Direct Air Capture (Technology Factsheet)

Overview

Direct Air Capture (DAC) is a largely theoretical technique in which CO2 (and potentially other greenhouse gases) are removed directly from the atmosphere. The current technique uses large fans that move ambient air through a filter, using a chemical adsorbent to produce a pure CO2 stream that could be stored. To have any significant effect on global CO2 concentrations, DAC would need to be rolled out on a vast scale, raising serious questions about the energy it requires, the levels of water usage for particular technologies, and the toxicity impacts from the chemical sorbents used. In addition, safe and long-term CO2 storage cannot be guaranteed, either in geological formations where leakage is a risk (see CCS factsheet1) or in products using CO2, where carbon is likely to end up back in the atmosphere one way or another (see CCUS factsheet2). The fossil fuel industry is attracted to DAC because the captured CO2 can be used to for Enhanced Oil Recovery (EOR), especially where there is not enough commercial CO2 available locally.

At a DAC summit in Calgary in 2012 there were a number of oil companies in attendance, including Suncor, BP, Husky Oil, and Nexen

Actors involved

DAC is a commercially active geoengineering technology. David Keith’s company Carbon Engineering is funded by private investors including Bill Gates and Murray Edwards, the billionaire tar sands magnate who runs Canadian Natural Resources Ltd (Keith is a prominent US-based geoengineering researcher and proponent). Carbon Engineering opened an CAD$ 8 million pilot plant in Squamish, British Columbia in 2015, where they claim to extract about a tonne of carbon dioxide a day.3 Carbon Engineering also plans to turn captured CO2 into transport fuels, which then re-emit CO2 into the atmosphere when they are burned.4

Swiss company Climeworks says they have created the “first commercial plant to capture CO2 from air” in Zurich.5 They claim the US$ 23 million plant is supplying 900 tonnes of CO2 annually to a nearby greenhouse to help grow vegetables. They have partnered in Iceland with Reykjavik Energy at the Hellisheidi geothermal plant to run one of their air capture units (with capacity to capture 50 tonnes of CO2 per year) and inject CO2 into basalt formations. This project, CarbFix2, has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme.6 Reykjavik Energy, and in particular the Hellisheidi geothermal plant, have been the focus of large-scale environmental protests in Iceland for causing serious harm in what is Europe’s last remaining area of wilderness.7

Other companies developing DAC include Global Thermostat, bankrolled by Goldman Sachs, and partnered with Algae Systems,8 as well as Skytree in the Netherlands and Infinitree (formerly Kilimanjaro) in the US.9

David Keith and other developers have pitched DAC as a means to use captured CO2 to massively scale up the EOR industry in the US and elsewhere. At a DAC summit in Calgary in 2012 there were a number of oil companies in attendance, including Suncor, BP, Husky Oil, and Nexen.10 However, optimism for DAC’s business case is belied by the reality that it is not economically feasible due to high costs,11 which are likely to be more than 4 times greater than other Carbon Dioxide Removal approaches.12 Moreover, using DAC to enable EOR would obviously cancel any supposed climate mitigation benefits.13

DAC technology has attracted the attention of venture capitalists like Ned David, who is keen on EOR and runs an algae synthetic biology company. He hopes to create biofuels by feeding captured carbon to algae produced in giant vats outdoors and has sought funding from Monsanto.14

Direct Air Capture would be likely be used for Enhanced Oil Recovery, and would incur significant energy costs and divert resources from alternative energy sources. There would also be a significant risk of the CO2 leaking back into the atmosphere, potentially causing ecological damage.

Impacts

DAC requires considerable energy input. When including energy inputs for mining, processing, transport and injection, energy requirements are greater still, perhaps as much as 45 gigajoules per tonne of CO2 extracted.15 For David Keith’s pilot DAC unit, this is the equivalent of running it off a constant 0.5 megawatt power supply.16 Neither Climateworks nor Carbon Engineering publish the energy requirements of their units, and in the case of Carbon Engineering, it is not known how the electricity powering the unit is produced. Because of the huge demand for energy that DAC implies, some geoengineering promoters have proposed to use “small nuclear power plants” connected to DAC installations, 17 potentially introducing a whole new set of environmental impacts.

DAC also requires substantial water input. One study estimates that at implementation levels that would remove 3.3 gigatonnes of carbon per year, DAC could expect to use around 300 km3 of water per year (assuming current amine technology, which is what Climeworks uses). This is equivalent to 4% of the water used for crop cultivation each year. DAC technologies using sodium hydroxide (Carbon Engineering) would use far less,18 but this in turn is a highly caustic and dangerous substance.

Washington State Governor Jay Inslee inspects a Climeworks DAC unit in Switzerland (Jay Inslee/Creative Commons)

A modelling exercise looking at the impact of DAC on climate stabilization efforts predicted that it would postpone the timing of mitigation (emissions reductions) and allow for a prolonged use of oil, impacting positively on energy exporting countries.19 This is of course similar for many geoengineering technologies and one of their most dangerous aspects.

Reality check

There is one demonstration facility near Zurich owned by Climeworks,20 and another by the same company in Iceland.21 Carbon Engineering also operates a pilot plant in British Columbia.22 In addition there are several companies that have developed small-scale capture units, with numerous research projects also underway.

Further reading

ETC Group and Heinrich Böll Foundation, “Geoengineering Map.” map.geoengineeringmonitor.org

The Big Bad Fix: The Case Against Climate Geoengineering, http://etcgroup.org/content/big-bad-fix

Sources

1. See Geoengineering Monitor, “Carbon Capture and Storage,” Technology Fact Sheet, April 2018.

2. See Geoengineering Monitor, “Carbon Capture, Use and Storage,” Technology Fact Sheet, April 2018.

3. John Lehmann, “Could this plant hold the key to generating fuel from CO2 emissions?” The Globe and Mail, 2017, https://beta.theglobeandmail.com/technology/science/a-canadian-companys-attempt-to-get-a-grip-on-the-carbon-emissionsproblem/article27970800/

4. Carbon Engineering, “Carbon to fuels,” http://carbonengineering.com/about-a2f/

5. Alister Doyle, “Scientists dim sunlight, suck up carbon dioxide to cool planet,” Reuters, 2017,

https://www.reuters.com/article/us-climatechange-geoengineering/scientists-dim-sunlight-suck-up-carbon-dioxide-to-cool-planet-idUSKBN1AB0J3

6. ClimeWorks, “Climeworks and CarbFix2: The world’s first carbon removal solution through direct air capture,” 2017, http://www.climeworks.com/climeworks-and-carbfix2-the-worlds-first-carbon-removal-solution-through-direct-air-capture/

7. Saving Iceland, “Hellisheidi: a geothermal embarrassment,” 2017,  http://www.savingiceland.org/2012/08/hellisheidi-a-geothermal-embarrassment/

8. Algae Systems, 2017, http://algaesystems.com

9. Infinitree, “Carbon Capture Greenhouse Enrichment,” 2017, http://www.infinitreellc.com

10. Marc Gunther, “The business of cooling the planet,” Fortune, 2011, http://fortune.com/2011/10/07/the-business-of-cooling-the-planet/

11. Marc Gunther, “Direct air carbon capture: Oil’s answer to fracking?” GreenBiz, 2012, https://www.greenbiz.com/blog/2012/03/12/direct-air-carbon-capture-oil-answer-fracking

12. Derek Martin et al., “Carbon Dioxide Removal Options: A Literature Review Identifying Carbon Removal Potentials and Costs,” University of Michigan, 2017

13. Marc Gunther, 2012, http://www.marcgunther.com/direct-air-capture-of-co2-is-becoming-a-business-for-better-or-worse/

14. Katie Fehrenbacher, “Algae startup Sapphire Energy raising $144M,” Gigaom, 2012,

https://gigaom.com/2012/04/02/algae-startup-sapphire-energy-raising-144m/

15. Pete Smith et al., “Biophysical and economic limits to negative CO2 emissions,” Nature Climate Change, 2015

16. W=J/t, therefore 45GJ / 1 day in seconds = roughly 500,000W

17. Proposed by David Sevier, Carbon Cycle Limited, UK; communication in a geoengineering electronic discussion group, September 2017

18. Pete Smith et al., 2015

19. Chen Chen and Massimo Tavoni, “Direct air capture of CO2 and climate stabilization: A model based assessment,” Climatic Change, Vol. 118, 2013, pp. 59–72

20. Christa Marshall, “In Switzerland, a giant new machine is sucking carbon directly from the air,” Science,  2017, http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2017/06/switzerland-giant-new-machine-sucking-carbon-directly-air

21. ClimeWorks, “Public Update on CarbFix,” 2017, http://www.climeworks.com/public-update-on-carbfix/

22. John Lehmann, 2017

Carbon Capture Use and Storage (Technology Factsheet)

In theory, Carbon Capture Use and Stoage aims to convert captured carbon into products like fuel, fertilizer and plastic.

Overview

Carbon Capture Use and Storage (CCUS) is a proposal to commodify CO2 that has been removed from the atmosphere by using it as a feedstock in manufacturing, so it becomes “stored” in manufactured goods. It is understood as an attempt to make CCS profitable and perhaps uncouple it from Enhanced Oil Recovery (See Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) briefing for more background on this). Some CCUS scenarios are still theoretical and some technologies are being commercialized.

The primary critique of CCUS is that emissions are not effectively removed or sequestered but are embedded in products or used in a way that CO2 will be re-released into the atmosphere (it will be incinerated as waste or decompose). There are also additional emissions in the production, transport and infrastructure required. This means that overall, CCUS is likely to create emissions rather than reduce them.

Enhanced Oil Recovery (EOR)

While CCUS is an attempt to distance CCS from EOR, EOR is by far the single biggest user of captured CO2 and the most likely profitable market for it in the future. EOR is discussed in more detail in the CCS factsheet. Briefly, EOR refers to extracting otherwise unrecoverable oil reserves. CO2 is injected into aging reservoirs and can extract 30–60% more of the oil originally available in the well. Naturally-occurring CO2 is used most commonly because it is cheap and widely available, but CO2 from anthropogenic sources is becoming more common,i particularly from CCS installations in North America.

For example, of 17 operational, commercial-scale CCS facilities world-wide, 13 of them send their captured CO2 for use in EOR, and of the four facilities listed as being under construction, three are for EOR.ii In this case, EOR in is certainly Carbon Capture and Use, but it is not Storage: most CO2 returns back to the surface with the pumped oil, and any CO2 that does stay underground enables even greater emissions from the extra oil that is pumped out and then burned.iii

Turning CO2 into chemicals and fuels

Another idea is to use CO2 by processing and converting it into chemicals and fuels. This can be achieved through carboxylation reactions where the CO2 molecule is used to produce chemicals such as methane, methanol, syngas, urea and formic acid. CO2 can also be used as a feedstock to produce fuels (e.g. in the Fischer–Tropsch processiv).

With the exception of EOR, which is a well-established process, companies involved tend to be start-ups aiming to profit on the back of hype around negative emissions, in an attempt to increase the value of captured CO2.”

However, using CO2 in this way is energy intensive since it is thermodynamically highly stable: a large energy input is required to make the reactions happen. Furthermore, chemicals and fuels are stored for less than six months before they are used and the CO2 is released back into the atmosphere very quickly.v As with EOR, this is CCU, but not Storage.

Creating biofuels from microalgae: CO2 help cultivate microalgae that are used to produce biofuels. In this case, microalgae would fix CO2 directly from waste streams such as power station flue gases. Microalgae are cultivated in giant open-air ponds that require a large land area.vi Concerns have been raised about plans to use genetically modified algae to produce biofuels: containment of the organisms would be next to impossible, and if organisms escape the consequences for human health and natural environments are unknown.vii The US-based Algae Biomass Organization promotes CCUS with microalgae, and many algae biofuel companies have already attempted to combine algae cultivation with industrial power plants that provide CO2. Canada-based Pond Technologies is one such company, which has three pilot facilities aimed at producing algae-derived bioproducts from the steel, cement, oil and gas, and power generation industries. Similarly, the Tata Steel manufacturing facility in Port Talbot, UK, has partnered with the UK EnAlgae program to test the use of flu gases for algae cultivation.viii

Carbon negative plastics

A company called Newlight Technologies has recently commercialized a process that captures methane from farming processes and converts it into plastic, at a factory in California.ix However, this carbon capture technology would only be effective if the plastics never degraded, or were never incinerated as waste.

Can captured CO2 be stored in concrete? Not without expending large amounts of energy on transportation and processing.

Mineral carbonation of CO2 –carbon negative concrete?

Mineral carbonation is a chemical process where CO2 reacts with a metal oxide such as magnesium or calcium to form carbonates. The idea is to use materials in concrete construction that lock in CO2 as a way of “greening” the significant emissions of the cement industry. It is similar to Enhanced Weathering (see factsheet) where silicate minerals found naturally in rocks react with CO2 in the atmosphere and turn into stable carbonates. Companies such as Carbicrete claim to be producing carbon-negative concrete by using steel-slag, a waste product from steel manufacturing, instead of cement. CO2 is then injected into the wet concrete, which reacts with the slag and forms mineral carbonates.x

Another company, Calera, is hoping to scale up its method of concrete production using captured CO2 to create a form of calcium carbonate cement.xi These processes, in theory, could be capable of storing CO2 for long periods. However, as with Enhanced Weathering, the energy penalty and costs including the mining, transportation and preparation of the minerals, are massive and likely outweigh any benefits.xii

Food from captured CO2

Another example of CCU (but not storage! ) is Climeworks’ Direct Air Capture unit in Zurich (see Direct Air Capture factsheet). The facility pumps captured CO2 into nearby greenhouses, increasing the yield in the vegetables grown there by up to 20%.xiii

Of course, as soon as the food is digested or composted, a significant amount of the carbon will be re-released. And plants are already quite good at capturing CO2 from the atmosphere, without requiring large infrastructure developments and greenhouses.

Reality check

All of the aforementioned technologies are being commercialized to varying extents and levels of success. With the exception of EOR, which is a well-established process, companies involved tend to be start-ups aiming to profit on the back of hype around negative emissions, in an attempt to increase the value of captured CO2.

Further reading

ETC Group and Heinrich Böll Foundation, “Geoengineering Map.” map.geoengineeringmonitor.org

The Big Bad Fix: The Case Against Climate Geoengineering, http://etcgroup.org/content/big-bad-fix

Sources

i. Rosa Cuéllar-Franca and Adisa Azapagic, “Carbon capture, storage and utilisation technologies: A critical analysis and comparison of their life cycle environmental impacts”, Journal of CO2 Utilization, Vol. 9, 2015

ii. Global CCS Institute, “Large-scale CCS facilities”, 2017, https://www.globalccsinstitute.com/projects

iii. Rosa Cuéllar-Franca and Adisa Azapagic, 2015

iv. For more information see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fischer%E2%80%93Tropsch_process

v. Ibid.

vi. Ibid.

vii. Biofuelwatch, “Solazyme: Synthetic Biology Company Claimed to be Capable of Replacing Palm Oil Struggles to Stay Afloat”, 2016

viii. Biofuelwatch, “Microalgae Biofuels Myths and Risks,” 2017

ix. Newlight Technologies, “Technology”, https://www.newlight.com/technology/

x. Carbicretem http://carbicrete.com/

xi. Calera, http://www.calera.com/

xii. Rosa Cuéllar-Franca and Adisa Azapagic, 2015

xiii. Mark Harris, “The entrepreneurs turning carbon dioxide into fuels”, The Guardian, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2017/sep/14/entrepreneurs-turn-carbon-dioxide-into-fuels-artificial-photosynthesis

Bio-Energy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS)

Overview

BECCS describes capturing CO2 from bioenergy applications and sequestering it through either Carbon Capture and Storage or Carbon Capture, Use and Storage. BECCS is considered “carbon negative” because bioenergy is wrongly considered “carbon neutral” based on the idea that plants will regrow to fix the carbon that has been emitted.

BECCS has taken centre stage as a climate “mitigation” technique and as a “negative emissions” technology.1  Virtually all of the likely 2°C scenarios considered by the IPCC in their most recent assessment report assume that BECCS will be technically and economically viable and successfully scaled up, which has not been proven.2 Across the scenarios considered by the IPCC, an average of 12 gigatons of removal annually through BECCS after 2050 is required, equivalent to a quarter of current global emissions.3 However, it seems highly likely that BECCS may never be technically and economically viable.4

Actors involved

As of 2018, there is only one BECCS project in the world: ADM’s Decatur corn ethanol refinery in the USA.5 CO2 is captured from the fermentation process and injected underground. This has been essentially a “proof of concept” project, funded by the Department of Energy (US$ 141 million6), which claims that it provides a “carbon negative footprint.” In reality, the refinery is powered by fossil fuels and corn is an energy-intensive crop, giving it a net carbon positive footprint.7

There are at least four more ethanol plants in North America where captured CO2 is used for Enhanced Oil Recovery (see CCS fact sheet8). There are also plans for very small facilities in Brazil, Saudi Arabia, the Netherlands and Norway.9 For all the emphasis on BECCS from industry and policy-makers, it is clear that the technology is not keeping up with expectations.

Biodiversity-destroying eucalyptus plantations would provide much of the raw material for BECCS. (Allysse Riordan/Flickr)

Impacts

A large body of peer-reviewed literature indicates that many bioenergy processes result in even more CO2 emissions than burning the fossil fuels they are meant to replace – it is certainly not carbon neutral.10 This is due to emissions from (but not limited to): converting land into energy crop production which sometimes results in the displacement of food production, biodiverse ecosystems such as forests, or other land uses (indirect land use change); the degradation and overharvesting of forests; and emissions from soil disturbance, harvesting and transport.

Because BECCS needs fast-growing energy crops, its deployment could also require more than doubling fertilizer inputs, requiring as much as 75% of global annual nitrogen production. This would seriously exacerbate environmental degradation and emissions associated with fertilizers and agrochemicals, which currently cause large-scale anoxia in oceans and eutrophication of streams and rivers, for example.11

The BECCS theory: capture carbon with trees; burn trees for energy; capture carbon at the smokestack; bury carbon underground.

Capturing CO2 from bioenergy processes would be even more technically challenging and energy intensive than capturing CO2 from coal plants, which has been attempted at great cost and with little success. A unit of electricity generated in a dedicated biomass power plant results in up to 50% more CO2 emitted than if generated from coal,12 meaning that yet more energy must be dedicated to the carbon capture process itself. Further still, there serious doubts that geological storage of CO2, in old oil and gas reservoirs, or deep saline aquifers, will be effective and reliable (see CCS fact sheet13).

A study looking at what would be required to sequester 1 gigaton of carbon annually using BECCS, equivalent to around a fiftieth of global annual emissions, concluded that between 218 and 990 million hectares of land would be needed to grow the biomass (this is 14-65 times as much land as the US uses to grow corn for ethanol).14 More recent studies calculate that the biomass required for BECCS would take up between 25 and 80% of current global cropland.15

Land conversion on such a scale would result in severe competition with food production, depletion of freshwater resources, vastly increased demand for fertilizer and agrochemicals, and loss of biodiversity, among other problems.16 Indeed, one study concluded that large-scale deployment of BECCS could result in a greater loss of terrestrial species than temperature increases of 2.8°C.17

Scaling up bioenergy to the extent envisaged would have devastating impacts on livelihoods and compete directly with food production. Severe human rights abuses and land-rights conflicts are already being caused by bioenergy globally, for example for biofuel production and tree plantations for wood pellet production. Indeed, industrial monoculture tree plantations would likely provide much of the raw material for BECCS.18 At such a scale, current harm to communities and impacts from land-grabbing would be dwarfed by BECCS.

One recent assessment projected that large-scale BECCS deployment could result in sweeping food price rises across Africa, Latin America, and Asia, threatening food security for many of the world’s most vulnerable. Another recent study indicated that even modest increases in bioenergy development could increase the number of malnourished children in sub-Saharan Africa by 3 million.19

Reality check

BECCS is currently purely aspirational and, given the technical challenges, it is unlikely to ever be scaled up significantly. However, fantasy technologies like BECCS allow polluters to keep using fossil fuels through the false hope that “negative emissions” can remove carbon from the atmosphere in the future, delaying urgent action on climate change further. This is likely to be the most dangerous impact of BECCS.

Further reading

Biofuelwatch and Heinrich Böll Foundation, “Summary BECCS report: Last ditch climate option or wishful thinking?” http://www.biofuelwatch.org.uk/2016/beccs-report-hbf/

Global Forest Coalition, “The risks of large-scale biosequestration in the context of Carbon Dioxide Removal,” http://globalforestcoalition.org/risks-of-large-scale-biosequestration/

ETC Group and Heinrich Böll Foundation, “Geoengineering Map.” map.geoengineeringmonitor.org

The Big Bad Fix: The Case Against Climate Geoengineering, http://etcgroup.org/content/big-bad-fix

Sources

1. The Royal Society, “Geoengineering the climate: science, governance and uncertainty,” 2009

2. Kevin Anderson and Glen Peters, “The trouble with negative emissions,” Science, Vol. 354, Issue 630, 2016 pp. 182-183

3. Christopher Field and Katherine Mach, “Rightsizing carbon dioxide removal,” Science, Vol. 356, 2017, pp706–707

4. Almuth Ernsting and Oliver Munnion, “Last-ditch climate option or wishful thinking? Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage,” Biofuelwatch, 2015

5. Office of Fossil Energy, “Archer Daniels Midland Company,” https://energy.gov/fe/archer-daniels-midland-company

6. ETC Group and Heinrich Böll Foundation, “Illinois Industrial CCS (former Decatur project,” Geoengineering Map, 2017, https://map.geoengineeringmonitor.org/Carbon-Cioxide-Removal/illinois-industrial-ccs-former-decatur-project/

7. Chris Mooney, “The quest to capture and store carbon – and slow climate change — just reached a new milestone,” Washington Post, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/energy-environment/wp/2017/04/10/the-quest-to-capture-and-store-carbon-and-slow-climate-change-just-reached-a-new-milestone/

8. See Geoengineering Monitor, “Carbon Capture and Storage,” Technology Fact Sheet, April 2018.

9. ETC Group and Heinrich Böll Foundation, “Carbon Dioxide Removal,” Geoengineering Map, 2017,https://map.geoengineeringmonitor.org/Carbon-Cioxide-Removal/

10. A compilation of peer-reviewed literature is available here: http://www.biofuelwatch.org.uk/biomass-resources/resources-on-biomass/

11. Wil Burns and Simon Nicholson, “Bioenergy and carbon capture and storage (BECCS): the prospects and challenges of an emerging climate policy response,” Journal of Environmental Studies, 2017

12. Partnership for Policy Integrity, “Carbon emissions from burning biomass for energy,” 2015, http://www.pfpi.net/carbon-emissions

13. See Geoengineering Monitor, “Carbon Capture and Storage,” Technology Fact Sheet, March 2018.

14. Lydia Smith and Margaret Torn, “Ecological limits to terrestrial biological carbon removal,” Climate Change, Vol. 118, Issue 1, 2013, pp. 89-103

15. Christopher Field and Katherine Mach, 2017

16. Wil Burns and Simon Nicholson, 2017

17 Phil Williamson, “Emissions reduction: scrutinize CO2 removal methods,” Nature, Vol. 530, 2016, pp. 153–155

18. Global Forest Coalition, “The impacts of large-scale biosequestration in the context of Carbon Dioxide Removal,” 2017, http://globalforestcoalition.org/risks-of-large-scale-biosequestration/

19. Wil Burns and Simon Nicholson, 2017

Enhanced Weathering (Technology Factsheet)

» DOWNLOAD FACTSHEET [PDF]

Enhanced weathering on land (terrestrial)
Mined olivine (magnesium iron silicate) is ground to a powder and either dumped on beaches where wave action disperses it into water or is spread on land. The idea is to control levels of atmospheric CO2 through natural chemical weathering processes1 that draw CO2 out of the atmosphere (referred to as carbonation) and sequester it in newly-formed rock mineral, magnesium carbonate. Carbon uptake levels are still relatively unknown, as are the effects of large-scale dumping on marine, terrestrial and freshwater environments. The chemical effects of adding this mineral to other ecosystems are also unknown. Massive mining operations to extract olivine, possibly thousands of times larger than the current scale of production, would exacerbate the already disastrous effects of mining on the world’s ecosystems and local populations.

When energy inputs such as mining, processing and transportation are included, the overall energy requirement for enhanced weathering is huge

Enhanced weathering in the oceans (marine)

This technique, similar to treating acidic agricultural lands with lime, proposes adding chemical carbonates to the ocean to theoretically increase alkalinity and therefore carbon uptake. The rate at which these minerals would dissolve, as well as the expense involved in amassing and dispersing enough of them to make an impact, is a major practical concern, as is the effect on the complex ocean ecosystem.2 The increased demand for minerals would also translate into increased mining activities, with the above-mentioned impacts.3

Actors involved

The Leverhulme Centre for Climate Change mitigation in the UK is conducting enhanced weathering field trials in the USA, Australia and Malaysia. They have identified expansive crop areas where they may add crushed basalt. In Malaysia, quarried and crushed basalt is added to oil palm plantations and is studied for its impacts on crop yield and carbon sequestration.4

Other developments in the field of enhanced weathering are limited to research projects, such as the Oxford Geoengineering Programme5 and University of Utrecht/The Olivine Foundation, in the Netherlands.6

Weathering is a theoretical process of sequestering carbon by scattering mined minerals over vast areas.

Impacts

A study on enhanced weathering lists the following possible problematic side effects: Change in pH of soils and surface waters (streams, rivers, lakes), affecting terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems; change in silicon concentration of surface waters, affecting ecosystems via altered nutrient ratios; release of trace metals associated with target minerals (particularly Nickel and Chromium in the case of olivine application); generation of dust; socioeconomic and socio-political consequences for agricultural communities of a new, large-scale industrial and financial enterprise; and the environmental costs of up to three orders of magnitude increase in olivine mining globally.7

While olivine fertilization of the ocean “mimics” a natural process, it is not natural at all. Olivine would be delivered to ecosystems at rates far higher than normal, which could lead to negative consequences for ecosystems where it is introduced, such as phytoplankton blooms and anoxic dead zones, and other unknown effects on deep-sea life and thus on biogeochemical processes. At such a large scale, enhanced weathering could change the ecology of the oceans.8 Such changes could lead to an increase in the microbial organisms that produce other greenhouse gases such as methane and nitrous oxide, which have much higher warming impacts than CO2.9

The amount of olivine necessary for these applications is extremely large – comparable to present day global coal mining,10 which would bring serious and vast mining impacts. When energy inputs such as mining, processing and transportation are included, the overall energy requirement for enhanced weathering is huge.11

The oil and gas company Shell funded a small company called Cquestrate (run by Tim Kruger, who now manages The Oxford Geoengineering Project12) in the UK to conduct feasibility studies in to adding limestone to the oceans. Although this project never got off the ground, it is a good example of the potential impacts of this kind of geoengineering approach. The project developer suggested that to offset current global carbon emissions, 10.5km3 of limestone could be mined each year from the “sparsely populated” Nullarbor Plain in Australia and dumped into the ocean.13 Significantly less than 10.5km3 of hard coal is mined globally each year. Large scale mining operations would be required to implement this kind of scheme, and the process would harm ecosystems and communities. Further, the Nullarbor Plain is home to the aboriginal Wangai people, who were forcibly removed from their ancestral lands once before for nuclear testing in the 1950s and have since received compensation for the injustice and have reoccupied the plain. The Nullarbor Plain was also given formal Wilderness Protection Status in 2011 to protect its unique environment, which contains 390 species of plants and many habitats for rare species of animals and birds.14

Reality check

While field-scale trails adding crushed basalt to cropland are being conducted, other research into enhanced weathering is purely theoretical, and based on modelling exercises.

Further reading

ETC Group and Heinrich Böll Foundation, “Geoengineering Map.” map.geoengineeringmonitor.org

The Big Bad Fix: The Case Against Climate Geoengineering, http://etcgroup.org/content/big-bad-fix

Sources

1. See Olaf Schuiling and Oliver Tickell, “Olivine against climate change and ocean acidification,” Innovation Concepts, 2011, www.innovationconcepts.eu/res/literatuurSchuiling/olivineagainstclimatechange23.pdf

2. Miriam González and Tatiana Ilyina, “Impacts of artificial ocean alkalinization on the carbon cycle and climate in Earth system simulations,” Geophysical Research Letters, Vol. 43, 2016

3. David Keller et al., “Potential climate engineering effectiveness and side effects during a high carbon dioxide-emission scenario,” Nature Communications, Vol. 5, 2014

4. Leverhulme Centre for Climate Change Mitigation, “Theme 3 – Applied weathering science,” http://lc3m.org/research/theme-3/

5. Oxford Geoengineering Programme, “Enhanced Weathering,” http://www.geoengineering.ox.ac.uk/research/oxford-geoengineering-programme-research/enhanced-weathering/

6. The Olivine Foundation, ”Let the Earth save the Earth,” http://smartstones.nl/

7. Jens Hartmann et al., “Enhanced chemical weathering as a geoengineering strategy to reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide, supply nutrients and mitigate ocean acidification,” Reviews of Geophysics, Vol. 51, 2013, pp. 113–149
Sallie Chisholm et al., “Dis-Crediting Ocean Fertilization,” Science, Vol. 294, 2001, pp. 309-310

8. Sallie Chisholm et al., “Dis-Crediting Ocean Fertilization,” Science, Vol. 294, 2001, pp. 309-310

9. Jesse Abrams, “An Investigation of the Geoengineering Possibilities and Impact of Enhanced Olivine
Weathering,” University of Bremen, 2001, http://www.iup.uni-bremen.de/PEP_master_thesis/thesis_2012/Thesis_Jesse-Abrams.pdf

10. Peter Köhler et al., “The geoengineering potential of artificially enhanced silicate weathering of olivine,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, Vol. 107, 2010, pp. 20228-20233

11. Pete Smith et al., “Biophysical and economic limits to negative CO2 emissions,” Nature Climate Change, Vol. 6, 2015, pp. 42-50

12. Kruger was one of the authors promoting a set of principles for governance that have been influential among the geoengineering proponents, including the astonishing notion that geoengineering is a public good. See http://www.cquestrate.com and http://www.geoengineering.ox.ac.uk/

13. Cquestrate, “Detailed description of the idea,” http://www.cquestrate.com/the-idea/detailed-description-of-the-idea/

14. Wikipedia, “Nullarbor Plain,” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nullarbor_Plain

The Big Bad Fix

ETC Group, BiofuelWatch and Heinrich Boell Foundation present a comprehensive argument against geoengineering in this report.

Click here to download the full report (pdf)

As a rapidly warming world manifests heat waves, floods, droughts and hurricanes, geoengineering – large-scale manipulation of the Earth’s natural systems – is being presented as a strategy to counteract, dilute or delay climate change without disrupting energy- and resource-intensive economies. Alarmingly, current debates about this big techno-fix are limited to a small group of self-proclaimed experts reproducing undemocratic worldviews and technocratic, reductionist perspectives. Developing countries, indigenous peoples, and local communities are excluded and left voiceless.

As this report details, each of the proposed geoengineering technologies threatens people and ecosystems. Holistic assessments of the technologies also show that if deployed they are highly likely to worsen rather than mitigate the impacts of global warming.

The irreversibility, risk of weaponization, and implications for global power dynamics inherent in large-scale climate geoengineering also make it an unacceptable option.

Governance for a ban on geoengineering

[Originally posted by Carnegie Climate Geoengineering Governance Initiative.]

by Lili Fuhr

All geoengineering approaches are by definition large-scale, intentional, and high-risk. Some have well-known negative impacts, threatening the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals and undermining fundamental human rights (for example Bio-Energy with Carbon Capture and Storage). Others have great uncertainties when it comes to their potential impacts, that will never be fully known before actual deployment (mostly Solar Radiation Management).

There is a very important principle in international and national environmental law when it comes to dealing with uncertainties and risks – the precautionary principle. Based on this principle, the outdoor testing and deployment of SRM technologies, because of their potential to weaken human rights, democracy, and international peace, should be banned outright. This ban should be overseen by a robust and accountable multilateral global governance mechanism.

Other technologies that require great scrutiny are Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR) projects that threaten indigenous lands, food security, and water availability. Such large-scale technological schemes must be assessed diligently before setting up proper regulations, to ensure that climate-change solutions do not adversely affect sustainable development or human rights. Any intentional large-scale deployment of transboundary nature (and with potential transboundary risks and harms) needs to be assessed by an agreed UN multilateral mechanism, taking into account the rights and interests of all potentially impacted communities and future generations. Most CDR schemes currently proposed would very likely fail such a rigorous assessment.

A ban requires governance

So why should I be interested in a debate on governance of a set of technologies that I would like to see banned? The answer is clear: a ban requires governance to ensure it is being implemented and enforced. And furthermore: governance of geoengineering is not just about the rules, procedures and institutions controlling research and potential deployment, but it is also about the process and discourse leading up to it. Unfortunately, current debates about climate engineering are undemocratic and dominated by technocratic worldviews, natural science and engineering perspectives, and vested interests in the fossil-fuel industries. Developing countries, indigenous peoples, and local communities must be given a prominent voice, so that all risks can be fully considered before any geoengineering technology is tested or implemented.

The good news is that a debate of governance of geoengineering does not take place in a legal or political vacuum. There are a number of important decisions to build upon. In 2010, 193 governments – parties to the United Nations’ Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) – agreed to a de facto international moratorium on all climate-related geoengineering. More thematically focused, the London Convention/London Protocol (LP) to prevent marine pollution adopted a decision in 2013 to prohibit marine geoengineering (except for legitimate scientific research). The decision (adopted but waiting to enter into force) applies to the technologies that are included in an annex, which for now only lists ocean fertilization, as other techniques have not been thoroughly considered by the LP yet.

Beyond climate change

But geoengineering is about much more than climate change. Many geoengineering techniques have latent military purposes and their deployment could violate the UN Environmental Modification Treaty (ENMOD), which prohibits the hostile use of environmental modification. The Convention on the Prohibition of Military or Any Other Hostile Use of Environmental Modification Techniques (ENMOD) has been in force since 1978 and has been ratified by 77 states. It prohibits the use of environmental modification and commits parties “not to engage in military or any other hostile use of environmental modification techniques having widespread, long-lasting or severe effects as the means of destruction, damage or injury to any other State Party” (Article I). Article II defines environmental modification techniques: “any technique for changing – through the deliberate manipulation of natural processes – the dynamics, composition or structure of the Earth, including its biota, lithosphere, hydrosphere and atmosphere, or of outer space.” This definition encompasses many geoengineering technologies currently under active research and development.

Today, with powerful advocates generating so much pressure to bring geoengineering technologies out of the lab, soft bans with little enforcement mechanisms like the CBD decision are no longer sufficient. The world urgently needs an honest debate on the research, deployment, and governance of these technologies. The CBD and the London Protocol are essential starting points for these governance discussions, but these are certainly not enough.

Using the precautionary principle

In our civil society briefing on the Governance of Geoengineering “Riding the Geostorm” – that the Heinrich Böll Foundation published jointly with ETC Group – we highlight some key criteria for a legitimate discussion on geoengineering governance. In our view it should be based on the precautionary principle and not be confined to climate-related issues, as the consequences are more far-reaching than the climate, including weaponization, international equity, intergenerational justice, impacts on other ecosystems, such as biodiversity and oceans, impact on local and national economies dependent on those, indigenous and peasant rights.

Any debate on geoengineering, in our view, needs to be entwined with and informed by a rigorous discussion on ecologically sustainable and socially just alternatives to confront climate change and its causes, that shows that geoengineering is not a physical necessity or technical inevitability but a question of political choices.

Multilateral, participatory discussions 

Discussions on the governance of geoengineering need to be multilateral and participatory, transparent and accountable. They need to allow for the full participation of civil society, social movements and indigenous peoples. All discussions must be free from corporate influence, including through philanthro-capitalists, so that private interests cannot use their power to determine favourable outcomes or to promote schemes that serve their interests. This also means that initiatives like the C2G2 need to have obligatory, public and non-ambiguous conflict of interest policies in place, that prevent researchers with commercial interests in geoengineering to act as “independent” expertise.

An agreed global multilateral governance mechanism must strictly precede any kind of outdoor experimentation or deployment. And a ban on geoengineering testing and deployment is a governance option that I would certainly like to keep on the table.

The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), a long-standing partner of the Heinrich Böll Foundation, received the Nobel Peace Prize this year “for its work to draw attention to the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons and for its ground-breaking efforts to achieve a treaty-based prohibition of such weapons”. Maybe this shows that despite a rather negative outlook on the future of multilateralism today, there’s an appetite to take bold and clear action when it comes to enclosing high-risk technologies.

Lily Fuhr is Department Head, Ecology & Sustainable Development, Heinrich Böll Foundation.

New report highlights risks of large-scale biosequestration as a form of CO2 removal

 

Source: Global Forest Coalition

Click here to view the report.

At the start of a major Climate Engineering Conference [1] in Berlin, the Global Forest Coalition [2] has launched a Working Paper that highlights the risks of different proposals for large-scale Carbon Dioxide Removal. The report finds that while the most prominent CDR approach, Bioenergy and Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS) technology is still in a state of “infancy” and is unlikely to be rolled out on a global scale, biosequestration in the form of afforestation through monoculture tree plantations is already rapidly expanding and causing significant negative social and environmental impacts..

The Paris Agreement’s target of limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees is largely dependent on CDR approaches and climate finance institutions are already supporting such afforestation schemes, largely due to the strong emphasis on private-sector involvement in climate finance mechanisms such as the World Bank’s Forest Investment Program.

“Large-scale biosequestration almost always involves the establishment of monoculture tree plantations on land that was formerly used for other purposes like agriculture or pasture” says Oliver Munnion, one of the authors of the report. “The transformation of land to monocultures causes adverse ecological and social impacts such as the loss of biodiversity, land degradation, changes in hydrological cycles, elite resource capture, conflict and violence against mostly poor and vulnerable communities.”

The report describes existing trends in the field of large-scale biosequestration. It examines the social and ecological impacts of such projects and discusses whether or not these are viable climate solutions. It also showcases successful community led biosequestration alternatives which could prove to be more effective in reversing climate change and in providing long term sustainable livelihoods. “It would be a smarter and more cost effective choice for policy makers to support community-based forest restoration initiatives, but sadly the strong influence of corporate interests in climate policy has caused governments to prioritize subsidies for commercial tree plantations over these community-led projects” says Dr. Simone Lovera, director of the Global Forest Coalition.

Riding the geostorm: Is it possible to govern geoengineering?

The prospect of controlling global temperatures raises serious questions of power and justice: Who gets to control the Earth’s thermostat and adjust the climate for their own interests? Who will make the decision to deploy if such drastic measures are considered technically feasible, and whose interests will be left out? This briefing from civil society on Geoengineering Governance was was produced by ETC Group and the Heinrich Böll Foundation.

Failure of Kemper County “clean coal” plant casts more doubts on BECCS

Kemper County plant under construction. Photo: Wikipedia Commons

After years of embarrassing delays and $5.3 billion in cost overruns, Southern Company has finally pulled the plug on its pioneering “clean coal” plant in Kemper County, Mississippi.

The $7.5 billion Kemper County project would have been the world’s first Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle (IGCC) power plant with Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS). Instead, it will now run on natural gas, without carbon capture – an ironic end, given that Southern Co. could likely have built such a power plant from the outset for under $500 million.

The project’s failure should cast serious doubts on the prospects of both “clean coal” as well as Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS) – the current star child of techno-fix solutions to climate change.

BECCS would involve capturing CO2 from biofuel refineries or biomass-burning power stations and pumping it into geological formations, or – more likely due to economics – pumping it into oil wells in order to extract more oil. Despite lack of evidence as to the technological and economic viability of BECCS, the models underpinning the Paris Agreement’s 2°C target overwhelmingly rely upon BECCS as a “negative emissions technology” capable of being deployed at a scale large enough to balance out emissions by mid-century.

In theory, an IGCC power station like Kemper County should be the cleanest and most efficient way of generating electricity from burning coal or biomass. Furthermore, an IGCC plant with CCS should be less energy-intensive than a conventional power plant with CCS, because the CO2 is removed from the syngas pre-combustion – when the CO2 concentration is higher – instead of stripping it from the flue gas post-combustion when CO2 is diluted, as it is at facilities like the retrofitted Petra Nova coal plant in Texas, which was officially opened earlier this year.  

The failure of the Kemper County project, which featured the cleanest and most efficient CCS power plant technology, should therefore be seen as a warning for policy-makers expecting CCS – including BECCS – technologies to magically close the emissions gap by mid-century.

It’s important to note that exchanging biomass for coal would add even more challenges to an IGCC with CCS plant. Biomass gasification results in a syngas which is chemically quite different from that generated through coal gasification, and therefore requires different treatment in order to produce a gas clean enough for burning to power a gas turbine.

While CCS advocates will undoubtedly seek to frame it as a marginal example, the reality is that the Kemper County project is a prime example of what CCS stands for – an enormous waste of public attention and resources, at a time when society should be focused on transforming our energy systems to address the root causes of climate change.

New briefing: Climate change, smoke and mirrors

For the past decade, a small but growing group of governments and scientists, the majority from the most powerful and most climate-polluting countries in the world, has been pushing for political consideration of geoengineering, the deliberate large-scale technological manipulation of the climate.

Geoengineering is inherently high-risk and its negative effects will likely be unequally distributed. Because of this, geoengineering has often been presented as a “Plan B” to confront the climate crisis. But after the Paris Agreement, which set the ambitious goal of keeping the temperature to well below 2°C and possibly even 1.5°C, the discourse has changed. Now, geoengineering is increasingly being advanced as an “essential” means to reach this goal, through a mix of risky technologies that would take carbon out of the atmosphere to create so-called “negative emissions” or take control of the global thermostat to directly lower the climate’s temperature.

A new briefing paper by ETC Group and Heinrich Böll Foundation in advance of the UNFCCC intersessional meetings in Bonn, May 2017, gives an overview of what geoengineering is and why it is dangerous, as well as up-to-date information on proposed geoengineering technologies and governance.

A crucial read for anyone engaged in the fight against climate change.
Read the briefing paper here.