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

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.

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.

Pioneering coal plant with CCS isn’t viable, admits CEO

The Kemper County project. Credit: Wikipedia

A new report by Greenpeace Energy Desk reveals that one of the US’s premier coal with carbon capture and storage (CCS) demonstration plants, the Kemper County Energy Facility, is not economically viable.

The project, located in Kemper County, Mississippi, received hundreds of millions in public subsidies, promising to produce syngas through a new gasification technique in addition to utilizing waste CO2 for enhanced oil recovery (EOR) in nearby oil fields.

However, after spending $7.1 billion on the project, Kemper’s parent company is throwing in the towel on generating electricity from coal, switching instead to cheap natural gas without any carbon capture.

The Kemper County project would have been the world’s first Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle (IGCC) power plant with CCS, and was touted by industry as a pioneer for burning coal or biomass with carbon capture.

Instead, it’s become a massive, expensive failure, and an emblem of injustice – with Mississippi ratepayers potentially on the hook for up to $7 billion in cost overruns from the project.

This is big news, given that IGCC with CCS has long been promoted as the state of the art concept for CCS, including BECCS. It would have a much better energy balance than post-combustion CCS, and be the cleanest form of coal or biomass combustion possible, if it worked.

Which, of course, it doesn’t. Our takeaway is that for anyone interested in the future of CCS, the failure of Kemper County should be much bigger news than whatever may or may not happen with the Texas-based Petra Nova coal CCS plant in the future.

 

Pulling carbon out of the air: NETS, BECCS, and CDR

ADM’s Agricultural Processing and Biofuels Plant, Decatur, IL. Credit: National Energy Technology Laboratory

Geoengineering Monitor has long reported on the speculative concept of “negative emissions”, together with certain favored approaches such as bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) – a geoengineering technique which recent studies show would have significant negative impacts on biodiversity, food security, and livelihoods.

To get a better sense of the technologies under discussion, we sent a correspondent to a “Carbon Dioxide Removal / Negative Emissions Technologies (NETs)” workshop earlier this month, co-sponsored by fora associated with American University, University of California – Berkeley, and Arizona State University.

A primary theme of the workshop was understanding NETs in the context of the Paris Agreement. Katharine Mach, senior research scientist at Stanford University and director of the Stanford Environment Assessment Facility, opened the day by describing the “pledge, review, and revise” approach of the agreement, and singled out the key role envisioned for BECCS in the models that underpin its target to stay below 2 degrees C average global temperature rise.

Wil Burns, co-director of the Forum for Climate Engineering Assessment at American University, made the case that the agreement provides authorization for countries to use artificial carbon sinks (CDR and NETs) as part of their Paris pledges. Burns built his case off of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)’s broad definition of mitigation, which includes not only emissions reductions, but also the enhancement of sinks.

However, insofar as they aim to deliberately increase carbon sequestration on a large scale that may affect biodiversity, all proposed artificial carbon sinks are geoengineering proposals – and therefore subject to a de facto moratorium under the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), most recently reaffirmed at the end of 2016. The CBD’s moratorium derives from the application of the precautionary principle, noting that the potential impacts of geoengineering on biodiversity and traditional livelihoods have been scarcely studied.

Ongoing discussions within the multilateral institutions will likely provide more clarity on the boundary between climate mitigation and geoengineering. But for the meantime, it appears clear that attempts to push CDR techniques through the mitigation loophole will run up against the CBD moratorium. And judging by the other panels at the Berkeley CDR / NETs workshop, that’s probably a good thing.

Outside of the lively debate on BECCS – the star child of CDR advocates – the other approaches on offer ranged from relatively mundane reflections about enhancing rocks and protecting forests, to more fantastical proposals for offshore kelp-platforms riding ocean thermals. The general feel was that of an oddball trade show, with subsequent presenters arising to pitch their particular techno-fix, all seemingly underlaid by a dark acknowledgement of the social and political realities preventing meaningful climate action.

Daniel Sanchez, a postdoc at Stanford University’s Carnegie Institution for Science, kicked off the BECCS panel with a detailed technical and economic assessment of deployment possibilities, making the case that BECCS could enable a carbon-negative power system in western North America by mid-century, given a stringent emissions cap. Interestingly, Sanchez noted that the primary value of BECCS lies in its capacity to function as an offset, and less so as a source of electricity.

This point was addressed indirectly by Daniel Babson, technology manager at the Bioenergy Technologies Office within the Department of Energy (DOE). Babson asked attendees to “imagine BECCS in a world with cheap CO2 and cheap energy,” noting that the Trump administration has upended assumptions about an inevitable national carbon price or cap leading to a more competitive position for future bioenergy deployment. Babson’s prognosis on whether BECCS could flourish without a price on carbon wasn’t particularly sunny, and he noted that the DOE was reorienting towards near-term carbon sequestration via value-added products, such as wood for use in buildings or infrastructure.

Babson also referenced another way in which the new administration is a setback for BECCS. US government funding for carbon-negative bioenergy R&D falls squarely between the Office of Fossil Energy and the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy – both of which are reportedly on the chopping block in the Trump administration’s proposed budget. If the Trump administration is successful in dismantling these offices, Babson will not only be out of a job (as he wryly joked), but BECCS proponents will have lost a critical source of funding and research.

Tim Searchinger, a research scholar at Princeton University and senior fellow at World Resource Institute, functioned as the black sheep of the panel discussion, making the case that studies showing large bioenergy emissions reductions potential are based on double-counting emissions reductions due to plant growth, and that replacing fossil fuels with bioenergy could actually increase GHG emissions, in addition to having major impacts on biodiversity and food security.

Searchinger asserted that so-called marginal or abandoned lands proposed for bioenergy feedstocks are largely already in use by local communities, or required by ecosystems to stay healthy. Margaret Torn, co-director of the Climate and Carbon Sciences Program at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, also raised questions about the ecological limits to bioenergy expansion, focusing on land and resource requirements such as nitrogen and phosphorus. Searchinger made the case that using all of the world’s current harvested biomass would only meet one fifth of the world’s energy needs in 2050, in the process displacing communities and undermining biodiversity.

The final speaker of the day was Janos Pasztor, former senior advisor on climate to the UN secretary general, and recently appointed as director of the new Carnegie Climate Geoengineering Governance Project.

Pazstor, fresh off a meeting with California governor Jerry Brown, introduced the new “C2G2” project as a response to the need for systematic governance frameworks to guide geoengineering research and potential deployment. The aim of the project, according to Pazstor, is to engage with non-governmental organizations, governments, and other groups to build a network of people who could feed into future governance mechanisms.

While building out a coherent governance framework to approach ethical, social-ecological, and technical aspects of geoengineering appears to be a promising step, Geoengineering Monitor believes that it will only be successful if the voices of women, peasant farmers, Indigenous peoples, trade unionists, and the poor have a firm seat at the technology assessment table. Otherwise, C2G2 and similar initiatives could easily end up as just a normalization exercise for geoengineering, dominated by those with a material interest in promoting technofix distractions at the expense of solutions that address the root causes of climate change and biodiversity loss.

Climate Change Policy and The Super-Hero Syndrome

Jeremy Thompson/Wikimedia Commons CC BY 2.0
Jeremy Thompson/Wikimedia Commons CC BY 2.0

by Roger Boyd (Resilience)

There is a genre of Hollywood “feel-good” disaster movie, where everything seems nearly hopeless until the end, and then suddenly, many times against all hope, the super-hero (or super-heroes) saves the day. Whether it be human heroes that blow up the Earth-killing asteroid just in the nick of time; good mutants that defeat the bad mutants just in time; bad mutants turned good mutants that destroy the stayed-bad mutants just in time; future humans and non-human allies that save the Galaxy from the Empire. Anyway, you get the general storyline. The bad people/organisms /things win for the first 95% of the movie then the good people/organisms/things win against all the odds in the last 5%.

The United Nations Climate Change bureaucracy, which tends to be full of economists, engineers and enviro-managers rather than actual climate scientists and ecologists, seems to have been watching too many of these feel-good disaster movies. Seems we need to make them watch the “feel bad” disaster movies instead, like the one where the Sun eats up the Earth, or perhaps a steady diet of the unlimited supply of zombie apocalypse movies. They need something a lot darker, where super-heroes don’t save the day. Then again, maybe they should just grow up and accept that super-heroes only exist in movies. Or maybe they should just listen to the scientists and ecologists a lot more.

The United Nation’s main super-hero is called BECCS (Bio-Energy Carbon Capture & Storage). I know, not exactly as catchy as Superman, Thor, Cat Woman, or Wolverine, but what would you expect from a bunch of climate bureaucrats? BECCS is a true super-hero. The Bad Carbon will continue spewing itself into our atmosphere for decades to come, threatening to remove the ecological basis for modern human civilization. BECCS’s friends, Energy Efficiency and Clean Power, will have held back Bad Carbon a bit, but could not stop BC in time! Then at the last minute, just before human civilization melts down, BECCS sucks up BC and deposits it deep in the Earth never to return (well at least for a few thousand years hopefully).

The problem is that BECCS is not real; it’s a bunch of hopes and a religious belief in technology wrapped together. It assumes that we can set aside about a third of the current arable land on the planet to grow energy crops, instead of food. Then we can burn all those energy crops to help power our modern civilization, and can store all of the resulting carbon dioxide (billions of tons of the stuff) underground safely for thousands of years. That’s a lot of carbon dioxide per year, needing an infrastructure equivalent to the current oil & gas industry to transport it and pump it into the ground. What tiny-scale testing of the CCS (Carbon Capture and Storage) part of BECCS that has been carried out so far could most politely be described as “deeply disappointing”.  Ignoring this, the U.N. people assume that BECCS will start riding to the rescue on a major scale within 20 years or less.

What if BECCS isn’t up to the task? Other eco-technocrats have an army of super-heroes ready to help. These eco-techies seem to be into super-hero ensemble movies – maybe we should call them “The C-Men”. If EE, CP and BECCS cant beat the deadly BC, there is always – wait for it, drum roll please… DAC!!!! (Direct Air Capture) will save the day! BECCS couldn’t suck up enough of the highly concentrated carbon dioxide at the power plant exhaust, but DAC can get enough of it after it has become highly diffuse in the air! If that doesn’t work there is EW (Enhanced Weathering: dig up truly colossal amounts of a certain type of rock, turn it into powder and spread it over the Earth), OF (Ocean Fertilization: fertilize carbon capturing organisms in the ocean), and SRaM (Solar Radiation Management: block/reflect the Sun’s energy to cool the planet).

Why do we need all these super-heroes? Because without these super-heroes we would have to accept that large-scale government intervention will be required to fundamentally change our societies to use a lot less energy. A lot like a war-style economy. A lot less belief in “free markets”, perhaps no economic growth for a while, a ton of pressure for a more equitable sharing of income and wealth, and a lot less use of fossil fuels. Not a reality that the powers-that-be want to deal with. So we get the mythical super-heroes instead.

Those that consider a Trump presidency to be a disaster do not understand that we are already in the disaster. Trump may speed up the disaster a little and is certainly more “in your face”, but he is just a symptom of a larger problem. In a way, you could say he is being a bit more truthful about his version of reality-denial. The problem is the inability of even the “progressives” among the powerful to accept the reality that the time for small measures is gone, and that drastic action is required now. In the early 1990’s, those actions may have been relatively mild. Now, they are much bigger and the longer we wait, the bigger and riskier they get. Only denial, facilitated by mythical technocratic future super-heroes, can keep us from this truth.

Radical Realism About Climate Change

UniversityBlogSpot/Flickr CC by Lili Fuhr (Project Syndicate)

BERLIN – Mainstream politics, by definition, is ill equipped to imagine fundamental change. But last December in Paris, 196 governments agreed on the need to limit global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels – an objective that holds the promise of delivering precisely such a transformation. Achieving it will require overcoming serious political challenges, reflected in the fact that some are advocating solutions that will end up doing more harm than good.

One strategy that has gained a lot of momentum focuses on the need to develop large-scale technological interventions to control the global thermostat. Proponents of geo-engineering technologies argue that conventional adaptation and mitigation measures are simply not reducing emissions fast enough to prevent dangerous warming. Technologies such as “carbon capture and storage” (CCS), they argue, are necessary to limit damage and human suffering.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change seems to agree. In its fifth assessment report, it builds its scenarios for meeting the Paris climate goals around the concept of “negative emissions” – that is, the ability to suck excess carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.

But this approach ignores serious problems with the development and deployment of geo-engineering technologies. Consider CCS, which is the process of capturing waste CO2 from large sources like fossil-fuel power plants and depositing it in, say, an underground geological formation, thereby preventing it from entering the atmosphere.

It sounds good. But what makes it economical is that it enables enhanced oil recovery. In other words, the only way to make CCS cost-effective is to use it to exacerbate the problem it is supposed to address.

The supposed savior technology – bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) – is not much better. BECCS begins by producing large amounts of biomass from, say, fast-growing trees which naturally capture CO2; those plants are then converted into fuel via burning or refining, with the resulting carbon emissions being captured and sequestered.

But bioenergy is not carbon neutral, and the surge in European demand for biomass has led to rising food commodity prices and land grabs in developing countries. These realities helped persuade the scientists Kevin Anderson and Glen Peters recently to call carbon removal an “unjust and high-stakes gamble.”

What about other geo-engineering proposals? Solar Radiation Management (SRM) aims to control the amount of sunlight that reaches the Earth, essentially mimicking the effect of a volcano eruption. This may be achieved by pumping sulphates into the stratosphere or through “marine cloud brightening,” which would cause clouds to reflect more sunlight back into space.

But blasting sulphates into the stratosphere does not reduce CO2 concentrations; it merely delays the impact for as long as the spraying continues. Moreover, sulphate injections in the northern hemisphere could cause serious drought in the Africa’s Sahel region, owing to dramatic reductions in precipitation, while some African countries would experience more precipitation. The effect on the Asian monsoon system could be even more pronounced. In short, SRM could severely damage the livelihoods of millions of people.

If geo-engineering can’t save us, what can? In fact, there are a number of steps that can be taken right now. They would be messier and more politically challenging than geo-engineering. But they would work.

The first step would be a moratorium on new coal mines. If all currently planned coal-fired power plants are built and operated over their normal service life of 40 years, they alone would emit 240 billion tons of CO2 – more than the remaining carbon budget. If that investment were re-allocated to decentralized renewable-energy production, the benefits would be enormous.

Moreover, with only 10% of the global population responsible for almost 50% of global CO2 emissions, there is a strong case to be made for implementing strategies that target the biggest emitters. For example, it makes little sense that airlines – which actually serve just 7% of the global population – are exempt from paying fuel taxes, especially at a time when ticket prices are at an historic low.

Changes to land use are also needed. The 2009 International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development charts the way to a transformed agricultural system – with benefits that extend far beyond climate policy. We must apply this knowledge around the world.

In Europe, the waste sector could make a significant contribution to a low-carbon economy. Recent research, commissioned by Zero Waste Europe, found that optimal implementation of the European Commission’s “circular economy package” waste targets could save the European Union 190 million tons of CO2 per year. That is the equivalent of the annual emissions of the Netherlands!

Available measures in the transport sector include strengthening public transportation, encouraging the use of railways for freight traffic, building bike paths, and subsidizing delivery bicycles. In Germany, intelligent action on transport could reduce the sector’s emissions by up to 95% by 2050.

Another powerful measure would be to protect and restore natural ecosystems, which could result in the storage of 220-330 gigatons of CO2 worldwide .

None of these solutions is a silver bullet; but, together, they could change the world for the better. Geo-engineering solutions are not the only alternatives. They are a response to the inability of mainstream economics and politics to address the climate challenge. Instead of trying to devise ways to maintain business as usual – an impossible and destructive goal – we must prove our ability to imagine and achieve radical change.

If we fail, we should not be surprised if, just a few years from now, the planetary thermostat is under the control of a handful of states or military and scientific interests. As world leaders convene for the 22nd United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change to bring the Paris agreement into force, they should repudiate geo-engineering quick fixes – and demonstrate a commitment to real solutions.

How a US energy company tried to sell its failing ‘clean coal’ project to the world

The Kemper Project under construction. XTUV0010, CC BY-SA 3.0Below is an article published by Greenpeace’s Energy Desk about the latest scandal involving the Kemper County CCS project.  This is extremely relevant to the bioenergy with CCS (BECCS) debate: Kemper County was one of two flagship CCS projects supported by the Obama government.  The other, FutureGen2, was previously canceled after huge losses, cost overruns and delays and the total refusal by companies or banks to invest in it. On paper, Kemper County’s technology is state of the art, superior to other CCS technologies: It is an Integrated Combined-Cycle Gas Turbine (ICCG) power station with CCS, which, if it worked reliably and affordably, would be cleaner and more efficient than other technologies.  But reality is clearly very different from the theory, as this case illustrates.
It also illustrates the dangers of ‘learning by doing’ strategies about such complex and expensive technologies (leaving aside the impacts of coal mining and of biomass sourcing): Even a few unsuccessful projects like this swallow huge sums of money and, as the Kemper County case study shows, it’s often the poorest communities who’re paying the price of such failures.

The company behind America’s flagship ‘clean coal’ project tried to push the technology on countries around the world, even after they discovered its profound problems, Energydesk can reveal.

Last month a New York Times investigation chronicled the spiralling costs, missed deadlines, technical issues and administrative chaos at Southern Company’s coal gasification facility in Mississippi.

The Kemper project, as it is called, is currently more than $4 billion over budget and more than two years late, with Southern now promising it will begin delivering ‘clean coal’ power no later than September 30th.

Engineers who have worked on Kemper expect the project’s Kemper’s start-date to be delayed yet again — until 2017.

Dodgy deal

A new look into Southern’s PR operations over the past few years suggests that selling the technology abroad was central to the project’s business model, and the company pursued that in spite of the mounting problems.

In December 2015 the company announced that it had signed a letter of intent with South Korean firm Alps Energy to “evaluate the deployment” of the Kemper technology at one of its power plants.

By this time, Southern was well aware of the crisis unfolding at the plant.

But the South Korea deal has been perhaps the most concrete success of the global ‘clean coal’ offensive, standing out among Southern’s attempts to hawk the technology in Poland, Norway, China, Romania, Serbia and Australia.

nytimes

New York Times

Dirty secrets

To understand just how important the international sales element was to Southern, you need look no further than a 2008 memo from Mississippi’s then-Governor Haley Barbour in which he describes the project as a “key piece of America’s and the world’s energy future”.

Less than a year later the company touted a deal with China for its clean coal technology – a proprietary process called TRIG (transport integrated gasification) – even though Kemper hadn’t even broken ground.

Around this time Southern CEO Tom Fanning wrote to the Energy Secretary urging him to divert focus from the bigger FutureGen CCS project in Illinois (the government pulled the plug in 2015) because Kemper was “now ready for commercial deployment” — and that it was being discussed for licensing in China and Australia.

That didn’t end up happening.

Hidden crisis

By 2012, Southern’s subsidiary Mississippi Power had already concealed cost overruns of $366 million, and a year later admitted the project was $1 billion more expensive than anticipated.

In late 2013, an earnings call revealed massive losses and serious delays, with Fanning admitting that they “made a mistake on the engineering”.

The scandal had already cost the jobs of two of Mississippi Power’s top executives, including president Ed Day.

That, however, didn’t stop Southern and the US Department of Energy from taking Norway’s minister of petroleum and energy, along with seven other energy ministers, on a tour of the facility a month later.

Hey Poland

In 2014, months after a whistleblower told Southern officials – including Fanning – that the company had broken the law and misled investors over its false schedule and budget, a top executive flew to Poland for the Wroclaw Global Forum.

There, Karl Moor tried to sell the country on the Kemper technology, claiming the plant was already running and “utilising 65% of the CO2 and sending three and a half million tons of CO2 down a pipeline for enhanced oil recovery” — things that still haven’t actually happened.

“Our first response should be to get Poland the technology so that they can use their native lignite in a strategic way,” Moor said.

“For some reason the Department of Energy for the last 20 years has been helping us develop a technology aimed at Poland’s coal,” he added.

Six months later Fanning and the US Energy Secretary were doing the same thing in Turkey.

Consequences at home

As Southern eyes international deals, the deeply deprived Mississippi county of Kemper wrestles with the plant’s unfulfilled jobs and tax promises.

As Fanning spoke in Philadelphia at the end of July, reaffirming the project’s September 2016 start-date, Kemper residents were called to an emergency meeting on a proposed 41% tax hike to pay the county’s crumbling schools.

The region’s public services have been starved of revenue as long-time homeowners were forced to move in order to make room for the facility’s gigantic footprint.

DeKalb, the town nearest the plant, had to eliminate its police department due to a lack of money.

And, if Southern sells its clean coal technology abroad, the County does not stand to receive any of the proceeds — as per the government agreement.

We got in touch with Southern Company for comment and will update this piece if they get back to us

Miserable failure at Kemper “clean coal” plant indicates future failure of “clean bioenergy” climate solution

The Kemper Project under construction. XTUV0010, CC BY-SA 3.0Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS) was granted a huge boost of support by the IPCC’s “mitigation” Working Group in their 5th Assessment Report. Since then growing attention has been given to this technofix as the main approach to removing CO2 from the overloaded atmosphere. This is in spite of the fact that there are currently no operating commercial-scale BECCS projects*, and there is ongoing serious debate over the climate and other impacts of all large scale bioenergy. There are also serious concerns about costs, feasibility and safety of underground storage.

Perhaps the best indication we have for the feasibility of large scale BECCS, which the IPCC is relying on to avoid catastrophic climate change, is the current generation of coal CCS projects. These have been under development for many years under the popular guise of “clean coal”.

On 5th July the New York Times provided a disturbing evaluation of the Kemper “clean coal” plant in Mississippi, USA, a hugely over-hyped and over-priced energy project that industry and policy-makers claim to be a solution to climate change, despite mountains of evidence that it is only making matters worse.

Kemper is one of several such projects. SaskPower’s Boundary Dam facility in Saskatchewan, Canada, is supposedly the first commercial-scale coal CCS plant in the world. It sends some CO2 to an oil field, which is then used to pump out otherwise inaccessible oil reserves, called “enhanced oil recovery”. They are actually paying fines to the oil company for failing to deliver the contracted amount of CO2. How this project is billed as a “solution” to climate change is baffling.

FutureGen in the USA is another project – an integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC) coal power station with CCS that collapsed after over $175 million had been spent. Then came FutureGen 2.0, a scheme to retrofit an old coal plant like the Boundary Dam with CCS, which suffered the same fate after over $200 million of public money had been spent.

Then there is the White Rose project in the UK. It would have been the first new coal plant to be built in the UK since the 70’s, coming right at the time when coal is supposedly being phased out. Developers went even further in their rhetoric, saying that this would be the first “negative emissions” plant in the world, since it would burn some biomass in the mix. The argument is that all bioenergy is “carbon neutral”, so capturing the CO2 would render it “carbon negative”. Yet the project was to source coal from mines in Colombia and Russia that have resulted in violent conflict with communities, and wood from the Southern US, where the world’s most biodiverse temperate wetland forests are being felled and turned into wood pellets. Coal mining and deforestation cannot be “solutions” to climate change. Thankfully the project collapsed, after millions had been spent on feasibility studies.

Billions in public funds are being spent on these horrendously misguided projects, money that could be allocated instead to genuine attempts to reduce emissions and restore ecosystems. These projects are giant infrastructure projects that are pitched as progressive and innovative solutions to climate crisis, but in reality are a part of the problem, and always result in more damage and emissions once you peel back the greenwash.

Applying CCS to coal plants is simply a desperate attempt to throw a lifeline to an industry that should have been ended years ago. But the impacts of coal mining, the fact that mining itself is inherently polluting and destructive, and invariably results in harm to the communities near to it or displaced for it, is never a consideration.

The Kemper “clean coal” plant must now take first prize as the biggest failure of these projects. Regardless of whether it is ever finished and operates satisfactorily, it has failed before ever being switched on. The New York Times’ detailed and shocking article lays bare the level of corporate wheeling and dealing at Kemper. The article is based of the account of a whistle-blower, who is a former employee at the plant. We really recommend that this article is read.

The massive failure of “clean coal” projects like Kemper and the others described above are a clear warning for the future of BECCS. BECCS is touted as a means of delivering negative emissions based on entirely faulty carbon accounting that assumes all bioenergy – even cutting down forests to burn in coal plants – is “carbon neutral”, and that capturing the carbon will miraculously result in the removal of CO2 from the atmosphere. BECCS has long been discussed in climate geoengineering debates, where it is presented as one of the more “benign” or “soft” approaches to tweaking the climate (at least in comparison to spewing sulphate particles into the stratosphere, or dumping iron into the ocean).

Now climate scientists within the IPCC Working Group 3, largely dominated by economists rather than experts on energy technologies or ecology, have promoted the whole concept of BECCS as “essential” to stabilising our climate. Promoting technofixes that are currently non-existent, and for which we have very clear indications they can never work, is nothing short of grossly irresponsible.

 

* Except for one plant in Illinois, USA, that captures some CO2 from ethanol fermentation. This is being called BECCS and “negative emissions” by industry proponents. However, not even the plant’s operators claim that it achieves negative emissions, as the emissions associated with ethanol production outstrip what is being captured.