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.

Using forests to curb climate change threatens human rights

rainforest
Kim Seng/Flickr CC

by Fred Pearce (Thomson Reuters Foundation News)

Trees offer ways to help achieve “negative emissions”, but what does that mean for forest communities?

The 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change was a landmark the world rightly applauded. Its pledge to limit global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius – and preferably 1.5 degrees – lays down one of humanity’s greatest challenge for the 21st century. But how to achieve it?

Climate scientists say it is almost an impossible task if we only rely on reducing emissions from our power stations, transport systems and factories.  Even ending deforestation will be insufficient. They say we will have to find ways of removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere: “negative emissions” in the climate-change jargon.

There are many schemes for how do this using chemistry and geology, but some are wildly expensive and others are not yet feasible. The most likely current option though, is giving terrestrial plants such as trees or bioenergy crops a helping hand in photosynthesising more CO2 from the air.

Here are the four main proposals for how this could be done, and their implications – which until now have barely been considered:

1. Sink forests: The most straightforward method of removing CO2 from the atmosphere is to boost nature’s primary terrestrial carbon store, by creating giant “carbon sink” forests to permanently hold carbon in timber and soil.

To assure these forests did their job, there would have to be a programme to maintain their carbon-holding power as they age and trees die. A critical question is how permanent these carbon sinks could be in the face of inevitable climate change. They could succumb to droughts or migrating pests – potentially releasing their carbon stores into the atmosphere and turbo-charging climate change.

One huge potential drawback is that calculations to date suggest that planting enough trees to soak up and store 500 billion tonnes of CO2 before the end of the century would likely require around 10 million square kilometres of land. That is an area the size of the Sahara or the US.

2. Bioenergy forests: Rather than trying to create carbon-sink forests that hold carbon forever, an alternative is to make productive use of them, by harvesting the timber and burning it in power stations as a substitute for fossil fuels. Provided the burned trees are replaced by new ones, the CO2 emissions from burning would be neutralised by the regrowth. That’s the theory, anyhow.

Would it work in practice? The best place to look is where bioenergy is already used as a strategy for reducing CO2 emissions. The European Union already incentivises biomass burning in power plants and heating systems. Almost half of harvested timber in the EU is now used for the generation of electricity or heating.

It has led to a boom in industrial forestry. Yet, worryingly, countries that rely most on biomass for energy, such as Slovakia and Romania, have the least credible systems for ensuring that harvested trees are replaced. Without that obligation, the idea that the fuel is renewable or carbon-neutral is a sham.

“You could cut down the Amazon, turn it into a parking lot, ship the trees to Europe to replace coal, and Europe would claim a reduction in emissions,” argues Tim Searchinger of Princeton University.

The presumed carbon-neutrality of biomass forests ignores the time lag involved.  Burning trees in a power station results in the immediate mass release of their carbon in the form of CO2. But the replacement trees only soak up the equivalent amount of CO2 gradually, as they grow.

There are therefore serious questions about the sustainability and carbon credentials of bioenergy in its current form.

3. BECCS: The third proposal for turning forests into a way of generating negative emissions is, for many climate scientists the Holy Grail. It involves combining bioenergy forests with technology being developed for capturing CO2 going up the power station stack and then burying it out of harm’s way – for instance in old salt mines or abandoned oil wells. This is known as Carbon Capture and Storage.

In the complete system, known as Biomass with Carbon Capture and Storage Carbon (BECCS), carbon is captured from the air by growing trees, burned to generate energy and then buried. In theory, the more energy is generated, the more CO2 is sucked out of the air.

BECCS is a better use of land than permanent carbon-sink forests, say its advocates, because harvested trees can be replaced with new trees. And it is better than normal bioenergy because it avoids emissions from power stations. So every time the land set aside for trees is replanted, more carbon can be captured, doubling up on the negative emissions. If two growing cycles could be accomplished by the end of the century, then the amount of land needed to capture 500 billion tonnes by 2100 could be halved to maybe 5 million square kilometres.

No BECCS project is yet in operation. And while the basic technology is used on a small scale in the oil industry, the idea of doing it on a huge scale, as a continuous process that remove emissions from major power plants across the world, raises huge questions about its practicability and sustainability.

Whatever the carbon gains from negative-emissions technologies, they have to exist in a world of competing demand for – and rights to – land. And converting land into carbon-sink forests would involve a land grab on a scale never seen before: a human rights calamity, with major implications for food security and biodiversity.

Looked at from the forests, this appears neither green nor renewable. It seems like a recipe for the industrialisation of environmentalism, with vast swathes of the world’s most diverse forest ecosystems turned into barren carbon factories – and their inhabitants into, at best, factory hands.

A new approach is required. One based not on creating a vast new industry for sucking carbon from the air, but on reinstating nature’s ability to store carbon in a landscape also occupied by humans – which leads us to the last of the four current options for creating carbon sinks:

4. Natural regeneration: Properly conceived, many argue, reinstating natural ecosystems could play a huge role in negative emissions, without riding roughshod over other global priorities. The Stockholm Environment Institute recently concluded that simply allowing former natural forests and degraded forest areas to regrow could lock up some 330 billion tonnes of CO2.

There are plenty of examples already of what this could mean. Twenty-five years ago, Guatemala created the Maya Biosphere Reserve. The aim was to protect the largest remaining tropical rainforest in Central America. At the time, conservationists were angry that government officials set up a dozen zones inside the reserve where local communities could do small-scale logging.

Today that seems like a stroke of genius. The forests in the core protected areas of the reserve are rapidly being lost, as cattle ranchers invade. But the community forests, jealously guarded by locals, thrive. Their deforestation rates are only 5 percent of those in the supposedly “protected” areas. On current trends, 40 percent of the reserve will be stripped of forests by 2050, and most of what survives will be in the community-run areas.

There is a lesson here for those who seek to commandeer the world’s forests as carbon sinks. Community consent is not just vital; it is the touchstone for success.

Fred Pearce’s new report for Fern on negative emissions technologies is called Going Negative – How carbon sinks could cost the Earth.

Nature spotlights deep skepticism about bioenergy with carbon capture and storage

Switchgrass - an "energy crop" proposed for BECCS. eXtension Farm Energy Community of Practice CC BY-NC 2.0by Steven T. Corneliussen (Physics Today)

To mitigate climate change, has the planet “gambled its future on the appearance in a puff of smoke of a carbon-sucking fairy godmother”?

ETC’s Irreverent Review of 2015… and (possibly) Irrelevant Preview of 2016

etc_kitty_kitty_cartoonDownload the full review here.

The Year that Ended Dangerously

If El Niño weren’t enough, the extraordinary winds that struck Yemen and Mexico’s Pacific Coast were matched by record-breaking forest fires in the Indonesian archipelago, droughts, torrential rains and floods from Australia to the British Isles and heat-waves on the east coast of North America (in winter). Much of this was El Niño, of course, but some of it was climate change – and all of it wound up in Paris with calls for geoengineering …2015 was the year that ended dangerously.

Editorial

Realpolitik in Paris. ETC Group feels like the Grinch Group that stole Christmas when we complain about Paris. Yes, there was a heightened level of awareness and commitment palpable among governments and civil society and, yes, governments are committed to reporting back every five years creating a space in which many believe it will be self-evident that they need to up their game and commit to bigger and faster GHG cutbacks. As importantly, 2015 was the year in which CSO Climate Change Campaigners worked together better than ever before and often supported one another even when we didn’t entirely agree with the tactics. From the World Social Forum in Tunis in March on through the preparatory sessions in Paris and Bonn and then right through Paris again at COP21, folks were trying to understand each other’s positions, agreeing on many points even though not everybody spoke out. Sadly, some CSOs and online clicktavism brands felt they owed their followers a victory and resolved to celebrate regardless of reality. False optimism is still lying to your friends – a very high-risk tactic. For industrialized countries at least, climate change continues to be a distant disaster and politicians are still punting the ball down the road an election or two. The realpolitik defense – that Paris was the best it could be – needs a reality check.

Realpolitik is only admirable if it creates the political space for an eventual victory. In Paris, we lost time – and ground – that we can’t recover.

How so? Almost nobody that was in Paris believes we can keep temperatures in 2100 below 2°C much less 1.5°C. Most everybody recognizes that we will blow past our GHG quota for the 21st century by around 2036 and everything after that will push us somewhere north of 3°C.1 To justify the difference between government promises on reductions and reality, politicians accepted the myth offered by the fossil fuel industry and other major manufacturers that somewhere around midcentury they will invent geoengineering technologies that can capture CO2 at the smokestack or the wellhead. Most scientists and many politicians know this is ridiculous. It’s like sending our children home on a school bus that has to cross a chasm but the bridge hasn’t been built yet and the bus has brakes tested by Volkswagen. When politicians realize they can’t suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere they will default to another form of geoengineering – Solar Radiation Management (SRM) – another mythical techno-fix that can (wrongly) appear cheap, easy, and can be controlled by a single country or a “coalition of the willing” usurping the planetary thermostat for themselves.

Leading into – and out of – Paris, the call for geoengineering is calamitous and growing as evidenced by 9 books and 1100 news stories on geoengineering in 2015 alone. Realpolitik, again, will suggest that we have no choice. But the reality in Paris is that industry bought itself the time it needs to protect its trillions of dollars of assets and politicians will slip past the next election unfettered by climate commitments. Despite everybody’s best intentions, the illusion of geoengineering is letting industry off the hook and when the time comes to deploy solar radiation management, the people in charge will not be the poor and marginalized betrayed by their governments in Paris. Paris was a tragic failure. Realpolitik is what politicians do when they don’t do courage.

To read the full review, please download the pdf here.

Talks in the city of light generate more heat

COP21_-_CC_SurfnicoRather than relying on far-off negative-emissions technologies, Paris needed to deliver a low-carbon road map for today, argues Kevin Anderson in Nature. (A longer version of this article can be found here.)

The climate agreement delivered earlier this month in Paris is a genuine triumph of international diplomacy. It is a tribute to how France was able to bring a fractious world together. And it is testament to how assiduous and painstaking science can defeat the unremitting programme of misinformation that is perpetuated by powerful vested interests. It is the twenty-first century’s equivalent to the victory of heliocentrism over the inquisition. Yet it risks being total fantasy.

Let’s be clear, the international community not only acknowledged the seriousness of climate change, it also demonstrated sufficient unanimity to define it quantitatively: to hold “the increase in … temperature to well below 2°C … and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C”.

To achieve such goals demands urgent and significant cuts in emissions. But 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. A few years ago, these exotic Dr Strangelove options were discussed only as last-ditch contingencies. Now they are Plan A.

Governments, prompted by their advisers, have plumped for BECCS (biomass energy carbon capture and storage) as the most promising ‘negative-emissions technology’.

What does BECCS entail? Apportioning huge swathes of the planet’s landmass to the growing of bioenergy crops (from big trees to tall grasses) — which absorb carbon dioxide through photosynthesis as they grow. Periodically, these crops are harvested, processed for worldwide travel and shipped around the globe before finally being combusted in thermal power stations. The CO2 is then stripped from the waste gases, compressed (almost to a liquid), pumped through large pipes over potentially very long distances and finally stored deep underground in various geological formations (from exhausted oil and gas reservoirs through to saline aquifers) for a millennium or so.

The unquestioned reliance on negative-emission technologies to deliver on the Paris goals is the greatest threat to the new agreement. Yet BECCS, or even negative-emission technologies, received no direct reference throughout the 32-page package. Despite this, the framing of the 2°C goal and, even more, the 1.5°C one, is premised on the massive uptake of BECCS some time in the latter half of the century. Disturbingly, this is also the case for most of the temperature estimates ascribed to the outcome of the voluntary emissions cuts made by nations before the Paris meeting.

The scale of the assumption is breathtaking. It would be the equivalent of decades of planting and harvesting of energy crops over an area of one to three times that of India. At the same time, the aviation industry envisages powering its planes with biofuel, the shipping industry is seriously considering biomass to propel its ships and the chemical sector sees biomass as a potential feedstock — and by then there will be 9 billion or so human mouths to feed. This crucial assumption deserves wider scrutiny.

Relying on the promise of industrial-scale negative-emissions technologies to balance the carbon budget was not the only option available in Paris — at least in relation to 2°C.

Reducing emissions in line with 2°C remains a viable goal — just. But rather than rely on post-2050 BECCS, deciding to pursue this alternative approach would have begged profound political, economic and social questions. Questions that undermine a decade of mathematically nebulous green-growth and win–win rhetoric, and questions that the politicians have decided cannot be asked.

Move away from the cosy tenets of contemporary economics and a suite of alternative measures comes into focus. Technologies, behaviours and habits that feed energy demand are all amenable to significant and rapid change. Combine this with an understanding that just 10% of the population is responsible for 50% of emissions, and the rate and scope of what is possible becomes evident.

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.