The Phantom of the COP21 Opera: bioenergy with carbon capture and storage

BECCS infographicv2by Oliver Munnion, Global Forest Coalition blog

Yesterday I went to a briefing at the COP21 summit on how realistic achieving a 1.5 degree target as part of the Paris climate deal is, as opposed to the 2 degree target that was first proposed. At the end of the briefing, I spoke to the climate scientist who had been outlining the case that 1.5 degrees is achievable, and handed him a copy of our new report, which questions all of the underlying assumptions of Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS).

He looked at me and said: “You do realise that 1.5 degrees won’t work without BECCS, right?”.

To which I replied: “Yes, but BECCS won’t work either.”

“Without BECCS, it’s impossible.” he replied again.

Here was a well respected, well published, and socially-concious climate scientist, participating in an NGO briefing, and advocating the roll-out of bioenergy with carbon capture and storage at an unprecedented scale. Though he didn’t actually say so. This short but bizarre conversation neatly highlights the crux of the problem with any emissions reductions targets that will come out of Paris. Achieving them will be based on a phantom technology, that can’t be scaled up, and is as likely to save the planet from climate chaos as the miraculous arrival to Earth of carbon-sequestering extra terrestrials.

Most of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) scenarios that limit global temperature increases to 2 degrees include some form of “negative emissions”. That’s the idea that carbon can be sucked out of the atmosphere and stored in a solid form, not in the atmosphere. Exactly like a tree does. But according to the IPCC, the most appropriate technology that will be capable of doing this is BECCS, where carbon is captured from bioenergy infrastructure like biomass power stations or biofuel refineries, and pumped underground.

This is really significant – it means that the IPCC and most of its models don’t think that limiting global temperature rises to 2 degrees is possible through emissions reductions alone (achieved through, say, leaving fossil fuels in the ground and halting deforestation) without a technology that, for all intents and proposes, doesn’t exist yet. And it’s for this reason that the Paris climate agreement will use the language of “net emissions reductions”, instead of simply “emissions reductions”.

The 1.5, 2 or 3 degrees debate is a purely a semantic one if underlying all of these targets is the belief by governments and industry that they can keep on polluting, because negative emissions technologies will allow this pollution to be offset. It’s also semantic because nobody knows for sure how sensitive the climate actually is to greenhouse gases. The only possibility of avoiding 1.5 degrees warming would be for climate sensitivity to be at the lowest end of what models suggests. Which is hardly something that can be negotiated in Paris.

Dangerously high CO2 levels in the atmosphere do require us to work towards meaningful and applicable responses. And these do exist – keeping fossil fuels in the ground, ending the destruction of ecosystems and soils, and tackling emissions from agriculture are real and proven ways of ending greenhouse gas emissions. And we do need to find proven ways of removing past emissions from the atmosphere. Replacing industrial agriculture with agroecology, and allowing degraded and destroyed ecosystems to regenerate or helping to restore them, are proven ways of doing so. But proposing sci-fi “solutions” like BECCS to the climate crisis is totally irresponsible.

Biofuelwatch has just published the first critical and in-depth study on BECCS. The report examines the different BECCS technologies proposed, and the role of the IPCC in this debate. So far, only very small-scale BECCS projects have been attempted, and have all involved capturing some CO2 from ethanol refining. However, the carbon emissions from the fossil fuels burned to power the refineries are greater than the amount of carbon captured, and not even the companies involved say that these projects are carbon-negative. In relation to carbon capture from power plants, the report also carefully examines the experience with coal-fired Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) projects. It looks in detail at the technical and economic viability of the technologies involved, at the credibility of the idea that large-scale BECCS could be carbon-negative, at the evidence regarding the reliability of carbon storage, and at the greenhouse gas impacts of combining Carbon Capture and Storage with Enhanced Oil Recovery.

The report can be downloaded here, and for more on the BECCS issue in the context of the Paris climate talks, please read this article by Biofuelwatch co-Director Almuth Ernsting.

We need regenerative farming, not geoengineering

The quick fix mindset behind geoengineering must be transformed to one that seeks a humble partnership with nature if we are to address climate change

by Charles Eisenstein (Guardian)

 Intensive agricultural systems overlook the ecological benefits of regenerative farming. Photograph: blickwinkel/Alamy
Intensive agricultural systems overlook the ecological benefits of regenerative farming. Photograph: blickwinkel/Alamy

Geoengineering has been back in the news recently after the US National Research Council endorsed a proposal to envelop the planet in a layer of sulphate aerosols to reduce solar radiation and cool the atmosphere.

The proposal has been widely criticised for possible unintended consequences, such as ozone depletion, ocean acidification and reduced rainfall in the tropics. Perhaps even more troubling, geoengineering is a technological fix that leaves the economic and industrial system causing climate change untouched.

The mindset behind geoengineering stands in sharp contrast to an emerging ecological, systems approach taking shape in the form of regenerative agriculture. More than a mere alternative strategy, regenerative agriculture represents a fundamental shift in our culture’s relationship to nature.

Regenerative agriculture comprises an array of techniques that rebuild soil and, in the process, sequester carbon. Typically, it uses cover crops and perennials so that bare soil is never exposed, and grazes animals in ways that mimic animals in nature. It also offers ecological benefits far beyond carbon storage: it stops soil erosion, remineralises soil, protects the purity of groundwater and reduces damaging pesticide and fertiliser runoff.

But these methods are slow, expensive and impractical in feeding a growing population, right?

Wrong. While comprehensive statistics are hard to come by, yields from regenerative methods often exceed conventional yields (see here and here for scientific research, and here and here for anecdotal examples). Likewise, since these methods build soil, crowd out weeds and retain moisture, fertiliser and herbicide inputs can be reduced or eliminated entirely, resulting in higher profits for farmers. No-till methods can sequester as much as a ton of carbon per acre annually (2.5 tons/hectare). In the US alone, that could amount to nearly a quarter of current emissions.

Estimates of the total potential impact vary. Rattan Lal of Ohio State University argues that desertified and otherwise degraded soils could sequester up to 3bn tons of carbon per year (equal to 11bn tons of CO2, or nearly one third of current emissions). Other experts foresee even greater potential. According to research at the Rodale Institute, if instituted universally, organic regenerative techniques practiced on cultivated land could offset over 40% of global emissions, while practicing them on pasture land could offset 71%.

That adds up to land-based CO2 reduction of over 100% of current emissions – and that doesn’t even include reforestation and afforestation, which could offset another 10-15%, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Of course, none of this is license to perpetuate a fossil fuel infrastructure, since there is an eventual limit to the amount of carbon that soil and biomass can store.

Given that they are better even from purely commercial considerations, why haven’t regenerative practices spread more quickly? An answer commonly offered by farmers themselves is that “people are slow to change.” Maybe so, but in this case there is more to it than that. Regenerative agriculture represents more than a shift of practices. It is also a shift in paradigm and in our basic relationship to nature – as a comparison with geoengineering highlights.

First, regenerative agriculture seeks to mimic nature, not dominate it. As Ray Archuleta, a soil-health specialist at the USDA, puts it, “We want to go away from control and command agriculture. We should farm in nature’s image.” In contrast, geoengineering seeks to take our centuries-long domination of nature to a new extreme, making the entire planet an object of manipulation.

Second, regenerative agriculture is a departure from linear thinking and its control of variables through mechanical and chemical means. It values the diversity of polycultures, in which animals and plants form a complex, symbiotic, robust system. Geoengineering, on the other hand, ignores the law of unintended consequences that plagues any attempt to engineer a highly nonlinear system. It exemplifies linear thinking: if the atmosphere is too warm, add a cooling factor. But who knows what will happen?

Third, regenerative agriculture seeks to address the deep basis of ecological health: the soil. It sees low fertility, runoff and other problems as symptoms, not the root problem. Geoengineering, on the other hand, addresses the symptom – global warming – while leaving the cause untouched.

There is no quick fix

Unlike geoengineering’s quick fix, regenerative agriculture cannot be implemented at scale without deep cultural changes. We must turn away from an attitude of nature-as-engineering-object to one of humble partnership. Whereas geoengineering is a global solution that feeds the logic of centralisation and the economics of globalism, regeneration of soil and forests is fundamentally local: forest by forest, farm by farm. These are not generic solutions, because the requirements of the land are unique to each place. Unsurprisingly, they are typically more labour-intensive than conventional practices, because they require a direct, intimate relationship to the land.

Ultimately, climate change challenges us to rethink our long-standing separation from nature in which we think we can endlessly engineer our way out of the damage we have caused. It is calling us back to our biophilia, our love of nature and of life, our desire to care for all beings whether or not they make greenhouse gas numbers go up or down.

Geoengineering, beyond its catastrophic risks, is an attempt to avoid that call, to extend the mindset of domination and control to new extremes, and to prolong an economy of overconsumption a few years longer. It is time to fall in love with the land, the soil, and the trees, to halt their destruction and to serve their restoration. It is time for agricultural policy and practice to become aligned with regeneration.