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.

The hidden agenda: how veiled techno – utopias shore up the Paris Agreement

Eucalyptus plantation on land grabbed from traditional communities in Brazil, specifically for biomass energy. Ivonete Gonçalves de Souza
Eucalyptus plantation on land grabbed from traditional communities in Brazil, specifically for biomass energy. Ivonete Gonçalves de Souza

by Kevin Anderson (kevinanderson.info)

The Paris Agreement is a genuine triumph of international diplomacy and of how the French people brought an often fractious world together to see beyond national self interest. Moreover, the agreement is testament to how assiduous and painstaking science ultimately defeated the unremitting programme of misinformation by powerful vested interests. It is the Twentyfirst century’s equivalent to the success of Heliocentrism over the malign and unscientific inquisition.

The international community not only acknowledged the seriousness of climate change, but demonstrated sufficient unanimity to quantitatively define it: to hold “the increase in … temperature to well below 2°C … and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C”. But, as the time-weary idiom suggests, “the devil is in the detail” – or perhaps more importantly, the lack of it.

So how then can such an unprecedented and momentous Agreement have potentially sown the seeds of its own demise? Likewise, why did some amongst the senior echelons of the climate change community see fit to unleash their rottweilers on those scientists voicing legitimate concern as to the evolving detail of the Agreement?

The deepest challenge to whether the Agreement succeeds or fails, will not come from the incessant sniping of sceptics and luke-warmers or those politicians favouring a literal reading of Genesis over Darwin. Instead, it was set in train many years ago by a cadre of well-meaning scientists, engineers and economists investigating a Plan B. What if the international community fails to recognise that temperatures relate to ongoing cumulative emissions of greenhouse gases, particularly carbon dioxide? What if world leaders remain doggedly committed to a scientifically illiterate focus on 2050 (“not in my term of office”)? By then, any ‘carbon budget’ for even an outside chance of 2°C will have been squandered – and our global experiment will be hurtling towards 4°C or more. Hence
the need to develop a Plan B.

Well the answer was simple. If we choose to continue our love affair with oil, coal and gas, loading the atmosphere with evermore carbon dioxide, then at some later date when sense prevails, we’ll be forced to attempt sucking our carbon back out of the atmosphere. Whilst a plethora of exotic Dr Strangelove options vie for supremacy to deliver on such a grand project, those with the ear of governments have plumped for BECCS (biomass energy carbon capture and storage) as the most promising “negative emission technology”. However these government advisors (Integrated Assessment Modellers – clever folk developing ‘cost-optimised’ solutions to 2°C by combining physics with economic and behavioural modelling) no longer see negative emission technologies as a last ditch Plan B – but rather now promote it as central pivot of the one and only Plan.

So what exactly does BECCS entail? Apportioning huge swathes of the planet’s landmass to the growing of bioenergy crops (from trees to tall grasses) – which, as they grow, absorb carbon dioxide through photosynthesis. Periodically these crops are harvested; processed for worldwide travel; shipped all around the globe and finally combusted in thermal power stations. The carbon dioxide 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 Agreement. Yet BECCS, or even negative emission technologies, received no direct reference throughout the thirty two-page Paris Agreement. Despite this, the framing of the 2°C and (even more) the 1.5°C, goals, is fundamentally premised on the massive uptake of BECCS sometime in the latter half of the century. Disturbingly, this reliance on BECCS is also the case for most of the temperature estimates (e.g. 2.7°C) ascribed to the national pledges (INDCs) prior to the Paris COP.

The sheer scale of the BECCS assumption underpinning the Agreement is breath taking – decades of ongoing planting and harvesting of energy crops over an area the size of one to three times that of India. At the same time the aviation industry anticipates fuelling its planes with biofuel, the shipping industry is seriously considering biomass to power its ships and the chemical sector sees biomass as a potential feedstock. And then there are 9 billion or so human mouths to feed. Surely this critical assumption deserved serious attention within the Agreement?

Relying on the promise of industrial scale negative emission technologies to balance our carbon budget was not the only option available to Paris – at least in relation to 2°C. With CO2 emissions in 2015 over 60% higher than at the time of the first IPCC report in 1990, the carbon budget for 1.5°C has been all but eliminated. However, reducing emissions in line with 2°C does remain a viable goal – just.

But rather than rely on tenuous post-2050 BECCS, this alternative approach begs immediate and profound political, economic and social questions; questions that undermine a decade of mathematically nebulous green-growth and win-win rhetoric. Not surprisingly this alluring rhetoric has been embraced by many of those in positions of power; all the more so as it has been promulgated by two influential groups.

First, those, typically but not exclusively economists, who work on the premise that physical reality and the laws of thermodynamics are subservient to the ephemeral rules of today’s economic paradigm. And second, those vested interests desperate to preserve the status quo, but prepare to accept an incremental tweak to ‘business as usual’ as a sop to meaningful action (e.g. the opportunist enthusiasm of ‘progressive’ oil companies for “oh-so-clean” gas over “dirty & nasty” coal).

But move away from the cosy tenets of contemporary economics and a suite of alternative opportunities for delivering the deep and early reductions in emissions necessary to stay within 2°C budgets come into focus. Demand-side technologies, behaviours and habits all are amenable to significant and rapid change – and guided by stringent policies could drive emissions down in the near-term. Combine this with an understanding that just 10% of the global population are responsible for around 50% of total emissions and the rate and scope of what is possible if we genuinely thought climate change was an important issue becomes evident.

Imagine the Paris 2°C goal was sacrosanct. A 30% reduction in global emissions could be delivered in under a year, simply by constraining the emissions of that 10% responsible for half of all global CO2 to the level of a typical European. Clearly such a level is far from impoverished, and certainly for 2°C reductions in energy demand would need to go much further and be complemented with a Marshall-style transition to zero-carbon energy supply. Nevertheless, such an early and sizeable reduction is in stark contrast to the Paris Agreement’s presumption that ‘ambitious mitigation’ out to 2030 can only deliver around 2% p.a.(with negative emissions technologies in 2050 compensating for the relative inaction today).

So why was this real opportunity for deep and early mitigation 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 having the audacity to suggest that the carbon budgets associated with 2°C cannot be reconciled with green growth oratory have been quashed by those eloquent big guns of academia who spend more time in government minister’s offices than they do in the laboratory or lecture room. However, as the various drafts of the Paris Agreement were circulated during the negotiations, there was a real sense of unease amongst many scientists present that the almost euphoric atmosphere accompanying the drafts could not be reconciled with their content. Desperate to maintain order the rottweilers and even their influential handlers threatened and briefed against those daring to make informed comment – just look at some of the twitter discussions!

Not surprisingly the vested interests won out – and whilst the headline goals of the Paris Agreement are to be welcomed, the five year review timeframe eliminates any serious chance of maintaining emissions within even carbon budgets for a slim chance of 2°C. Science and careful analysis could have offered so much more – but instead we are left having to pray that speculative negative emission technologies will compensate for our own hubris.

Two further and key failures of the Paris Agreement.

Aviation and Shipping: the final version of the Agreement fails to make any reference to the aviation and shipping sectors, effectively exempting them from having to align their emissions with the 2°C goal. Unfortunately, the emissions from these two privileged sectors are equivalent to those of the UK and Germany combined. Moreover, both aviation and shipping anticipate huge increases in their absolute emissions as the sectors continue to grow – emissions that will only serve to further jeopardise any prospect for bequeathing future generations a stable climate.

Reparation for the poor: finally, there’s the sum of $100 billion that the Paris Agreement proposes should be available as annual support (I prefer reparation) to poorer nations to assist both their development of low-carbon infrastructure and their adaption to an increasingly changing climate. Say it quickly and $100 billion has a resounding ring – but wait a few seconds and the echo diminishes to a cheap and tinny ‘ching’. The normally very conservative international monetary fund (IMF) estimates that the global subsidy (direct and indirect) to the fossil fuel industry in 2015 alone will be $5.3 trillion dollars; fifty three times more than the Paris monies allocated to poorer nations. The UK is a small island nation on the periphery of Europe and with a population of 65 million. Yet it has an economy twenty nine times larger than the monies offered to billions of poorer people to leapfrog our high carbon energy system and adapt to the changing climate we’ve chosen to impose on them. The clever deception of the wealthier and high emitting nations in Paris, was to focus arguments on the details of the $100 billion crumb, circumventing any meaningful discussion of the much larger level of reparations necessary for the poorer nations to actually transition towards a low carbon, climate resilient and prosperous future.

Tentative reflections a fortnight on

Here we are a fortnight or so on from Paris – and the dust has all but settled. Turn on the radio and the BBC is reporting on whether the UK should expand its London airport capacity at Gatwick or Heathrow. No reference to Paris, CO2 emissions or the plight of millions who will suffer the consequences of such decisions, but will only ever see aircraft streaking across the sky 35000 feet above.

Next up, the BBC reports on how the UK’s Department of Energy and Climate Change, its Chief Scientific Advisor and the UK’s Environment Agency all enthusiastically support the development of indigenous shale gas and yet all forget to mention that the UK Government has just reneged on its support for carbon capture and storage. Another high-carbon energy source at odds with Paris and 2°C carbon budgets is simply added to UK’s portfolio of North Sea oil and gas without even a squirm of unease from those authorities who should know better.

So where are we now? Future techno-utopias, pennies for the poor, more fossil fuels, co-opted NGOs and an expert community all too often silenced by fear of reprisals and reduced funding. It doesn’t need to be like this. Forget the vacuous content, it’s the wonderful spirit of the Paris Agreement and the French people on which we need to build – and fast! The pursuit of a low-carbon future could do much worse than be guided by the open concepts of liberté, égalité et fraternité.

Pre-edited version of my summary of the Paris Agreement published in Nature’s World View (Dec. 2015):
http://www.nature.com/polopoly_fs/1.19074!/menu/main/topColumns/topLeftColumn/pdf/528437a.pdf

Kevin Anderson
Professor of Energy and climate change
Tyndall Centre
University of Manchester

The dubious promise of bioenergy plus carbon capture

by Richard Martin (MIT Technology Review)

While many scientists and climate change activists hailed December’s Paris agreement as a historic step forward for international efforts to limit global warming, the landmark accord rests on a highly dubious assumption: to achieve the goal of limiting the rise in global average temperature to less than 2 °C (much less the more ambitious goal of 1.5 °C), we don’t just need to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide to essentially zero by the end of this century. We also must remove from the atmosphere huge amounts of carbon dioxide that have already been emitted (see “Paris Climate Agreement Rests on Shaky Technological Foundations”).

Doing so will involve “negative emissions technologies”—systems that capture carbon dioxide and store it, usually deep underground. Such technologies are theoretical at best, but they are considered critical for achieving the Paris goals. Of the 116 scenarios reviewed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to achieve stabilization of carbon in the atmosphere at between 430 and 480 parts per million (the level considered necessary for a maximum 2 °C rise in temperature), 101 involve some form of negative emissions.

There are basically two ways to eliminate carbon from the atmosphere. One is to capture it from the air. Technologies to do so are still in their infancy and, even if they do prove practical, are likely decades away from deployment—far too late to achieve the goals of the Paris agreement (see “Materials Could Capture CO2 and Make It Useful”). The other is to rely on plants to capture the carbon dioxide, then burn the plants to generate power (or refine them into liquid fuels such as ethanol), and capture the resulting carbon emissions. Known as “bioenergy plus carbon capture and storage,” or BECCS, this cumbersome process is receiving renewed attention in the wake of Paris. But there is no guarantee that it will ever work.

Large amounts of biomass would be produced from fast-growing trees, switchgrass, agriculture waste, or other sources. The biomass would then be turned into pellets for burning in power plants—either on their own or as additives. The resulting emissions would be separated using carbon-capture technologies that have been proven at small scale but have never been applied economically at anything like commercial scale. Finally, the carbon dioxide would be stored in deep-underground aquifers, presumably permanently.

While each of these steps is technically feasible, neither has proven to be successful at a large scale. Although there are dozens of projects that use biomass, either alone or in combination with other fuels such as coal, for producing electricity, there are serious doubts about the economic viability of the sector, the availability of biomass supplies to support growth, and the life-cycle contribution of such facilities to greenhouse gas emissions. Ambitious projections for carbon capture and storage programs, meanwhile, have proven unrealistic, and there is little indication that such systems will become economically viable in the foreseeable future.

What’s more, although the full BECCS process is often touted as carbon-negative, there are several faulty assumptions in that characterization.

The first is that sufficient amounts of biomass could be produced to displace a significant percentage of fossil-fuel produced electricity, and that producing those amounts would be carbon-neutral. Advocates assert that because plants capture carbon from the atmosphere, burning the plants and releasing the carbon back into the atmosphere does not result in a net gain. That is nominally true, but it doesn’t account for the energy required for growing, harvesting, processing, and transporting the biomass, and it diverts land from other purposes, including food crops, that will become more urgent as the human population surges toward nine billion.

The most prominent BECCS project currently underway is Archer Daniels Midland’s project at Decatur, Illinois. The project has been years in development. “Permitting has been a long and complex process,” says Scott McDonald, the project manager. And it still awaits final approval from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Once it’s complete, the captured carbon will not be stored underground but used for enhanced oil recovery in nearby wells. Studies have estimated that about a billion barrels of residual oil could be recovered in the Illinois basin using carbon dioxide for enhanced oil recovery. In other words, a technology advertised as carbon-negative would result in the production of a billion new barrels of carbon-producing fossil fuels—oil that would not otherwise be produced. That is hardly a climate-friendly solution.

Already, some proposed BECCS projects have foundered on these obstacles. In September, Drax, one of the largest power companies in the U.K., pulled out of the White Rose Carbon Capture Project, which would capture 90 percent of the carbon emissions from a 428-megawatt plant that burns coal and biomass. Drax has converted three of the six coal-fired turbines at the site to burn biomass. The fate of the carbon-capture project in the wake of Drax’s departure is uncertain. The experience of “clean coal” projects using carbon capture and storage, without biomass, is similarly discouraging: FutureGen, a highly touted CCS project in Illinois, was finally canceled in February 2015 after multiple setbacks.

In short, BECCS represents the marriage of two technologies, neither of which has proven to be viable on its own. The technology’s “credibility as a climate change mitigation option is unproven,” concluded a September 2014 study in Nature Climate Change led by Sabine Fuss, a scientist at the Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change in Berlin, “and its widespread deployment in climate stabilization scenarios might become a dangerous distraction.”

Sign-on letter: No to 1.5°C with geoengineering!

contaminacionParis, 11 December 2015

Seemingly out of the blue (or rather, out of the black smog of the UNFCCC process), some of the largest historical culprits for climate change, countries including the United States, Canada and the European Union, have decided to back an “ambitious goal” of limiting global temperature rise to 1.5°C. To achieve this, radical emissions cuts would be needed from now, but in the case of these countries, that’s not their real intention.

Instead, behind the smokescreen of a more ambitious goal, there is a set of Trojan Horse technologies being proposed, collectively called “geoengineering”.

The new proponents of the 1.5°C goal include also the largest oil companies. (*) They tell us that they can continue to burn fossil carbon and protect their assets because they are inventing something called Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) that will eventually capture CO2 emissions and store them “safely” in deep geological formations.

And, further still, they say that they can develop bioenergy with CCS (BECCS), a so-called “negative emissions” technology that will burn carbon that is locked up in the soils and forests, and bury this underground too. These are false “solutions” proposed by the oil industry, that will allow it to keep polluting in the false hope that future technological innovation can bring down emissions at a later date.

These phantom technologies won’t function, but they will bring vast new subsidies to the industry, and allow it to access even more oil through Enhanced Oil Recovery, where CO2 is pumped into aging oil fields to squeeze even more out of them. Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) was called Enhanced Oil Recovery before, but it has been renamed as a “climate technology”.

The expansion of large scale plantations for bioenergy will be devastating for ecosystems, and displace forest and peasant communities from their territories. This will destroy many of the real alternatives to climate crisis, alternatives that really cool the planet.

In a few years, when efforts to reduce emissions and the technological quick-fixes have failed, with the temperature continuing to rise, industry and government will tell us that the only way out is “solar radiation management”, an even more dangerous geoengineering technology.

The terminology underpinning this cover-up is changing rapidly: from “net zero” to “climate neutrality”, to “net GHG contributions” and now in the latest COP21 draft to “greenhouse gas emissions neutrality”. They are all the same trap designed to open the door to false climate solutions and geoengineering.

 

No to 1.5°C with geoengineering!

No to the lie of “GHG neutrality”!

 

(*) See Shell’s position on 1.5°C and geoengineering at COP21: http://blogs.shell.com/climatechange/category/paris-cop21/

 

International Organizations

ETC Group

Biofuelwatch

Corporate Europe Observatory

Focus on the Global South

Food and Water Watch

GRAIN

Grasroots Global Justice Alliance

Heinrich Böll Foundation

Transnational Institute

Women in Europe for a Common Future (WECF)

Women’s earth and climate action network (WECAN)

World Rainforest Movement

 

National organizations
Acción Ecológica, Ecuador

ATTAC, France

Centro Ecológico, Brasil

Ecologistas en Acción, Spain

Fairwatch, Italy

Friends of the Siberian Forests, Russia

Fundación Solon, Bolivia

Health of Mother Earth Foundation, Nigeria

NoGeoingegneria, Italy

Plataforma Freskiemos el ambiente, Colombia

Polaris Institute, Canada

The Corner House, UK

 

To add your signature, please send a message to silvia@etcgroup.org

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.

COP21’s climate technofix: spinning carbon into gold and the myth of ‘negative emissions’

Skyline in Decatur, Illinois, Photo: commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Decatur_IL_industrial_skyline.jpg

by Rachel Smolker, The Ecologist

Paris has been awash with hype about ‘CO2 recycling’ and ‘carbon neutral’ or even ‘carbon negative’ technologies based on burning millions of trees, writes Rachel Smolker. But the alchemical notion that waste carbon can be spun into corporate gold is hitting serious reality checks. It’s time to ditch the fantasies and progress the real solutions: like caring for land, soils, forests and grasslands.

When the IPCC (International Panel on Climate Change) published their most recent fifth assessment report, something surprising and deeply disturbing was lurking in the small print in chapter three on ‘mitigation’.

The IPCC revealed that to achieve even a recognizably normal future climate the models they reviewed relied on not only drastically reducing emissions in the future, but also on widespread use of some advanced technology that can remove some of the CO2 that is already in the atmosphere.

In fact, most (101 of 116 models they reviewed to achieve 430-480 PPM stabilization) incorporated some sort of ‘negative emissions’ technological fix (Fuss et al., 2014).

The terminology of ‘negative emissions’ has now entered the jargon in climate negotiations currently underway in Paris. Yet such a technology is currently nonexistent. The only approach to sucking CO2 out of the atmosphere mentioned by the IPCC as “near term available” is bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, commonly referred to as BECCS – Bio-Energy with Carbon Capture and Sequestration.

BECCS involves producing biomass in massive amounts and either refining it into liquid biofuels (ethanol etc.) or burning it for electricity and heat, while also capturing the resulting CO2 emissions and burying them underground.

IPCC acknowledges that there are risks and uncertainties associated with large scale BECCS. But, while IPCC has remained scientifically rigorous in their assessments of the state of our climate (chapter one of the report), when it comes to assessing ‘mitigation’ options (chapter three), scientific rigor appears to have fallen by the wayside in favor of economic wishful thinking.

The reality of BECCS

The fact is that no matter how costly or difficult it may be economically and no matter how difficult to make the models ‘work’ to lay out a path to climate stabilization, embracing fantasy technofixes is a losing strategy. We already know that for both technical and economic reasons, BECCS can never achieve ‘negative emissions’.

In fact, in a new report on BECCS, by Biofuelwatch refers to reliance on BECCS to clean up our climate mess as being roughly as dependable as counting on a visit from carbon sucking extraterrestrials from another planet.

There are currently only a handful of operating commercial BECCS facility in existence, based at ethanol refineries, the most notable being the Archer Daniels Midland project in Decatur Illinois. These capture CO2 from fermentation, which is cheaper and easier than capturing CO2 from other processes because fermentation results in a relatively pure CO2 stream.

The Decatur project is a proof of concept project for underground storage of CO2. However, its developers never claimed to provide ‘negative emissions’ nor even to be ‘carbon neutral’. A few others sell the captured fermentation CO2 for industrial applications including soft drinks and enhanced oil recovery (see below).

Meanwhile, burning wood for industrial and commercial scale electricity and heat is the bioenergy process that is scaling up most rapidly, with co-firing of wood pellets in coal power plants. Industry and governments continue to claim that burning wood for electricity is renewable and ‘carbon neutral’.

Hence they subsidize it alongside wind and solar, even though the CO2 emissions are generally much higher even than for coal per unit of energy generated. The notion that those emissions will be offset by regrowth of the trees and crops that are used has been refuted over and over again, yet still is not reflected in policies. Yet, if the process is not ‘carbon neutral’ in the first place, it can never be rendered ‘negative’ by carbon capture.

We also know full well by now that the demand for ‘biomass’ and the associated land, water, fertilizers use etc. would be hugely destructive on a variety of fronts beyond greenhouse gas emissions – affecting food production, water, human rights and biodiversity. This is clear already at the current scale of bioenergy production.

BECCS and ‘clean coal’

BECCS is the bioenergy twin of ‘clean coal’, the carbon capture (CCS) technology that has been touted for years by the coal industry. So how has that worked out?

Carbon capture from fossil fuel processes, as from bioenergy, is expensive and energy intensive. Most attempts – almost all involving coal and natural gas, have encountered a multitude of technical problems and massive cost overruns. They have failed to operate efficiently if at all.

FutureGen, a demonstration ‘clean coal’ plant, was intended to be a US showcase example of CCS technology. Somewhere around 200 million dollars of pubic funding were spent prior to cancellation in 2013. It was canceled in part because private investors wouldn’t chip in. They didn’t consider it viable, presumably because the technical and economic challenges were simply too great.

Another CCS ‘clean coal’ project is in progress in Kemper, Mississippi. The facility will use lignite coal strip mined from an adjacent area of around 48 square miles. Costs were initially estimated at $1.8 billion but have so far ballooned to an astounding $6.17 billion.

Even then, the facility is required only to ‘try’ to capture CO2. If they fail, they won’t be held responsible. If they succeed, they have contracted to sell the CO2 for enhanced oil recovery. The project is nevertheless still presented as ‘good for the climate’.

Last year SaskPower’s billion dollar Boundary Dam project, capturing CO2 from a coal plant came online amid massive hype and proclamations of success. However, recent release of internal documents

“have not only shed light on the technical and financial problems with the plant but the political deception that has gone with it … A little over a year later, the hype about the purported environmental benefits and affordability of the Boundary Dam CCS plant have gone up in a puff of green smoke.”

CCS has been held up as the promise behind ‘clean coal’ for decades. Yet a few weeks ago, after 22 years of lobbying for so-called ‘clean coal’ and failing to produce a single speck of it, the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity announced that they will scale back their lobbying efforts.

In ‘Carbon capture: Miracle machine or white elephant‘, the Financial Times noted “Few technologies have had so much money thrown at them for so many years by so many governments and companies, with such feeble results.”

Was it ever anything more than a useful fuction?

Even above and beyond the problems already mentioned, necessary infrastructure, such as pipelines, to handle captured CO2 and transport it to storage sites are not always conveniently available.

Underground storage of CO2 is also questionable. Leaks are pretty much inevitable. A slow leak would release the CO2 back into the atmosphere, while catastrophic leaks from, say, an earthquake, could be lethal to surrounding populations as CO2 is deadly when concentrated.

Where carbon capture has been implemented (primarily in natural gas refinery operations), the costs are offset in part by selling the CO2 for ‘enhanced oil recovery’, that is: pumping compressed CO2 into depleted oil wells which forces more oil to the surface. But this is neither considered ‘sequestration’ nor is it climate friendly. Quite the reverse.

Still, governments continue to dole out the cash for CCS projects. Doing so is viewed, politically, as ‘taking action’ to reduce emissions. Energy companies on the other hand, have not invested significantly into BECCS or CCS. Governments, that is, we the taxpayers, are instead footing the bill for this endless nonsense.

None of this bodes well for a miraculous, rapid and effective scaling up of BECCS as climate savior. Just recently, DRAX, one of UK’s largest power companies, announced that they were abandoning their ‘White Rose’ BECCS project.

That project, sometimes billed as ‘carbon negative’, was to involve construction of a sizeable new coal plant (the first new plant in UK since 1972). DRAX was slated to receive millions in government subsidies for mixing wood pellets with coal and, in theory at least, capturing and burying some proportion of the CO2 emissions.

Now, as the Paris climate negotiations are just beginning, the UK announced they will altogether drop their promised ‘pioneering’ funding competition for CCS.

Now what? Ah yes: ‘CO2 recycling’

The idea that we can somehow remove CO2 from the atmosphere is highly appealing. But so far it is simply not possible, and BECCS, even if it existed and was affordable, could not achieve that.

Nevertheless, polluting industries, with their slick PR machinery and near infinite budgets, stand prepared to hype whatever will allow them to maintain business as usual: whether it is clean coal, carbon neutral bioenergy, or negative emissions. These are the lies and false promises upon which we are expected to hang our hopes.

In reality, they are pointless babble, smoke and mirrors designed to distract a public that is finally coming to recognize the causes and magnitude of the climate crisis but which still remains naively vulnerable to false hopes for a magical technofix.

As the Paris climate negotiations are under way, we bear witness the latest fad: ‘CO2 recycling’. Instead of putting serious attention to addressing the roots of the problem, we are encouraged to embrace an entrepreneurial and stylishly clever mindset that CO2 is no longer a ‘problem’ but should instead be viewed as a valuable commodity! Why not make stuff from CO2 and sell it? We can profit from our own pollution!

Recently, ‘XPrize’ announced a collaboration with the American energy company, NRG and the oil sands innovation alliance (Cosia) to provide a $20 million bounty for development of a technology capable of making something of value from CO2 removed from the atmosphere.

But, recall the famous 3R’s of waste management? Reduce, Reuse and Recycle. We learned that reuse and recycle only slightly postpone the approach into landfills: a blink of the eye in the lifetime of a plastic.

As it turns out, reduce is really the key, it alone addresses the root of the problem. The same is likely to be true for CO2. The only seeming reason to make CO2 products dependent on the perpetuation of an unsustainable and polluting industry (to generate the CO2) is to keep the polluting industry alive.

A fairy tale with no happy ending

This idea of CO2 recycling brings to mind the famous fairy tale of Rumplestiltskin. In that story, the princess is commanded to spin straw into gold. A magical imp offers to assist her with this impossible task, but only if she promises to hand over her firstborn child to him. When her child is born, the imp offers that if she can only guess his name, she can keep her child. Happily, she succeeds.

Now we have the fossil fuel industry, XPrize backers representing some of the most atrociously polluting industries, and even some well intentioned people who genuinely, if naively, wish for a technofix to ‘solve the climate problem’ demanding that we spin gold out of CO2 emissions if we want our children to have a decent future.

But we don’t actually have to play mind games with magical imps. We know of tried and true solutions to remove CO2 from the atmosphere. Those include a global transition away from industrial agriculture and towards agroecology, good soil practices and the restoration of native ecosystems, including the halting of deforestation.

Overall good stewardship of the land and nature would take us much farther towards healing the atmosphere, something that many, including organizations such as La Via Campesina (the peasant farmers), Global Forest Coalition, Indigenous Environmental Network and indigenous peoples around the world have long fought for.

Those real solutions will not generate ‘renewable energy’ or marketable products and therefore are not technically ‘negative emissions’. They do not rely on shiny new technofixes or pretend to ‘recycle’ pollution. Importantly, they are not so amenable to monetization, corruption, or corporate monopolization.

Hence they are rarely given more than lip service, and when they are, it is in the context of bringing them into the market, and providing offsets for polluters as in the case with forests and ‘reducing emissions from deforestation and degradation’ (REDD) and ‘Climate Smart Agriculture‘.

What is needed more than ever is to see through the smoke and mirrors, stop providing massive funding for lifelines to the polluting industries and embrace the obvious and common sense solutions that are tried and true, and remain our best hope.

 

Techno-Optimism and Bad Science in Paris: The Problem With Carbon Capture and Storage

by Almuth Ernsting, Truthout

UN climate conferences provide a platform for advocating real solutions to the climate crisis – but also for selling and promoting false ones. At the climate conference this and next week in Paris, many civil society groups and social movements are advocating genuinely meaningful responses to the climate crisis: keeping fossil fuels in the ground, ending perverse subsidies, shifting from industrial agriculture to agroecology controlled by small farmers, protecting forests and other ecosystems through community forestry and territories, guaranteeing areas conserved by Indigenous peoples and local communities, and building a new economic system that does not dictate endless growth. However, many activist voices and demands are being silenced inside and outside the conference, in part due to the French government’s decision to ban climate protest marches and put at least 24 climate activists under house arrest, using emergency powers acquired in response to the recent terrorist attacks.

Meanwhile, the organizers of the climate conference have welcomed in fossil fuel firms and other corporate interests, which are represented by lobby groups such as the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, We Mean Business and the International Chamber of Commerce. Participants in the conference have been using this opportunity to launch private-public partnerships that are little more than new corporate lobby groups operated under the auspices of the United Nations, and include groups such as the Global Compact and the Sustainable Energy for All Initiative.

Some businesses have teamed up with think tanks and sympathetic nongovernmental organizations to form new lobby groups just in time for the Paris conference. Shell and the mining corporation BHP Billiton, for example, have founded the Energy Transitions Commission, which offers “independent advice for a sustainable future” to those in charge of energy policy decisions and investments. Their website is short on details about just what they would advise, but one of Shell and BHP Billiton’s favorite “solutions” is carbon capture and storage (CCS). Their professed enthusiasm hasn’t translated into any serious financial commitments: BHP Billiton has so far invested precisely nothing into that technology, while Shell has so far invested in just one commercial-scale project – capturing a proportion of carbon dioxide from a tar sands refinery in Alberta. Out of a total project cost of C$1.35 billion, Shell committed a mere C$485 million; all the rest was paid out of public funds.

The Allure of False Technological Solutions

This week’s climate conference also has its share of techno-optimists peddling often absurd science-fiction “solutions.” One of the most widely cited media commentators on the Paris climate conference has been Tim Flannery. He has been cited by press agencies and leading news outlets around the world in the run-up to the conference.

Flannery is an Australian academic, former government adviser and chief councilor of the Australian Climate Council. He recently launched his latest book Atmosphere of Hope: Searching for Solutions to the Climate Crisis. It has won widespread media acclaim, and even the reputable science blog Yale Environment 360 has granted Flannery an uncritical interview about his proposed “solutions.” Some of Flannery’s “third-way solutions” are proposals that have been widely cited in spite of a lack of scientific backing. He remains an outspoken proponent of biochar (i.e. fine-grained charcoal added to soils), a concept based on the assumption that biomass is essentially carbon neutral. Biochar advocates argue that adding biochar to soils is a reliable way of sequestering carbon and that this process will thus gradually draw down carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Flannery is either unaware of or unperturbed by peer-reviewed studies highlighting that there is still no credible data from long-term field experiments to show whether adding biochar to soils can actually sequester carbon in the long-term, nor whether or not, or under what circumstances, it will lead to the loss of existing soil carbon. Nor does Flannery note a study concluding that biochar may have positive, negative or no impacts on emissions of carbon dioxide, methane and the powerful greenhouse gas nitrous oxide from soils and that impacts are highly case-specific and cannot be credibly predicted without more long-term trials. Other “solutions” propagated by Flannery are truly bizarre. He is particularly enthusiastic about creating vast oceanic farms of seaweed, which he believes would draw down large quantities of carbon, thus mitigating climate change and ocean acidification. The seaweed, he suggests, can then be turned into fuel and eaten. The fact that both eating the seaweed and burning fuels made from the seaweed would return all the “sequestered” carbon to the atmosphere seems to have escaped him.

Another idea that excites him is storing “carbon dioxide snow” in Antarctica. He has read a peer-reviewed study that convinced him that carbon dioxide snow is falling in Antarctica, which could be stored in large “chiller boxes” powered by wind turbines. Unfortunately, the lead author of the study that had so excited Flannery urged him to read the study more carefully before referring to it. He clarified that temperatures in Antarctica are too high and pressures too low for carbon dioxide to fall as snow.

Flannery’s background reading about “carbon negative cement,” another of his favorite “solutions,” seems to also have been rather cursory. This, he writes, is already on the market and has been well tested, with its use merely held back by engineers who are reluctant to use any product without a track record. Yet the company that manufactures it, Solidia, merely claims that their way of producing cement reduces carbon dioxide emissions by 30 percent – not that it is carbon neutral, let alone carbon negative.

An “even more amazing innovation,” according to Flannery, is a new method for modifying coffee grounds to store atmospheric methane. He forgets to mention that, to “modify” the coffee grounds, researchers mixed it with potassium hydroxide (which takes a great deal of energy to produce), kept it at an elevated temperature for 24 hours and then heated it to 700 to 900 degrees Celsius. The whole process hasn’t gone beyond a single laboratory experiment so far.

One could fill many pages with similar nonexistent or unproven “solutions” to the climate crisis that are being hyped up. There will always be individuals and enterprises peddling false claims and wishful thinking. Seeing influential scientists and scientific institutions embrace such unscientific false claims turns them from ridiculous and amusing eccentricities into something more sinister. Flannery himself is a widely published scientist and his Climate Council was set up to “provide independent, authoritative climate change information to the Australian public … based on the best science available.

Bioenergy With Carbon Capture and Storage

The negotiating text in Paris contains proposed text about “zero net emission,” based on the assumption that actual emissions can be neutralized by future “negative” ones. This is based on conclusions in the 2014 report of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). According to that report, most relevant models predict that “negative emissions” in the form of bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) would be required later this century if we are to avoid more than 2 degrees Celsius of warming. BECCS would involve capturing carbon dioxide from biofuel refineries or biomass burning power stations and burying it underground. The idea that large-scale BECCS is feasible and can draw billions of tons of carbon from the atmosphere has risen to prominence since the 2014 IPCC report was published.

But just how did the IPCC come to effectively endorse the idea of BECCS (albeit with some mentions of “uncertainties”)? For this it is important to understand the setup of the IPCC. It consists of three different working groups: about climate science, climate change impacts and climate change mitigation. The first two have a consistent record of carefully reviewing and summarizing the peer-reviewed science. Their findings are highly regarded by virtually all except for climate change deniers. While those working groups are – quite appropriately – dominated by climate and earth systems scientists and ecologists, climate economists have risen to prominence in the IPCC working group on mitigation.

At the heart of this working group’s latest 2014 report is a review and summary of integrated-assessment models. An open call for such models was issued in 2007. Different technology options and emissions scenarios were to be entered into models to show how such different technology choices and socioeconomic pathways would translate into different concentrations of greenhouse gases and thus different risks of warming.

At an expert meeting convened by the IPCC in September 2007, modelers were told that to ensure the robustness of the modeling studies, “scientifically peer-reviewed publication is considered to be an implicit judgment of technical soundness.” Thus, if a company’s representatives manage to publish a peer-reviewed study in whichever journal, which “concludes” that the company’s technology is sound, modelers can assume the result to be fact. Peer-reviewed studies written by industry representatives are commonplace. Climate change deniers would have a field day if the IPCC working group on climate science set such a low standard for evidence!

As for the “GHG and carbon cycle accounting, land use implications, and economic considerations” of different technology choices used in models, those were to be assessed by a panel. Quite how wasn’t made clear, but the discussion of the life-cycle greenhouse gas impacts of different, supposedly low-carbon and carbon-negative technology choices in the latest IPCC report is woefully brief. At the 2007 expert meeting, some participants expressed concern that at least some models were expected to include “negative emissions” – namely through bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS). They pointed out that there were “technical concerns about the … characterisation of the negative emissions technology” and about potential consequences, including on emissions of the powerful greenhouse gas nitrous oxide from greater fertilizer use.

Judging by the IPCC’s 2014 report, those concerns were brushed aside. The vast majority of models considered by the IPCC “find” that BECCS is needed if we want to have a greater than 50 percent chance of keeping global temperature rise within 2 degrees Celsius. Modelers had done as they had been requested: They had included “negative emissions” from BECCS into their models – often on a grand scale, without considering whether such a technology was viable, whether carbon pumped underground can be trusted to stay there forever, nor whether burning billions of tons of wood, crops and other biomass every year could possibly be “carbon neutral” (the prerequisite for it to become “carbon negative” with carbon storage).

BECCS could, according to the models summarized by the IPCC, sequester up to 10 billion tons of carbon dioxide every year. That figure was based on two sources: One was a literature review by a Ph.D. student. The other was a report published by the International Energy Agency (IEA), written by Ecofys.

Ecofys is a consultancy that is fully owned by a Dutch energy company (Eneco Group) that has built the first large biomass power station in the Netherlands, hence clearly not unbiased. Ecofys’ estimate of the maximum BECCS potential is derived from estimates of the global potential for “sustainable biomass,” made up of “residues” and “energy crops.” But how did they estimate that? For the “residues,” they lifted a figure from a preliminary report, which contained no details at all about what that figure was based on. For the “energy crops,” they used figures from one study that estimated how much could be produced by converting “abandoned cropland” and natural grasslands to bioenergy plantations.

Natural grasslands are home to a signification proportion of the world’s biodiversity and they store large amounts of carbon, most of it in soil – and much of that is emitted when grasslands are ploughed up and turned into monoculture plantations, as several peer-reviewed studies confirm. Yet in the Ecofys/IEA report and thus in the IPCC report, all this bioenergy is simply assumed to be carbon neutral (and thus carbon negative with carbon capture and storage). The fact that the IPCC report suggests a massive “negative emissions” potential from BECCS raises serious concerns that scientific standards have been abandoned in relation to climate change mitigation.

This is only one of the problems with BECCS, as a new Biofuelwatch report shows in detail: The technologies that would be required to sequester significant amounts of carbon dioxide from biomass burning power stations are beset with major problems and challenges. Overcoming those to render BECCS technically and economically viable seems unlikely. Carbon sequestration can be combined with additional oil extraction, but this would likely result in greater overall carbon emissions. Sequestering carbon without such oil recovery, on the other hand, is even less likely to become economically viable, and evidence shows that it is far from reliable.

In short, there is no credible scientific basis whatsoever for suggesting that BECCS could ever sequester up to 10 billion tons of carbon dioxide per year. Yet this very claim is the basis for the text proposal about “negative emissions” debated by governments in Paris right now.