Bad Energy? The perverse promotion of energy from food

7th Sep 20 by Martin Bowman, Senior Policy and Campaigns Manager

Biogas has been presented as a silver bullet for the climate crisis – but it is often a sticking plaster holding up more fundamental change.

Biogas has been presented as a silver bullet for the climate crisis – but it is often a sticking plaster obscuring the need for more fundamental change. This is the first in a series of blog posts exploring the findings of our new report Bad Energy (you can read the Executive Summary here).

You could be forgiven for never having heard of anaerobic digestion – it’s a far less well known form of renewable energy than wind or solar. Whereas big strides have been made to turn our electricity green, shifting the gas supply is more challenging. Anaerobic digestion (AD) – the process of producing “biogas” from organic matter like crops and wastes – has presented itself as the silver bullet to this conundrum. It promises to do everything from produce green gas for heating, to deal with food waste and manure, to produce fertiliser for our crops, to product biofuels for transport. A recent AD industry gathering was boldly entitled ‘There’s No Net Zero Without Biogas’. On the surface, what’s not to like?

New research from Feedback shows the picture is not as simple as it appears. The truth is that AD only looks good when it is compared with terrible alternatives – like food left to rot in landfill, manures left in lagoons belching methane, and coal and oil burnt for fuel.

None of those things should be part of a healthy, sustainable energy or food system – in fact, it is clear that only the highest ambition will save us from the climate crisis. To avoid climate disaster, we need to imagine the most ambitious path we can to a better future and throw everything we have at making this a reality, using the best available evidence as our guide. And we do not have the luxury of settling for second best – even when it would suit some investors’ profit margins.

In this light, Feedback set out a year ago to investigate what role AD has in an optimal sustainable future, collaborating with researchers at Bangor University. Today, we launch the report of our findings: Bad Energy: Defining the true role of biogas in a net zero future. We found that, at best, AD is a sub-optimal sticking plaster solution, and at worst, it is sometimes actually perpetuating the problems it claims to solve. There is undoubtedly a limited role for AD in a sustainable future, but it must be kept to a “sustainable niche” so that it does not crowd out better solutions. It’s a complex tale – AD can be used to convert everything from household food scraps to livestock manure and purpose-grown crops like maize into biogas – so in this blog, we’ll start by looking at food waste.

The study found that preventing food waste results in direct emissions savings over 9 times higher than sending food waste to AD – and about 40 times higher when trees are planted on the spared grassland. And 3 times more emissions are saved by sending food waste to animal feed than to AD. This isn’t a suprise: Feedback have been using the food use hierarchy for years to demonstrate that by far the best thing to do about food waste is to prevent it happening in the first place. But public policy hasn’t always followed this ideal.

Currently millions in public money is poured into subsidising AD plants, while addressing food waste are neglected and left to voluntary action by businesses. This risks perfectly edible food being diverted to AD from these better options.

Our most stunning finding came when we scaled this up to national level. We found that halving UK food waste through ambitious regulation, and planting trees on the 3 million hectares of grassland that would be spared by this, would save and offset the equivalent of 11% of the UK’s total emissions. That is more than the emissions of the UK’s entire domestic agriculture sector – a sector usually considered difficult to decarbonise.

In addition, halving UK food waste would save 800,000 hectares of cropland, enough to grow potatoes and peas to feed 28% of the UK population. At a time when UK food security will be tested by a pandemic and potential no deal Brexit, it is vital to cultivate local sustainable production.

Currently, most food businesses in the UK are keeping their food waste figures hidden, and have done for years, so it’s hard to properly track progress and hold malingerers to account. We still don’t have reliable figures for the UK’s on-farm food waste at all, due to lack of government funding. We can and must do better than this, but now the government must step up.

And for that, we need regulation. We’ve relied for too long on purely voluntary action. By now, the industry leaders who will take action without regulation have emerged – leaving the rest of the industry is firmly committed to business as usual. Before the pandemic, the government promised a consultation this year on whether to make it a legal obligation for large businesses to measure and report their food waste. It’s now time to deliver on this. But we need to go beyond measurement to action. We also need to make it compulsory for these large businesses to sign up to food waste agreements, to level the playing field so free riders and businesses dragging their feet do not slow everyone down. And then the government must make these companies act – by setting binding legal targets for the UK to halve UK food waste by 2030, from 2015 levels.

Want to see action? Call on the government to step up its action on food waste.

Watch out for more articles about Bad Energy coming up, including on bioenergy crops and the livestock industry.

What can you do next?
Tell government businesses must come clean on food waste

Millions of tonnes of food are being fed to digesters for energy. Preventing food waste would result in emissions savings nine times higher.

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