Category: Carbon Dioxide Removal / Greenhouse Gas Removal
Greenhouse Gas Removal (GGR) refers to an technique that removes greenhouse gases from the atmosphere through mechanical means. A more common umbrella term is Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR), which excludes methods that remove other greenhouse gases such as methane.
A UK research fund has recently announced that £8.3m is being made available to fund up to 10 different research projects for a programme on Greenhouse Gas Removal from the Atmosphere.
Examples given as potential topics for research proposals are:
Soil carbon, forestry and land management, to include biochar
Bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS; may include forest-based feedstock)
Enhanced weathering and ocean alkalinity enhancement
Direct air capture (DAC)
Whilst “soil carbon, forestry and land management” is very broad, no where in the supporting documentation are terms like “natural ecosystem regeneration” or “agro-forestry/ecology”. These are proven and low-cost methods of removing carbon from the atmosphere, that have been put into practice by communities across the globe (with very little support and funding) for decades. But the serious contribution they could make “at a climatically-relevant scale” is simply ignored in favor of unproven, untested and (in the case of biochar and BECCS at least) nonsense technology.
As we recently reported, the Paris Agreement has been a major boost for proponents of negative emissions technologies. Industry calls for more funding are being answered, and it is likely that far more funding will be made available in future for such projects.
With the global climate crisis in the state that is currently is – take for example the recent studies that show there may already be too much carbon in the atmosphere to meet the 1.5 degree target set out in Paris only last December – putting millions into pointless research, when there’s so much that needs to be done in terms of drastically reducing emissions, is simply unacceptable.
Below 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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
This week’s headline news from the world of technofix climate solutions is that a team of researchers led by the University of Illinois-Chicago has developed an artificial leaf. This leaf is a solar cell that uses the power of the sun to mimic photosynthesis and converts carbon dioxide into a fuel. Whereas a real leaf sucks up carbon dioxide and turns it into more tree, this artificial leaf turns it into a gas that can then be burned, releasing the carbon back into the atmosphere.
Climate Central’s story on this research lead with the line: “If humans could invent a leaf-like solar cell that could turn carbon dioxide pollution from the atmosphere into fuel for electric power plants, it could help reduce reliance on fossil fuels and cut emissions that contribute to global warming.”
Which is really quite amusing, given that millions of years of evolution has provided us with a perfectly adequate and natural leaf-like solar cell that can turn carbon dioxide pollution from the atmosphere into fuel, and certainly helps cut emissions that contribute to global warming.
Most uses of leaves and trees as fuel in electric power plants do make climate change worse of course, but humans have also been sustainably managing woodland on a small scale for thousands of years, such that forests and soils keep sequestering carbon, and humans get fuel and shelter. The key issue here being scale.
Here’s a thought: What if all of the research money currently being ploughed into false climate solutions, such as this artificial leaf, carbon capture and storage, and technologies involving solar radiation management or direct air capture, was put towards genuine and proven climate solutions instead, like regenerating natural ecosystems that have plants and trees with non-artificial leaves, and agro-ecology, where the trees and plants also have real leaves?
Maybe if we stop destroying perfectly good real leaves that already do a great job of removing carbon pollution from the atmosphere, no one will think there’s a need for artificial ones? Perhaps if governments and industry took climate change seriously and actually started drastically reducing greenhouse gas emissions, we wouldn’t even be talking about these ridiculous ideas.
Bioenergy 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”.
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.
This is a bold move given that the country’s emissions actually increased by 1.5% in the last year. This fact exposes the reality behind the “net zero” claims. Norway won’t be making drastic emissions reductions, it’ll buy its way to net zero instead, by purchasing carbon credits that don’t exist yet, but have been guaranteed via the Paris Agreement and the carbon markets it promises.
Carbon credits in the post-Paris Agreement world will likely be based on so-called “negative emissions” schemes. Owners of industrial monoculture tree plantations, such as those already being planted on stolen land in many parts of the world, will be able to sell carbon credits to countries like Norway, so that they can achieve their meaningless goal. Companies burning wood and other biomass for energy and capturing the emissions (a process called bioenergy with carbon capture and storage/BECCS), will also be able to sell carbon credits, despite the fact that emissions from land use changes mean that this process can’t be considered carbon negative. Further still, captured carbon is likely to be used in Enhanced Oil Recovery operations, resulting in yet more emissions. These global offsetting schemes will do far more harm than good.
In addition to buying carbon credits, “officials” have also said that Norway could move towards net zero by switching to electric vehicles, and supplying electricity to oil and gas rigs from the (mostly dam-powered) national grid. Emissions from the transport sector and vast private car ownership, and of course oil and gas exploration, are two of the biggest root causes of climate change. Yet Norway is basing its emissions reduction strategy on more cars, and running electricity cables to oil and gas infrastructure.
Electric vehicles are responsible for vast emissions when you consider the energy and resources that go into creating them – a sensible strategy for tacking transport emissions would surely mean less vehicles, full stop. And as one of the world’s largest producers of oil and gas, the thought that Norway could help fight climate change through supplying BP and Statoil with “green” electricity is totally laughable.
The Paris Agreement has enshrined the concepts of “negative emissions” and “net zero emissions” at the forefront of plans to tackle climate change globally. This comes very much at the expense of real efforts to drastically reduce emissions, for example through ending fossil fuel use, stopping deforestation, natural ecosystem regeneration, agro-ecology, and the many other genuine and just responses to climate change that exist.
Norway’s new goal is a good example of how governments will use the Paris Agreement to maintain the status quo, guaranteeing a much warmer world in years to come, with all of the impacts of catastrophic climate change that come with it.
The Paris Agreement has been signed in New York with much fanfare, a lot of shaking hands and patting each other on the back, and claims that “we did it” – that is, agreed a historic climate agreement that would save the planet from climate chaos.
This week, government delegates and civil society are getting back to work in Bonn, in meetings of the Subsidiary Body for Implementation (SBI 44), the Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice (SBSTA 44), and the new Ad Hoc Working Group on the Paris Agreement (APA 1). Their job is to hammer out practical next steps, including how to interpret what the Paris Agreement actually means and then how to implement it.
But in the aftermath of Paris, as the dust settles, what exactly is there to clap about? And what does it mean?
The Paris Agreement was certainly a great diplomatic success. The numbers alone sound rather impressive, with 194 countries adopting the agreement last December and 155 having signed the text by 23 March this year. This gives the impression that finally there will be serious action on tackling climate change.
But it was actually a grave defeat in terms of what it offers the future of humanity and the planet’s eco-systems.
For example, the text can sound impressive, especially when one reads that the aim of the Paris Agreement is to hold “the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels…” But this is just an aspiration. What counts is what countries meeting in Paris agreed to do, and that is another matter altogether.
In fact, most governments’ pledges to cut emissions (known as INDCs or Intended Nationally Determined Contributions) are so weak that it is estimated they will result in the planet warming by 3-4ºC, with dramatic consequences.
The text about adopting the Paris Agreement itself “Notes with concern that the estimated aggregate greenhouse gas emission levels in 2025 and 2030 resulting from the intended nationally determined contributions do not fall within least-cost 2˚C scenarios but rather lead to a projected level of 55 gigatonnes in 2030” (1) (that’s in contrast to the 40 gigatonnes that the resolution says should be the target).
This emissions gap is deadly and has very real consequences for all of us – species will disappear, extreme weather will devastate crops and livelihoods, and there will be whole islands lost, with climate refugees that have nowhere to go.
To add insult to injury, the pledges or INDCs that countries have made are not even legally binding. This means that if a country doesn’t fulfill its ‘contribution’ nothing will happen. There is no compliance mechanism or instrument to sanction that member state. Big polluters are supposed to cut emissions out of the goodness of their hearts, but experience shows us that this is not likely to happen, especially if it is seen as impeding economic growth.
Furthermore, while the Paris Agreement fails to create an effective mechanism to ensure that countries cut their emissions far enough and fast enough to close the emissions gap in time, it has opened the door for new carbon market mechanisms (in Article 6). So far carbon market mechanisms have done nothing to reduce emissions. Instead they have provided loopholes and ways for polluters to escape their historical responsibilities.
The way the text does this is rather subtle however. It does not use the terms ‘carbon markets’ or ‘carbon offsets’. Instead it speaks of a “mechanism to contribute to the mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions and support sustainable development” that will “contribute to the reduction of emission levels in the host Party, which will benefit from mitigation activities resulting in emission reductions that can also be used by another Party to fulfill its nationally determined contribution”. In other words, one country may buy carbon credits from another to minimise its obligation to reduce emissions. Spell that out clearly: carbon trading.
How this mechanism is going to operate, and which new carbon markets are going to be developed is yet to be decided. But the door is now open and it is very clear that large companies and financial investors want to include the carbon-absorbing activities of forests in carbon markets. The transnational corporations that have captured the climate change negotiations also want to have a carbon market related to ‘land use change’, a very vague term that could include anything from agriculture to livestock. This could be particularly dangerous as it could allow carbon accounting and carbon markets to determine food and agricultural policies.
Of forests, SDG 15.2 and plantations
Article 5 of the Paris Agreement speaks about forests. It talks about preserving them “through results-based payments” and “positive incentives for activities relating to reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation”. It also promotes the “enhancement of forest carbon stocks in developing countries” which implies the development of socially and environmentally damaging monoculture tree plantations, which can be included in carbon calculations under current rules. These activities are normally referred to as REDD+.
This article is far less ambitious than Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 15.2, also recently agreed by governments, which aims to halt deforestation by 2020. This target does not get a mention in Article 5 of the climate agreement. Rather, in the INDCs submitted by countries with high rates of deforestation, we can see that they are planning to continue with deforestation not only after 2020, but even beyond 2030. For example, some INDCs, such as Brazil’s, mention a halt to illegal deforestation, but legal deforestation continues to be allowed.
A study done by a group of research centres analysed the commitments in the INDCs from the BRICS countries (ie Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa). It found that the overall outcome will be business continuing as usual until 2030. They will only begin reducing emissions by 2030. (2)
To summarise, the INDCs that are currently on the table are violating SDG 15.2, but this astonishing lack of policy coherence has not been acknowledged by the UN.
The Paris Agreement should have guaranteed the SDG goal of zero deforestation by 2020, so that it is coherent with these already agreed global goals. The reason it does not is that big business, which has undue influence in the climate change negotiations, does not want to stop the deforestation of real forests—it wants to be allowed to compensate for that deforestation with cash crop monoculture tree plantations. This is the road we are on now thanks to the Paris Agreement.
Finally the Paris Agreement does not speak explicitly about geoengineering or BECCS (Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage)—but that does not mean these topics are not being discussed by governments. Since emissions cuts in the INDCs fall short of the ‘below 2ºC’ target, corporations have jumped on the opportunity to propose dangerous, untested and risky technologies which they argue would help reach it.
For example, ‘negative emissions’ is a euphemism for capturing carbon and carbon dioxide removal. Several studies, most recently by Biofuelwatch, have discounted the promises of BECCS, arguing that BECCS is not viable and at scale would even be a contributor to land use change emissions. (3) Furthermore, to implement large-scale monoculture tree plantations or bioenergy crops to capture and store carbon would need twice the world’s arable land area. (4)
Accepting the Paris Agreement uncritically risks us wasting another 15 vital years on distracting public opinion and creating the illusion that something positive is happening when, in reality, humanity and nature are losing precious time that can never be recovered.
After Paris it is clear that real solutions will come from the grassroots movements, Indigenous communities and people on the ground, and to encourage that process it is necessary to uncover the awful truth about what is really happening in the climate negotiations.
We need to call for concrete and urgent action that ensures that temperature increases stays below 1.5oC—without the use of risky and harmful technologies such as BECCS, and without loopholes, such as those relating to land use accounting and market mechanisms.
We need to fight for concrete action to reach the goal of zero deforestation by 2020, and resist the creation of new market mechanisms, especially on land use and agriculture. We must defend the rights of women, Indigenous communities, peasants and nature.
*Mary Louise Malig, a researcher and trade analyst, is Campaigns Coordinator of Global Forest Coalition.
This comment by Biofuelwatch’s Almuth Ernsting was posted in reply to a guest article by Prof Jason Lowe (Head of Knowledge Integration and Mitigation Advice at the UK’s Met Office and lead scientist for the government-funded AVOID2 research programme) which was published on the Carbon Brief website, as part of its series on “negative emissions”.
The researchers who carried out the IAM models summarised in the IPCC report were not tasked with studying the scientific literature about the life-cycle carbon of bioenergy, nor the evidence about the energy balances and the technical challenges associated with BECCS technologies. As a Biofuelwatch report on BECCS (which I co-authored) illustrates, the modellers simply input ‘carbon negative’ figures for BECCS and they followed a brief which stated that if a technology is described as feasible in a single peer-reviewed study, this could be accepted as evidence that it was. So clearly these modelling results can tell us nothing about the viability of BECCS technologies, nor about the true climate impacts.
The claim that bioenergy is inherently carbon neutral or very low-carbon has been debunked by a large volume of scientific studies, which show that the climate impacts can be even worse than those of fossil fuels (per unit of energy) when considered over a period of decades or even centuries. Yet this claim continues to lie at the heart of the concept of BECCS.
As for the technical viability, Professor Lowe goes further than anything stated in the IPCC report and claims that there are 15 BECCS pilot projects in addition to a demonstration project in Decatur. Where and what are those projects? The Decatur project involves capturing CO2 from fermentation at an ADM corn ethanol refinery for a geological carbon sequestration trial (with ethanol fermentation resulting in an almost pure CO2 stream which is far easier and cheaper to capture than CO2 emitted from power plants). ADM themselves have merely described this as reducing emissions from the corn ethanol refinery in question. The fossil-fuel CO2 emissions from powering the refinery alone are greater than the amount of CO2 captured from fermentation – so it most certainly can’t be deemed carbon negative.
As for the supposed other 15 pilot projects – might those be ones where CO2 is being captured from similar ethanol refineries and used to try and get more oil out of depleted oil fields (resulting in further fossil fuel carbon emissions), plus ones that use CO2 for fizzy drinks and food products? None of which could possibly be described as ‘carbon sequestration’.
In reality, there’s only one commercial-scale coal power station with CCS and none that burns biomass (and not even a pilot project form a biomass-burning plant). That one coal CCS project (Boundary Dam) has never yet operated successfully – and for the intermittent periods it’s worked at all, it’s used at least 30% of the plant’s energy just for carbon capture and compression. That figure would be far higher still in any potential BECCS power plant.
“…with just a little help from philanthropists, large-scale carbon removal (negative emissions) businesses stand poised to prosper in the not-too-distant future — in turn helping to make our long-term climate goals a reality…Carbon removal is critical to make the climate math add up, but often is missing in action.”
The article tells us how the IPCC’s 4th Assessment Report shows that Paris agreement’s climate goals present a large market opportunity, owing to the fact that the vast majority of scenarios that see the world hitting the 2 degree target will involve carbon dioxide removal, or negative emissions technologies.
It concludes with the statement: “The bottom line is that philanthropies stand at the door of a large opportunity around carbon removal. By opening the carbon removal conversation today, philanthropies can begin to unlock the economic, environmental and social value of the carbon removal industry of the future.”
The report, armed with the belief that first the IPCC and now the Paris Agreement have turned CDR and negative emissions technologies into an international imperative, aims to make it clearer to philanthropies what CRD proposals are available to be funded, and where future funding could be aimed to make an impact.
The report is revealing – though not necessarily for the reasons that its authors claim.
Interspersed with pearls of wisdom copied from various twitter feeds (including: “Removing CO2 from the atmosphere is and can be valuable”), a decent analysis of the various CDR proposals, their value to climate mitigation, and scalability, is decidedly lacking. Amongst the supposedly viable CDR options are biochar, Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage, direct air capture technologies, and mineral storage by extracting and spreading minerals such as silicates over large areas.
Ecosystem restoration and enhancement is also considered, which is potentially a powerful tool for effective climate action, though its relatively low level of current funding is not criticised.
Biochar and BECCS are the stand-out options for CDR funding though: biochar accounts for almost half of annual funding that is considered CDR or at least contributing to it, and BECCS takes the biggest slice of funding that could “help pave the way for carbon removal”, at more than a third.
Biochar has been roundly criticised for not living up to its hype, and has been shown to have very little potential as a positive climate solution (for more on this please see here).
BECCS similarly, under any degree of scrutiny, fails all of the key tests for being a genuine solution to climate change. The report wrongly states that bioenergy itself is low to carbon neutral, and that BECCS therefore results in carbon negative fuels. It also gives an example of funding for BECCS in action, citing the ADM Decatur ethanol fermentation plant in the USA, as an functioning example of the technology. But not even the plant’s operators, ADM, say that negative emissions are being achieved, due to the fact that fossil emissions involved in the ethanol fermentation process exceed the amounts of CO2 currently being captured.
The report does knowledge that the likely impacts of CRD technologies on ecosystems and communities are largely unknown, and that many face significant barriers to scalability, such as land requirements competing with food production, or simply on a technological level where working examples just don’t exist. It does also state that CRD shouldn’t get in the way of efforts to reduce emissions in the first place, or be seen as a substitute for drastic emissions reductions. Despite this though, it still touts fairytale technologies to potential funders as if they were proven solutions to climate change, which is deeply irresponsible.
The report tries to mask pro-industry opportunism for a genuine commitment to solving the climate crisis:
“The opportunities created by carbon removal — which span industries including forestry, agriculture, energy, manufacturing, and mining — hold the potential to foster new political coalitions that can increase pressure on politicians to pick up the pace on comprehensive climate action.”
In doing so, it only reinforces the “business-as-usual” scenario, keeping us firmly on the path to catastrophic climate change.
Are certain proposals to reduce carbon emissions based on technological hype?
At a COP21 side event last December, proponents of Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) hosted Mike Marsh, the CEO of publicly-owned Canadian energy company SaskPower. He presented on the ‘success’ of the first ever commercial coal power CCS project: the Boundary Dam Carbon Capture Project. It was inaugurated amongst great media fanfare in October 2014 and, according to SaskPower, it is capable of capturing 1 million tonnes of CO2every year.
Marsh must have hoped that the attendants wouldn’t have seen the flurry of bad media news that had just broken about the scheme. Saskatchewan’s opposition party had, under Freedom of Information provisions, obtained documents which belied his company’s claims that the scheme had ‘exceeded expectations’. They showed that the carbon capture plant had never been fully operational and had repeatedly been switched off for days or weeks at a time.
None of this stopped Marsh and the event organizers from continuing to tout the Boundary Dam project as a shining success. Nor were they deterred by a report by Saskatchewan Community Wind in March 2015, which illustrated that the CCS unit would result in more CO2emissions than a coal power station unit the same size that vented all of its CO2into the atmosphere. This is due to the fact that SaskPower sells the CO2 to an oil company, which pumps it into an ageing oil field in order to exploit oil which would not be recoverable otherwise. For every tonne of CO2pumped into the oilfield, at least 824 kilograms of CO2are released when the additional oil is burned. Moreover, 300 kilograms of the injected CO2escape during the process. During the Paris side event Marsh was questioned about the life-cycle emissions of the scheme, but chose not to answer.
This stark disconnect between CCS being hyped as a key solution to climate change and the dismal failure of CCS projects to reduce CO2emissions – or to work at all – sums up the strange role that this technology played during and around the COP21 climate negotiations.
One of the most hyped technologies in Paris was Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS). It is claimed that BECCS could suck vast amounts of carbon from the atmosphere, making it carbon negative. This claim relies on 3 assumptions: 1) that bioenergy can be carbon neutral even on a vast scale; 2) that the technology required for capturing CO2from biomass-burning power stations and from biofuel refineries is viable and that it won’t remain prohibitively expensive; and 3) that CO2pumped underground will safely remain there.
Experience with biofuels and industrial biomass shows that both lead to huge greenhouse gas emissions from forest destruction, land conversion, soil depletion, fertiliser use, etc.;
BECCS has never been tested, except for the capture of CO2from ethanol fermentation, which is much easier than capturing it from power stations. However, the carbon emissions resulting from the fossil fuels required to run these refineries are greater than the CO2captured, so this process is far from carbon-negative. The technical challenges and costs associated with BECCS are even greater than for coal CCS, and there’s not a single successful example of that yet either.
The long-term fate of CO2pumped underground remains unknown. Recent evidence has emerged that ‘sequestration’ is nowhere near as secure as thought. Just after the Biofuelwatch report came out, a study was published which showed that CO2pumped into saline aquifers can leak through cement in abandoned oil and gas wells – of which there are at least 2.5 million worldwide.
The Paris Agreement calls for CO2emissions to be ‘balanced’ by ‘removals’ during the second half of the century. No specific technology is mentioned but BECCS was the most widely touted ‘carbon negative technology’ at the COP.
CCS and BECCS are unlikely to ever be applied on a large scale. The technical challenges and dire energy balances simply don’t make this technology viable. It is the hype itself which poses the real danger: this fantasy idea serves little real purpose other than to provide false reassurance that we can still prevent catastrophic climate change without having to stop burning fossil fuels.
To mitigate climate change, has the planet “gambled its future on the appearance in a puff of smoke of a carbon-sucking fairy godmother”?
During the Paris climate summit late last year, European policy analyst Oliver Geden’s New York Timesop-ed “The dubious carbon budget” warned that “we’re on the verge of repeating the same mistake that led to the financial crisis: relying on economic models that are completely detached from what’s going on in the real world.” With “magical thinking” and “questionable accounting,” Geden charged, climate scientists and economists are “betting primarily” on an unproven solution: BECCS, or bioenergy with carbon capture and storage. As a voice questioning BECCS, Geden isn’t alone in the media, but Nature in particular has been amplifying the warning.
Just before the Paris meeting, Nature’s Jeff Tollefson contributed the news feature “Is the 2 °C world a fantasy?” The subhead cautioned, “Countries have pledged to limit global warming to 2 °C, and climate models say that is still possible. But only with heroic—and unlikely—efforts.” The piece examined the proposition that it’s possible to pull “Earth back from the brink” using the method of driving “emissions into negative territory—essentially sucking greenhouse gases from the skies—by vastly increasing the use of bioenergy, capturing the CO2 generated and then pumping it underground on truly massive scales.”
Tollefson explained the use of a combination of bioenergy and carbon capture and storage (CCS):
The system starts with planting crops that are harvested and either processed to make biofuels or burnt to generate electricity, which provide carbon-neutral power because the plants absorb CO2 as they grow. The CO2 created when the plants are processed is captured and pumped underground, and the process as a whole eats up more emissions than it creates. A consortium sponsored by the US Department of Energy has tested such a system at one facility that produces bioethanol fuel in Illinois, but neither bioenergy nor CCS has been demonstrated on anywhere near the scales imagined by the models.
Tollefson reported that some scientists argue that the 2 °C scenarios “seem so optimistic and detached from current political realities that they verge on the farcical.” He continued:
Although the caveats and uncertainties are all spelled out in the scientific literature, there is concern that the 2 °C modelling effort has distorted the political debate by obscuring the scale of the challenge. In particular, some researchers have questioned the viability of large-scale bioenergy use with carbon capture and storage, on which many models now rely as a relatively cheap way to provide substantial negative emissions. The entire exercise has opened up a rift in the scientific community, with some people raising ethical questions about whether scientists are bending to the will of politicians and government funders who want to maintain 2 °C as a viable political target.
Just after the Paris meeting, Nature published a commentary by Kevin Anderson, deputy director of the UK’s Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research. He praised December’s Paris climate agreement as the 21st century’s equivalent to “the victory of heliocentrism over the inquisition,” but warned that “it risks being total fantasy.” He insisted that what’s required is “urgent and significant cuts in emissions.” He lamented, though, that “rather than requiring that nations reduce emissions in the short-to-medium term, the Paris agreement instead rests on the assumption that the world will successfully suck the carbon pollution it produces back from the atmosphere in the longer term.” He cautioned that a “few years ago, these exotic Dr Strangelove options were discussed only as last-ditch contingencies. Now they are Plan A.”
Anderson’s final paragraphs escalated in tone to an outright bitter ending:
The allying of deep and early reductions in energy demand with rapid substitution of fossil fuels by zero-carbon alternatives frames a 2 °C agenda that does not rely on negative emissions. So why was this real opportunity muscled out by the economic bouncers in Paris? No doubt there are many elaborate and nuanced explanations—but the headline reason is simple. In true Orwellian style, the political and economic dogma that has come to pervade all facets of society must not be questioned. For many years, green-growth oratory has quashed any voice with the audacity to suggest that the carbon budgets associated with 2 °C cannot be reconciled with the mantra of economic growth.
I was in Paris, and there was a real sense of unease among many scientists present. The almost euphoric atmosphere that accompanied the circulation of the various drafts could not be squared with their content. Desperate to maintain order, a club of senior figures and influential handlers briefed against those who dared to say so—just look at some of the Twitter discussions!
It is pantomime season and the world has just gambled its future on the appearance in a puff of smoke of a carbon-sucking fairy godmother. The Paris agreement is a road map to a better future? Oh no it’s not.
In a 10 February editorial, Nature’s editors continued raising the BECCS alarm. They characterized interest in it as a fad, cited Anderson’s deep skepticism, and directed readers’ attention to a Naturecommentary in which environmental scientist Phil Williamson, as the editors put it, “takes a hard look at some of the questions that BECCS seems to pose, and finds few answers.”
They summarized some of Williamson’s questions:
How would we preserve forests and grasslands, faced with such a demand for energy crops? How much carbon would be released during the agricultural stage? How much water will we need, and where will we get it? How much will it cost to build the network of compressors, pipes, pumps and tanks that will be needed to liquefy and transport the separated CO2? Can it even be separated at a sensible cost?
Williamson argued that it’s time “to invest in new, internationally coordinated studies to investigate the viability and relative safety of large-scale CO2 removal.” One passage in particular indicted BECCS:
Limiting the global temperature rise to 2 °C, with any confidence, would require the removal of some 600 gigatonnes of CO2 over this century (the median estimate of what is needed). Using BECCS, this would probably require crops to be planted solely for the purpose of CO2 removal on between 430 million and 580 million hectares of land—around one-third of the current total arable land on the planet, or about half the land area of the United States.
Unless there are remarkable increases in agricultural productivity, greatly exceeding the needs of a growing global population, the land requirements to make BECCS work would vastly accelerate the loss of primary forest and natural grassland. Thus, such dependence on BECCS could cause a loss of terrestrial species at the end of the century perhaps worse than the losses resulting from a temperature increase of about 2.8 °C above pre-industrial levels.
A more fundamental concern is whether BECCS would be as effective as it is widely assumed to be at stripping CO2 from the atmosphere. Planting at such scale could involve more release than uptake of greenhouse gases, at least initially, as a result of land clearance, soil disturbance and increased use of fertilizer.
In the Times, Geden’s op-ed observed that the “public has taken little, if any, notice” of the BECCS basis for climate planning. In any case, the questions aren’t new. In September 2014, for example, the Nature Climate Changearticle “Betting on negative emissions” summarized itself this way: “Bioenergy with carbon capture and storage could be used to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. However, its credibility as a climate change mitigation option is unproven and its widespread deployment in climate stabilization scenarios might become a dangerous distraction.”
In January 2016, MIT Technology Review published “The dubious promise of bioenergy plus carbon capture: Climate change agreements rest on negative emissions technologies that may be unachievable.” BECCS questions have appeared in a few other places in the media as well, including at the Guardian.
There Geden published a piece based on his May 2015 Naturecommentary, whose warning to scientists was encapsulated in the headline and subhead: “Climate advisers must maintain integrity: As global negotiations fail on emissions reductions, scientific advisers need to resist pressure to fit the facts to the failure.”
Rather than spread “false optimism” that purports to justify going deeply into emissions debt in hopes of catching up in later decades, Geden urged scientific advisers to “stand firm and defend their intellectual independence, findings and recommendations—no matter how politically unpalatable.”
Steven T. Corneliussen, a media analyst for the American Institute of Physics, monitors three national newspapers, the weeklies Nature and Science, and occasionally other publications. He has published op-eds in the Washington Post and other newspapers, has written for NASA’s history program, and was a science writer at a particle-accelerator laboratory.