Environmental groups began High Court proceedings against the UK Government on Monday over its plans to spend billions of pounds on bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS).

Rewilding charity the Lifescape Project, backed by the Partnership for Policy Integrity (PPI), argue the technology is based on flawed calculations because the potential net-zero processes of growing, harvesting and burning biomass rely heavily on the types of biological product used.

The case states that the government’s biomass strategy, which currently stands as a key part of its net-zero and energy transition plans, is unlawful and out of line with the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement.

“The government’s rationale for BECCS as providing negative emissions violates international carbon accounting protocols underpinning the Paris Agreement, to which the UK is a signatory,” said a joint statement from the Lifescape Project and the PPI. “Burning forest biomass and relying on BECCS for negative emissions will not contribute to the government’s legal obligation to achieve net zero by 2050,” it added.           

The government strategy, published in August, outlines BECCS technology as producing not only net-zero but net-negative carbon emissions. This stems from the assumption that because trees and plants act as natural carbon sinks, the use of carbon capture technology as they are burned, combined with the fact that they took in carbon dioxide from the atmosphere during their time alive, generates negative emissions.

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Carbon payback period “too long to contribute to Paris Agreement”

However, some scientists argue that the time it takes for genuine negative emissions to be realised from the growing of trees, known as the “carbon payback period”, could be too long to remain meaningful to current climate efforts, and that the use of the technology now will therefore have no tangible impact on 2050 net-zero targets.

On the carbon payback period of biomass projects, the European Academies Science Advisory Council, an association bringing together the national scientific academies of all EU member states, as well as Norway and Switzerland, said in a report published last year: “Short-rotation crops and residues from sustainable forestry operations may have short payback periods but harvesting whole trees and additional extraction of stemwood has been shown to have payback periods of many decades or even centuries… This delay is too long to contribute to meeting Paris Agreement targets.”

If the lawsuit is successful, the court would order the government to abandon its biomass strategy. The prosecuting team includes lawyers from Leigh Day, as well as barristers Jessica Boyd KC, Ava Mayer and Peter Lockley.

The plaintiffs have filed evidence to suggest that some wood pellets used to produce bioenergy are linked to deforestation in North America, arguing that the government’s support of BECCS therefore contradicts advice from its own advisory panel on the strategy, which concedes that genuine carbon removals are only possible “if the biomass is ‘well regulated’ meaning if it is sourced, sustainably with appropriate certification” to avoid deforestation.

Under UN carbon accounting rules, harvesting wood from trees is considered a direct source of carbon emissions in all other contexts but is considered net zero within the energy sector to avoid “double counting” emissions.

The plaintiffs are also hoping that the impacts of the case, if won, will be felt on the continent, where the EU is also promoting BECCS as a form of net-negative energy. Mary Booth, director at the PPI, told Euractiv: “In the case of the Swedish BECCS project, assuming the wood comes from Sweden, if you did the math and added up all the sinks and all the emissions from the energy sector and the land sector… you’d see that the BECCS project yields zero emissions, at best, not negative emissions.

“This comes back to the old problem – they want to treat biomass as actually having ‘zero’ emissions, based solely on the accounting convention of counting biomass as zero in the energy sector,” she added.

The use of bioenergy as a form of renewable energy in the UK has been controversial for some time. In April this year, the country’s energy regulator, Ofgem, launched one of a series of probes into biomass major Drax’s compliance with sustainability rules at its bioenergy plant in North Yorkshire. The investigation followed a documentary by the BBC investigative programme Panorama, in which the energy company was accused of greenwashing and serious environmental harm.