The Potential of Agroforestry for Bioenergy in the UK

The UK government’s recently published Biomass Strategy (2023) highlighted the key role of bioenergy for Net Zero, particularly bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS).

Use of bioenergy technologies requires land to grow biomass feedstocks which may conflict with other potential land uses.

This is where agroforestry comes in. Agroforestry is the concept of planting trees on farmland, alongside crops or animals. These trees could be utilized for other purposes, such as for bioenergy, whilst the growth of trees themselves may improve crop and animal yields. Agroforestry only received a single mention in the Biomass Strategy (2023), thus is underexplored.

Energy Systems Catapult was commissioned by Ian Brown, recipient of a Churchill Fellowship Activate grant, to assess the potential benefits of agroforestry for bioenergy in the UK.

The scope of the project was to perform a high-level quantitative assessment, and to uncover key areas for future work. The study covered:

  • The potential land area that could be transitioned to agroforestry by 2050, and the biomass yield for bioenergy that would arise from this.
  • The impact of agroforestry on domestic UK biomass feedstock availability.
  • The contribution of agroforestry towards net zero needs for bioenergy.
  • Other decarbonising uses for biomass from agroforestry.
  • Policy needs to enable agroforestry.

Key points

Recent studies have considered 20% of UK farmland transitioning to agroforestry by 2060. This was taken as an ambitious, but feasible scenario. Adjusted to 2050, it equated to 2.4 million hectares of agroforestry systems.

If short rotation coppice (willow) was planted, and 30% of these agroforestry systems were harvested for bioenergy purposes, this could supply approximately 1.2 million oven dried tonnes of domestic wood fuel. This is in comparison to the 1.07 million oven dried tonnes of purpose grown domestic wood fuel in the UK today. This would be a significant contribution towards future needs for bioenergy feedstock to achieve net zero.

A variety of other decarbonising uses of biomass from agroforestry were identified, such as biochar production, bio-oil injection, and producing biochemicals or bioproducts.

Policy support for agroforestry is uneven and quite complex, both for growth for bioenergy, or in terms of recognition of the benefits for in situ soil carbon sequestration. Further research is required to build understanding of how policy support (e.g. under the new Environmental Land Management Schemes) could be better targeted to promote greenhouse gas beneficial agroforestry.

In addition to policy research, future work should explore the “limits of possibility” for agroforestry in the UK, detailed modelling of land use and yields arising from agroforestry, and a holistic study of the best uses of agroforestry yields to support farmers and achieve net zero.

The data and analysis behind the report is freely available on our data platform, USMART.

Ian Brown, recipient of the Churchill Fellowship Activate grant on agroforestry

“The Energy Systems Catapult report has highlighted the potential of agroforestry, and will help to advance the case through the Churchill Fellowship funding of my ongoing work. Land use is in need of a thoughtful evolution and to my mind agroforestry is the foundation for a multi-outcome, farmed landscape.”

Read the Report

The Potential of Agroforestry for Bioenergy in the UK

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