Public Dialogue on the role of Biomass in achieving Net Zero
In 2022, The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), in partnership with UK Research and Innovation’s Sciencewise programme, commissioned NatCen’s Centre for Deliberation (CfD) to conduct a public dialogue on the use of biomass in achieving net zero by 2050.
About the study
In October 2021, in its Net Zero Strategy, the UK Government set out that biomass has a role to play in its strategy for achieving net zero emissions by 2050. The role of biomass to achieve net zero targets is complex and contested, particularly in relation to energy production. Therefore the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS), in partnership with UK Research and Innovation’s Sciencewise programme, commissioned the National Centre for Social Research (NatCen) and its partner, Eunomia, to deliver a public dialogue to explore the UK public’s views on the role of biomass in achieving net zero.
The dialogue brought together a broadly representative sample of 95 members of the UK public, online across five sessions. An Oversight Group of representatives from academia, industry, environmental NGOs and government was convened by BEIS to provide scrutiny of the dialogue process and materials.
After considering complex and sometimes conflicting evidence about the use of biomass, the majority of participants were in support of it having some 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. Ultimately, support for using biomass was largely driven by a desire to do everything possible to achieve net zero, rather than any specific benefit offered by biomass.
NatCen identified three common understandings (‘interpretative frames’) that shaped how participants navigated biomass’ potential role in net zero: concept, implementation, and impact. The concept of biomass as a renewable technology that would help achieve net zero was counterintuitive to many participants because it involved production processes that create emissions. On implementation, participants expressed concerns that the Biomass Strategy could become dominated by the profit motives of the energy sector, rather than the need to achieve net zero. To understand impact, participants wanted certainty and, especially, a clear consensus from independent experts that biomass will positively contribute to achieving net zero.
In the final session participants reviewed and agreed the following six principles and conditions that should guide the role of biomass in achieving net zero:
These principles and conditions were developed by NatCen based on analysis of data generated by participants in sessions 1-4. 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.
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.
A total of 95 members of the public participated in 12.5 hours of deliberation online across five sessions. Of the 95 who completed all sessions, 31 came from ‘affected communities’, broadly defined as anyone affected by biomass sourcing, or bio-based products/bioenergy production, in their local area. The first four sessions introduced participants to information on biomass sources, use, production and Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS). In the final session participants agreed principles and conditions for the use of biomass in achieving net zero. To support participants to deliberate the role of biomass information was provided by Eunomia, an independent energy consultancy, as well as specialist speakers from academia, Non-Governmental Organisations, Industry and Government departments. Participants completed a survey before and after the dialogue to understand how their views had evolved.