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Bioenergy is energy generated using organic materials and it comes in many forms. It can include purpose-grown energy crops, by-products from agriculture, organic waste, and lower-value wood flows and residues from forestry. At the heart of sustainable bioenergy is a continuous carbon cycle that helps to reduce overall greenhouse gas emissions from the energy sector and industry.
In nature, plants and trees absorb carbon dioxide as they grow and they release it again as they decay. It is then reabsorbed by other plants and trees in a continuous cycle. In the carbon cycle of sustainable bioenergy, plants and trees absorb carbon dioxide as they grow, then we use some of this plant fibre to generate energy.
Emissions from this process are continuously absorbed by plant and forest growth across a sustainably managed landscape. The biogenic carbon cycle recycles carbon in the biosphere, rather than adding more carbon through the use of fossil fuels.
Sustainable bioenergy uses feedstocks that lead to positive carbon outcomes, for example by utilising lower-value agricultural and forestry by-products, low-grade roundwood (including thinnings) and residues, or responsibly grown energy crops.
Since the Paris Agreement was signed, the pathway options to limit temperature rise to 1.5°C have shrunk. The IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report now emphasises the critical need for carbon dioxide removals to prevent warming above 2°C.
BECCS is a proven technology that is available now to deliver these negative emissions alongside renewable electricity. Crucially, negative emissions are not a substitute for emissions reductions and must not detract from deployment of renewable energy sources.
When sustainable bioenergy is combined with carbon capture and storage (see diagram below), it provides negative emissions by capturing carbon at scale and burying it permanently underground, which helps to offset emissions from hard-to-decarbonise sectors such as aviation and agriculture. BECCS is a proven technology, already operating at multiple sites around the world.
BECCS must be scaled up worldwide to help meet the IPCC’s requirement for 6-10Gt of CO2 removal each year by 2050. Analysis from the Coalition for Negative Emissions indicates that 2-4Gt of CO2 removals through BECCS are possible from sustainable sources without land shifts by 2030, with the figure remaining consistent to 2050.
The modern bioenergy sector, through its development over the last 20 years, has developed the technologies, infrastructure and sustainability frameworks to ensure BECCS and other forms of sustainable bioenergy can play their essential role in delivering global Net Zero. However, it will require continuing collaboration between industry, government, academia, investors and civil society to scale up and make this goal a reality.