production needs, ecosystem preservation, economics and climate change mitigation benefits.
  • Take an international lead in encouraging a fully integrated global approach to food security, ecosystem preservation and the generation of electricity from biomass energy, to reduce the scope for related impacts on future food prices and help ensure biomass incentives do not lead to undesired land-use changes.
  • Support UK research, development and demonstration of CCS technology for use with biomass-based electricity generation while simultaneously pursuing the future inclusion of “negative emissions” credits in international climate change mitigation agreements.