Building back greener with anaerobic digestion and biogas

The the Anaerobic Digestion & Bioresources Association (ADBA) says there is an ‘unprecedented opportunity’ to kick off the green economy and address climate change.

As the government develops stimulus packages to reboot the economy in response to the coronavirus lockdown, Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s (pictured below) in-tray has been overflowing with letters from multiple groups calling for their sector to be integrated into those plans, and for tackling climate change to be put at their heart.

The anaerobic digestion and biogas sector has been no exception.

Over the past few months, the calls for a green recovery from the economic downturn caused by the coronavirus outbreak have been getting louder and louder.

A recent YouGov poll shows that only 6% of British people want a return to a pre-pandemic economic model.

As a result of the lockdown, people have learnt to live and work in a far more environmentally friendly way – and the planet has seen a decrease in global carbon emissions of 17% for the month of April 2020 alone.

Also due to the lockdown, an unprecedented collapse in the price of oil has triggered an existential threat to the oil and gas industry, which is now looking to diversify into renewable energy operations for their long-term survival.

A recent YouGov poll shows that only 6% of British people want a return to a pre-pandemic economic model.

With both public opinion and the business community onside, the British government is presented with an extraordinary opportunity to create a new economic system that sustains society while protecting the environment and achieving the UK’s Net Zero by 2050 target.

Making the case for anaerobic digestion in the UK’s Green Recovery plans

As the Chancellor prepares to unveil his plans for the future of the British economy, hardly a day goes by without news of a new set of key players – from major business corporations and economists to scientists, climate change committees, trade associations and environmental groups – making net zero pledges, publishing reports or launching campaigns to support the “building back better”, and “building back greener” promise made by Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

In June, in a joint open letter to the Chancellor, a coalition of renewables industry trade bodies, led by the Anaerobic Digestion and Bioresources Association (ADBA), highlighted the value of scaling up the sector to develop a circular economy that meets the UK’s net zero targets and provides not only a return on investment, but crucially, millions of jobs and energy security.

This consortium, featuring the ADE, the ECA, the REA, Scottish Renewables and the UK Sustainable Investment and Finance Association (UKSIF) alongside ADBA, urged the Chancellor to move away from fossil fuels and support AD and the renewables sector at large, to revive the UK’s economy on circular, sustainable, and environmentally responsible principles.

They also called for the UK to show leadership in the run up to the UN Conference of Parties on Climate Change (COP26) in Glasgow in November 2021: not only is it necessary for Britain to recover from the Covid-19 pandemic, it is also essential that it continues to focus on meeting its Paris Agreement and Climate Emergency targets to achieve credibility as the COP26 hosting nation.

Green investment for a green future

As illustrated in the letter, there is a growing body of evidence that investing in renewables brings greater returns, both financial and societal, than investing in fossil fuels, which are the biggest cause of climate change.

The Renewable Power Generation Costs 2018 report published in May 2019 by the International Renewable Energy Agency clearly demonstrated that renewable energy had become the cheapest source of energy generation in almost every major economy, citing bioenergy as “a provider of competitive electricity”.

Globally, if the industry is enabled to reach its full potential, which would deliver a 12% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030

In May (2020), the Rockefeller Brothers Fund presented a five-year case study of divestment from fossil fuels, detailing how a 99% fossil-free portfolio yielded an average annual net return a full percentage point higher than that of an index portfolio made up of 70% stocks and 30% bonds, including coal, oil and gas holdings.

And in its assessment of the impact of Covid-19 on the energy sector released in June, the International Energy Agency (IEA) predicted that “renewables will be the only sector to grow in 2020“.

The IEA has also published a dedicated report on the potential of biogas and biomethane, in which it recognises that “biogas and biomethane have the potential to support all aspects of the [IEA] Sustainable Development Scenarios, which charts a path fully consistent with the Paris Agreement by holding the rise in global temperatures to ‘well below 2°C … and pursuing efforts to limit [it] to 1.5°C’, and meets objectives related to universal energy access and cleaner air.”

Creating millions of green jobs

A paper released by the Oxford Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment this May, written by economists including Nicholas Stern and Joseph Stiglitz, says that pound for pound, investment in green energy technology delivers three times as many jobs than would be created by investment in fossil fuels.

ADBA has also contributed to a report published last month by the influential Local Government Association (LGA),  predicting that the green jobs market would grow rapidly as the UK works to meet its target of net zero emissions by 2050.

In the report, the LGA “calls on the government to prioritise climate action in its recovery plan, setting out plans for a jobs guarantee programme that could help create over one million green jobs in the coming decades“.

ADBA’s own research on biomethane growth over the next 10 years has shown that the AD industry alone could create 30,000 direct jobs in the UK by 2030. This is the same figure that oil groups have estimated might be lost in the UK’s North Sea field.

This workforce has the appropriate skills and competencies to transfer to those new jobs in the AD and biogas sector, ensuring a smooth and swift transition with minimum re-skilling needed.

Globally, if the industry is enabled to reach its full potential, which would deliver a 12% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, hundreds of thousands of biogas plants will have to be built, creating between 11 and 15 million new jobs worldwide.

As mass unemployment hits the UK and the world as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, AD and renewables can demonstrably offer a huge opportunity to reassign the workforce and ensure the economy as well as social well-being bounce back stronger and greener from the current crisis.

Energy security – a precious commodity in the current economic climate

The recent purchase by the US of the global supply of remdesivir Covid-19 medication – depriving the rest of the world of this life-saving treatment – has illustrated how the pandemic has added to the increasingly  protectionist attitude of countries around the world when faced with any kind of crisis. Energy security – and independence – has therefore become a critical aspect of any post Covid-19 recovery plan.

In their letter to the Chancellor, the consortium refers to 2019 data indicating that for the first time, renewable energy sources had provided more electricity to UK homes and businesses than fossil fuels and that, with the right investments, it could build up the capacity needed to quickly meet the UK’s energy demand.

This would enable the UK to wean itself off its dependency on fossil fuels and the geopolitics that is strongly attached to the oil and gas sector, as well as the volatility of oil prices.

Additionally, by its very nature of recycling organic wastes into green gas and biofertiliser, the AD process is an exemplar of a self-sufficient and reliable circular economy model.  It also perfectly complements other renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar, by regulating the supply from the intermittent nature of these two sources.

Finance is key

As the man in charge of setting government policy and budgets, Chancellor Rishi Sunak holds the key to unlocking the UK’s green economy potential, meeting the UK’s net zero targets and protecting the livelihood of millions of people.  Finance is going to be the most important factor in turning policy into reality.

For that very reason, business groups, economists and local leaders have just urged ministers to create a “Green Infrastructure Bank” as part of a state-led recovery from coronavirus to ensure that efforts to stimulate the economy do not overlook the UK’s climate targets.

Investing in sustainable projects will deliver better returns as the world acts on climate change. The chancellor’s plans for economic recovery must have a green thread running through them.

Meanwhile, the presence of UKSIF as a signatory to the renewables consortium’s joint letter to Mr Sunak speaks volumes as to how imperative the financial commitment to support the growth of the sector should be.

Commenting on the initiative, its Head of Public Policy, Ben Nelmes, said, “Investing in sustainable projects will deliver better returns as the world acts on climate change. The chancellor’s plans for economic recovery must have a green thread running through them.”

The stimulus package developed by the Chancellor is due to be revealed in a few days.

The AD, renewables and all those who called for the Green Recovery from Covid-19 – including 94% of the British population – must hope that their calls will be heeded, establishing the UK as a true leader on green policy and climate change ahead of chairing the COP26 meeting.

Not long now before they find out…

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