Acknowledgement, not Action: UK Clean Growth Strategy and the Bioeconomy

Posted in: bioenergy

BEIS has published its Clean Growth Strategy, but where, if anywhere, does the bioeconomy feature?

When the UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) published their Industrial Strategy “green paper” in January of this year, one of the stated pillars upon which they would build the UK’s industrial strategy was “Clean Growth”. Although that document gave an overview of what this meant, BEIS has now expounded on that by publishing a “Clean Growth Strategy” for the UK. The aim is for the UK to continue to grow its economy while reducing its environmental impact, namely its carbon emissions. The paper makes it clear that BEIS is rightly proud that the UK has both grown its economy and reduced its emissions by a greater degree than the average for the G7, and they hope that this trend will continue. The paper states that the UK’s low carbon economy is set to grow at a rate four times faster than the rest of the UK’s economy, making plain the need for policy focus to support this area of economic growth.

However, a question remains: where does the bioeconomy feature in this paper? As has been typical with BEIS’s relationship with the bioeconomy since the former was formed, the case is one of acknowledgement, but not action. The paper highlights 50 proposed policy changes (many of them reflecting existing policy announcements), and the bioeconomy does not feature in any of them, but that is not to say that none of them are beneficial to the bioeconomy.

Where emissions reductions are concerned, the focus boils down to heat, power, and transport (although these are all considered in light of their role in various other areas).

Heat and Power

It is in this sector that the bioeconomy has the strongest grip in the UK, with bioenergy delivering a small but significant proportion of the country’s heat and electricity demands. However, it has become apparent that this government’s plan is to champion offshore wind and solar power where renewable electricity is concerned, alongside nuclear power. In fact, where power is concerned, bioenergy is mentioned just once in the entire paper, when it is acknowledged that bioenergy has an “important transitional role” in the UK’s clean electricity picture, but nothing more. Bioenergy has demonstrated its capacity to play an important role in the short- and medium-term, and it will require more legislative support to achieve its full potential. There are perhaps two lights on the horizon for bioelectricity, with the announcement of more Contract for Difference auctions in 2019, in which large-scale bioenergy projects have been successful in the past, but it is made clear in the paper that these CfD auctions are intended to boost offshore wind. Secondly, it is acknowledged that bioenergy can in itself result in net-negative carbon emissions if paired with Carbon Capture and Storage technology, and so perhaps with future development of this technology, bioelectricity may get its chance in the limelight.  The government previously pulled support for CCS demonstrator programmes to much criticism, and we await more concrete plans to support deployment.

There is better news on the heating front, with announced plans to encourage the uptake of low-carbon heating, including biomass boilers. This is to be achieved by a £4.5bn investment into reforming the Renewable Heat Incentive. Quite what shape these reforms will take remains unknown, as BEIS only recently opened their second consultation for the RHI, but there are encouraging signs elsewhere: the paper proposes the development of “heat networks”, wherein densely-populated areas would be covered by multiple connected heat sources, improving efficiency. This would be a welcome development for bioenergy, as many bioenergy technologies such as anaerobic digestion thrive in small- to medium-size CHP units, which could easily play into such networks.

However, with regards to specific proposals, bioenergy is largely neglected by the strategy document. It is hoped that it may come more to the fore next year, as BEIS is currently conducting research into the role that bioenergy can play in the UK’s heat and power picture, with the results intended to be published next year.


Transport has lagged behind in terms of emissions reduction, with only a 2% drop in emissions since 1990, compared to all other sectors which are approaching 50%. As such, transport forms a big chunk of where the allocated funding under this strategy is targeted. The focus, however, is almost entirely on the development of electric cars, to cater for the government’s promised ban on sales of new conventional petrol and diesel cars by 2040. Such focus is perhaps to be expected, as biofuels have recently had their time in the spotlight with last month’s RTFO reforms. The strategy does, however, include an announcement of trials for using biogas in Heavy Goods Vehicles, something that has already been adopted by major retailers, and thus can be expected to be a success.

The final, and most cryptic, point made regarding biofuels is a desire to see “a near doubling of sustainable bioenergy used in the transport sector”. However, this point is neither clarified nor qualified.


To reiterate: the bioeconomy is feeding on scraps in this strategy. The biobased products sector is mentioned just once with a pledge to publish a Bioeconomy Strategy at some point in the future. Such a pledge may provide some semblance of optimism given the dearth of bioeconomy inclusion in the Clean Growth strategy, and so we eagerly await its publication.

There is also a pledge for the UK to have “zero avoidable waste” by 2050, which may provide an incentive for greater use of biodegradable packaging such as compostable plastics. There is also a commitment to better management of food waste and bio-waste, with an acknowledgement of the role that Anaerobic Digestion can play in this, but we await the aforementioned RHI reforms that will shape its future.

So, there are opportunities in this strategy for the bioeconomy to exploit, even though they may not be explicit. There is still cause for optimism. If BEIS deliver on their pledges for delivery of bioeconomy strategy, support for bioenergy, and to the reformation of the RHI, then 2018 may be where the bioeconomy can march out of the policy periphery and into the spotlight.

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This article was written by Bob Horton, Research Analyst at NNFCC.

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