Biomass, defined as any material of biological origin, is a versatile resource that can be used in multiple ways across different technologies and is an important component of many of our pathways to net zero. It has a role to play in renewable electricity production, heat and industrial decarbonisation, in the production of low carbon transport fuels, delivery of ‘negative emissions’ that help to balance greenhouse gas emissions from hard-to-decarbonise sectors, and in the displacement of fossil fuels in materials and chemicals.
Government has published a Biomass Strategy, which sets out the role of biomass in reaching net zero while supporting our energy security. It outlines what Government is doing to enable that objective and importantly, where further action is needed. This public dialogue project was undertaken to better understand the public views about the sources and uses of biomass and associated technologies so these can be integrated into the development of the Biomass Strategy.
The former Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (now Department for Energy Security and Net Zero), in partnership with Sciencewise, commissioned NatCen Social Research (NatCen) to deliver the public dialogue in partnership with Eunomia. The aim of the project was to explore in more detail the nature and sources of views on biomass and establish whether these views are similar or diverge from those expressed by stakeholders to inform the Biomass Strategy.
The dialogue brought together a diverse range of individuals, broadly representative of the UK public, online across five sessions. An initial session introduced the subject, followed by three sessions of deliberation, which focused on building knowledge on aspects of biomass sources, use, and production and deliberating and scrutinising these. A fourth session concentrated on Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS) as a negative emissions technology. The final session brought participants together to determine principles and conditions, which they felt should underscore biomass policies. A total of 109 participants took part from across the UK, with 95 completing all five sessions and both the pre- and post-surveys – a high retention rate.
Working with an advisory oversight group ensured that the information available to participants in these sessions could offer balanced coverage of the evidence as it stands – including more settled and contested areas of debate. Participants therefore received these two types of information designed to deepen their appreciation of these complex issues. Subject specialists Eunomia covered the key elements of biomass based on a rapid evidence assessment. In addition, a range of other specialists presented evidence-based perspectives from relevant agencies and sectors, including Government, NGOs, academia, and industry. They examined facets of biomass use and delivery, particularly sustainability and BECCS, as well as highlighting the wider implications of their knowledge and research.
Most participants felt biomass has a role in achieving net zero. However, levels of concern about the potential environmental impact of how biomass is sourced and produced increased as the dialogue progressed. A set of principles and conditions were developed that participants saw as foundational to future biomass policy. These can be grouped into two sets of three overarching principles:
- Conditions relating to cost and financing; feasibility and evidence base; and accountability, transparency, and trust captured participants’ desire for assurances around the evidence that drives decision-making and government investment, and how this is then communicated to the public. This particularly reflected their broader concerns about politicisation and oversight, as well as the commercial incentivisation and corporate behaviour they thought might ensue from the Biomass Strategy.
- Conditions relating to impact on the environment, prioritising natural resources, and impact on society captured participants’ requests for assurances around minimising local, national, and negative global impacts, reflecting their ongoing concerns about environmental protections and their belief that reaching net zero emissions targets was an urgent priority.
Overall, the dialogue was a valuable project for the Biomass Strategy. One key takeaway for dialogue projects is that the wider context is very important. Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine and the ensuing rapid rise in energy costs, alongside the period of rapid political change experienced during the time of the workshops had evidently textured participant viewpoints. Therefore, the wider context should be factored into the project design and resources prepared for the workshops to ensure the dialogue provides as useful results as possible about the specifics of the project.
We found that participants were hugely insightful, knowledgeable, and overall highly interested in climate issues. The dialogue generated some truly fascinating discussions and resulted in really helpful insights for the development of the Biomass Strategy. The findings of the dialogue fed directly into the development of actions set out in the Biomass Strategy on enhancing biomass sustainability criteria and helped refine the priority use principles used in the assessment of priority uses of biomass.