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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A sustainable solution to the climate crisis will also work to alleviate poverty and seek climate justice, says Friends of the Earth Germany
“A future without climate chaos for all human beings on our planet is only possible if we don’t pin our hopes on large-scale technologies. Instead, we have to make sure that the energy and agricultural transitions are being pushed forward as fast as possible,” said Heinrich Böll Foundation president Barbara Unmüßig
At the upcoming United Nations climate conference in Morocco, negotiations for how to fulfill COP21‘s agreement to limit global warming to 1.5º Celsius must emphasize methods that will also alleviate poverty and climate injustice, rather than leaning on “questionable technologies” such as geoengineering and carbon offset, says Friends of the Earth (FOE) Germany.
“We cannot count on unproven, costly, and ecologically risky negative emission technologies to save us from climate chaos.”
Friends of the Earth Germany
The climate conference will take place in Marrakech, Morocco, from November 7-18.
The report takes aim at popular so-called “negative emissions” technologies, such as geoengineering, carbon offset regimes, and bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS), arguing that leaders must pursue true sustainability instead.
“The fatal flaw of all negative emissions technology proposals is this: The hope for an atmospheric line of credit allows today’s urgent need for radical reductions in CO2 emissions to fall by the wayside,” the report argues. “What’s currently Plan B is in fact the best way to force Plan A into the background—a fundamentally different economy, one that preserves the planet for all forms of life.”
Instead of such “questionable technologies,” the report argues for policies that have poverty reduction and climate justice as their central focus.
“In reaction to the Paris Agreement, we need to phase out coal, speed up the transition to renewables, phase out combustion engines, and protect and restore forests and soils,” explained Hubert Weiger, chairman of Friends of the Earth Germany, in a statement.
“It is crystal clear that effective climate protection and equitable, sustainable development can only be considered together,” added Heinrich Böll Foundation president Barbara Unmüßig. “A future without climate chaos for all human beings on our planet is only possible if we don’t pin our hopes on large-scale technologies. Instead, we have to make sure that the energy and agricultural transitions are being pushed forward as fast as possible. Technological fixes such as geoengineering are betting on future possibilities such as sucking CO2 from the atmosphere or keeping sunlight away from the Earth. This is a dangerous distraction from the necessary steps that we can already implement today. The coming-into-force of the Paris Agreement asks for exactly this change in course.”
“As northern countries that have caused the climate catastrophe, we need to lead by example,” Weiger continued. “We cannot count on unproven, costly, and ecologically risky negative emission technologies to save us from climate chaos. If we postpone implementing the traditional climate mitigation solutions, we will miss the rapidly closing window of opportunity to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees.”
Indeed, new research has shown that the goal to limit warming to 1.5º is already a long-shot.
“The vague hope that we could all survive in a world that is 3 degrees warmer than before industrialization is deceptive,” said Pirmin Spiegel, director general of MISEREOR. “It is our responsibility to safeguard the lives of millions of people by limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees. This is not only a technological challenge; instead, it has widespread societal and cultural implications that we all have to face.”
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The Paris Agreement on climate change and the carbon-reduction plans of many governments (including the UK) are unwittingly reliant on unproven technologies to suck hundreds of billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide directly from the atmosphere.
The journal Science has published a Perspective which reveals the scale and widespread reliance on ‘negative emissions technologies’, which remain at best experimental. Nevertheless the models being used to advise governments on what action to take are dominated by such highly speculative technologies – with many assuming their mass roll-out beginning within the decade.
“The beguiling appeal of relying on future negative emission technologies (NETs) is that they delay the need for stringent and politically challenging polices today – they pass the buck for reducing carbon on to future generations” said Kevin Anderson, co-author of the paper and Professor at the Universities of Manchester and Uppsala. “But if these Dr. Strangelove technologies fail to deliver at the planetary scale envisaged, our own children will be forced to endure the consequences of rapidly rising temperatures and a highly unstable climate.”
The scale of carbon removal emerging from the models underpinning governments’ thinking on climate change is breathtaking. By the middle of the century many of the models assume as much removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by negative emission technologies as is absorbed naturally today by all of the world’s oceans and plants combined.
Despite the modelling community’s reliance on negative emission technologies, there are no proven means by which we can remove carbon dioxide at such unprecedented scales” says Dr Glen Peters, a Senior Researcher at the Center for International Climate and Environmental Research – Oslo (CICERO) and co-author of the paper.
“Yet almost all of the scenarios with a likely chance of not exceeding 2°C and considered by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (the IPCC) assume that the large scale roll out of negative emission technologies is technically and economically viable.”
Dr Peters points to how “Carbon dioxide removal is an extremely attractive technology for fossil fuel companies, as they can continue production whilst shifting the burden of mitigation on to future generations.”
It is not well understood by many decision makers, NGOs and even academics working on climate change, that the climate models informing governments are so dependent on such a massive deployment of speculative and unproven technologies.
“The inclusion of the still more ambitious 1.5°C goal in Paris, relies on a belief in even greater levels of carbon removal. Without negative emissions, holding to a 1.5°C rise demands that the global economy fully decarbonises within a decade,” says Professor Anderson.
Negative emission technologies are not an insurance policy. They are a high risk gamble with tomorrow’s generations, particularly those living in poor and climatically vulnerable communities, set to pay the price if our high stakes bet fails to deliver as promised.
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
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.
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.