Geoengineering further encroaching on the IPCC’s work: 46th IPCC meeting in Montréal, Canada

Earlier this month, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – the main scientific authority in the field of climate change – came together for their 46th meeting in the city of Montréal, Canada. Although the work of IPCC is geared towards producing scientific assessments and reports, it is also an intergovernmental institution, which means that the 195 governments party to the IPCC get to decide on the broad course of what particular topics relating to climate change the IPCC should assess. At the Montreal meeting, Government delegations negotiated the three Working Groups’ chapter outlines for the upcoming 6th Assessment Report (AR6), to be published in 2021.

We were there to monitor developments around geoengineering, and have to conclude that the normalization push is well under way at the IPCC:

Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR) – or, in fact, Greenhouse Gas Removal (GGR), which is the adopted language at the IPCC – appears prominently in Working Group III, whose task it is to “assess options for mitigating climate change through limiting or preventing greenhouse gas emissions and enhancing activities that remove them from the atmosphere.” (IPCC Working Groups)

CDR/negative emissions technologies will appear, where relevant, in the sectoral Chapters 6-11 – but certainly in the chapters on energy systems (CCS-based technologies being at the core of geoengineering proposals for this sector) and the Agriculture, Forestry and Land-Use (AFOLU) chapter (relying on large-scale afforestation).

Beyond the sectoral chapters, WGIII Chapter 12 will be on “cross-sectoral perspectives.” Here all CDR technologies will be assessed that do not fall neatly into any of the preceding sectoral chapters – such as BECCS and ocean fertilization. While AR5 was hiding the excessive reliance on BECCS and afforestation in the footnotes, AR6 is going to fully embrace the discussion of basically all geoengineering technologies available – their status, cost, risks and impacts, but also their potentials.

Special attention was given to “impacts, risks and opportunities of large-scale land-based mitigation”, i.e. BECCS and afforestation. While some countries wanted to see the same in-depth assessment of large-scale ocean-based mitigation (despite the fact that ocean fertilization is already prohibited under the London Protocol of the London Convention), WGIII Chairs argued that prominence was accorded to large-scale land-based geoengineering – or mitigation, as they call it – due to these approaches’ role in mitigation pathways to 2°C and 1.5°C produced by Integrated Assessment Models (IAMs). And indeed, no other geoengineering technology has yet made its way into the models.

SRM will be discussed in WGIII Chapter 14, International Cooperation. In the initial draft outline it was included in Chapter 12, Cross-sectoral Perspectives chapters, but some delegations preferred to highlight the dimension of international cooperation (and potential conflict) on SRM, so it was moved to Chapter 14. The respective bullet point now reads “Ethics and governance of SRM, associated risks” – which may risk precluding a discussion of other political and social risks of SRM beyond questions of governance and international cooperation and make them slip from view.

Civil society observers have argued throughout the meeting that geoengineering technologies should not be given such prominence as they remain high-risk and speculative response strategies with large-scale foreseeable negative impacts on human communities and ecosystems.

Nevertheless, geoengineering has been agreed on as one of eight cross-cutting issues identified by all Working Groups (I-III). So beyond being treated in dedicated chapters, geoengineering may very well sprawl across the report’s three Working Groups and show up in all different places, giving readers and policy makers no systematic account of the political, social and ecological risks and impacts of geoengineering proposals.

Geoengineering creeping into Working Group I on the physical science basis of climate change

Quite shockingly, the IPCC in its AR6 will do an in-depth assessment of both Greenhouse Gas Removal (GGR) scenarios and Solar Radiation Management (SRM) scenarios not only in Working Group III, which, as per usual, looks at mitigation options and pathways, but also in Working Group I – tasked with assessing “the physical scientific aspects of the climate system and climate change.” In Chapter 4 of Working Group I, authors will look at the climate response to GGR and SRM scenarios, in Chapter 5, they will further analyze the biogeochemical implications of GGR and SRM scenarios. This group’s work is supposed to focus on the physical science basis of climate change, while assessing the geoengineering scenarios – a high-risk and largely speculative response strategy – is clearly outside the scope and mandate of WGI. WGI will also not assess the physical science basis of other types of responses to climate change, thereby giving undue prominence to geoengineering proposals.

It is worrying that including geoengineering (both CDR and SRM) scenarios in Working Group I’s contribution to AR6 may set a dangerous precedent for future assessment cycles of the IPCC. By establishing alleged unpolitical “scientific facts” about the climate response and biogeochemical implications of geoengineering scenarios, the IPCC is very likely to foster the normalization trend around geoengineering. The first problem with this is that the scientific consensus so established rests on results spit out by computer models that could never do justice to the complexity, interconnectedness and unpredictability of the Earths systems. It thus creates a false sense of controllability of geoengineering and climatic responses to it. The second problem relates to treating geoengineering in WGI in a seemingly neutral and unpolitical fashion – as if the decision to go down that path were not a fundamentally political one. The attempts at establishing an allegedly neutral scientific consensus on geoengineering is part of the larger thrust towards normalizing geoengineering as a response strategy to climate change.

However, knowledge production in the natural sciences is also not neutral: Given the disproportionate representation of geoengineers in the modelling community that will write WGI’s contribution to AR6, we are likely to see a heavily one-sided account of geoengineering scenarios, one that focuses on “potentials” while disregarding risks, impacts and disturbances of the climate system and ecosystems entailed by large-scale technological interventions.

The adopted chapter outlines can be retrieved from the IPCC website:

Working Group I

Working Group II

Working Group III

Civil society: “Oil companies should not author IPCC report”

Photo: Wikipedia Commons

108 organizations urged Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to review flagrant conflict of interest of allowing two oil company employees to co-author a crucial report on global warming

Cross-posted from ETC Group

On 27 April 2017, 108 civil society organizations signed a letter requesting the IPCC to reconsider its list of authors for the upcoming Special Report on keeping global warming below 1.5°C. Two senior employees from major oil companies were selected among the authors for the Report, which the letter considers a major hurdle to make a fair report, and a violation of the IPCC’s conflict of interest policy.

Organizational signatories were from six continents, and included global international organizations such as, ActionAid, Friends of the Earth International and Greenpeace International, along with many other national and regional organizations from around the world.

The two authors in question work with ExxonMobil and Saudi Aramco, the second- and third-largest corporate emitters of greenhouse gases worldwide respectively. These two companies bear a large part of the responsibility for causing climate change, along with 88 other corporate emitters who together are responsible for 2/3 of cumulative historical carbon dioxide and methane emissions since 1854, according to a study by Richard Heede.

The letter states that “it is difficult to understand that the IPCC could include authors from the industries that have caused the most damage, and for whom private profits would be affected if the necessary reductions are carried out.”

The two authors have vested interest in continued use of fossil fuels, which is directly incompatible with reaching the 1.5°C goal. Furthermore, one of them, Dr. Haroon S. Kheshgi has for long time argued for the use of geoengineering techniques, risky technologies to counteract some of the symptoms of climate change, which would allow oil companies to continue exploiting their reserves.

Therefore, the signatories argue that “it is worrying that the industry representatives are precisely those with interests in promoting unacceptable pathways and high-risk technologies, such as climate geoengineering, which distract from the real emissions reductions that are required to avoid catastrophic warming.”

While two oil industry employees are included on the list of authors along with other representatives of industry-sponsored associations, none of researchers nominated by independent civil society organizations were accepted.

Signatories “request the IPCC to reconsider the selection of authors, both for this and all upcoming reports, to ensure that no conflict of interest exists, and that multiple disciplines, regions and viewpoints are included.”

The IPCC has responded for now that civil society concerns “have been noted and been brought to the attention of the body responsible for these matters,” and that “the appropriate action will be taken accordingly.”

Civil society expects the IPCC to answer before the next meeting of authors to this Special Report, scheduled June 5-11, and will continue watching the process.


Read the letter from civil society and the list of signatories here.

For further information: Silvia Ribeiro, Latin America Director, ETC Group:

Communications contact: Trudi Zundel, ETC Group: +1 226 979 0993,

Nature article confirms: IPCC assumptions about BECCS ignore environmental and wider climate impacts

Steve Slater via Flickr CC-BY

In his recent article in Nature, Dr Philip Williamson highlights how the targets set out in the Paris Agreement mask an underlying assumption that they will be met through large-scale carbon dioxide removal from the atmosphere and, in particular, through Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS) and large-scale afforestation (planting trees on land not forested in the recent past).

Williamson points to the startling fact that “the IPCC’s roughly 5,000-page Fifth Assessment Report…leaves out one crucial consideration: the environmental impacts of large-scale CO2 removal” and warns that these environmental impacts could translate into adverse rather than beneficial climate impacts: “Planting at such scale [as proposed for BECCS] 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.”

The article describes how such technologies, despite being included in IPCC scenarios, could carry significant, unintended risks to biodiversity and ecosystems. It concludes with the statement that “For now, action should focus on urgent emissions reductions and not on an unproven ‘emit now, remove later’ strategy.”

Williamson’s article goes in to some detail on the potential ecological (and thereby climate) implications of any possible BECCS or large-scale afforestation programme. He describes how limiting the global temperature rise to 2°C would 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”. It is important to note that another peer-reviewed article suggests that significantly more land may be needed.

Williamson adds that “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”. This would obviously be a terrible consequence of misguided climate mitigation policies.

That’s by no means all of it either – Williamson goes further: “…little is known about the effect of future climatic conditions on the yields of bioenergy crops; what the water requirements of such crops may be in a warmer world; the implications for food security if bioenergy production directly competes with food production; and the feasibility (including commercial viability) of the associated carbon capture and storage infrastructure.”

Another important point made in the article is that the optimistic claims made by the IPCC about the ability of BECCS to play a central role in mitigation come from the work of “physical scientists and modellers”, not ecologists. In fact, the IPCC Working Group 3 on climate change mitigation (which has written about BECCS and afforestation) was heavily dominated by economists, engineers and environmental managers, rather than climate scientists or ecologists, as civil society groups pointed out when their most recent Assessment Report was released. It’s no surprise therefore that the ecological impacts of large-scale CO2 removal technologies such as BECCS have not been considered.

A more contentious suggestion made by Williamson in the article is this: “One solution would be to abandon the term climate geoengineering and simply assess the various methods for mitigating climate change on a case-by-case basis.” Abandoning the term climate geoengineering could ultimately mean abandoning the de-facto moratorium on geoengineering agreed by the Convention on Biological Diversity, which would definitely be a step in the wrong direction. And abandoning the term is not a prerequisite to assessing the different proposals classed under it.

Williamson proposes: “It is time for the IPCC, governments and other research-funding agencies to invest in new, internationally coordinated studies to investigate the viability and relative safety of large-scale CO2 removal.” However, as his article confirms, it is vital that such work is not be left to modellers, economists, engineers and environmental managers. Such scientists have little academic background in understanding the vital and complex links between the climate and the biosphere, and the crucial role that biodiversity plays in maintaining all of the earth’s life support systems.

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.”

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:

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.


New Report: Last ditch climate option or wishful thinking? Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage

cover-imageBiofuelwatch has released a new comprehensive report about Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS).

(Full references for the report)

BECCS is being proposed as a way of removing billions of tonnes of carbon every year from the atmosphere.  It would involve capturing CO2 from biomass burning power plants or biofuel refineries and pumping it underground – possibly as a means to extract more oil in the process.  The report examines the different BECCS technologies proposed, and the role of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in this debate. So far, the only (very small scale) BECCS projects have involved capturing some CO2 from ethanol refining, although in those projects the CO2 emissions from fossil fuels burned to power the refinery are greater than the amount of CO2 captured (i.e. those are certainly not carbon-negative projects).  In relation to carbon capture from power plants, we have carefully examined the experience with coal-fired Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) projects.

The report 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 Myth of Net-Zero Emissions

BERLIN – The emissions from burning coal, oil, and gas are heating up our planet at such a rapid rate that increasingly volatile and dangerous climate conditions seem almost inevitable. Clearly, we have to reduce emissions fast, while developing alternative energy sources that allow us to leave fossil fuels in the ground.

This imperative is almost shockingly straightforward. Yet climate change has been subject to so much political inertia, false information, and wishful thinking for the last few decades that we continue to see ineffective or impossible solutions, rather than an effort to address root causes. Often these “solutions” are based on non-existent or risky new technologies.

 This approach is highly expedient, for it threatens neither business as usual nor socioeconomic orthodoxy. But climate models that depend on elusive technologies weaken the imperative to enact the deep structural changes that are needed to avoid climate catastrophe.

The latest such “solution” to emerge is “net-zero emissions,” which depends on so-called “carbon capture and storage.” Though the technology still faces more than a few shortcomings, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Chairman Rajendar Pachauri issued a deeply problematic statement last month, saying that, “With CCS it is entirely possible for fossil fuels to continue to be used on a large scale.”

To be fair, the IPCC’s latest assessment report highlights the imperative of cutting CO2 emissions drastically to avoid exceeding the world’s small – and still risky – carbon budget. But to shift from clear-cut goals like “zero emissions,” “full decarbonization,” and “100% renewable energy” to the far hazier objective of net-zero emissions is to adopt a dangerous stance.

Indeed, the net-zero idea implies that the world can continue to produce emissions, as long as there is a way to “offset” them. So, instead of embarking immediately on a radical emissions-reduction trajectory, we can continue to emit massive amounts of CO2 – and even establish new coal plants – while claiming to be taking climate action by “supporting” the development of CCS technology. It is apparently irrelevant that such technology might not work, is riddled with practical challenges, and carries the risk of future leakage, which would have major social and environmental consequences.

Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage is the poster child for the new “overshoot approach” of net-zero emissions. BECCS entails planting a huge amount of grass and trees, burning the biomass to generate electricity, capturing the CO2 that is emitted, and pumping it into geological reservoirs underground.

BECCS would have enormous development implications, provoking large-scale land grabs, most likely from relatively poor people. This is not some farfetched scenario; rising demand for biofuels has spurred devastating land grabs in developing countries for many years.

It would take a lot more land to offset a substantial share of CO2 emissions. Indeed, an estimated 218-990 million hectares would have to be converted to switchgrass to sequester one billion tons of carbon using BECCS. That is 14-65 times the amount of land the United States uses to grow corn for ethanol.

Nitrous-oxide emissions from the vast amount of fertilizer that would be required to grow the switchgrass could be enough to exacerbate climate change. Then there are the CO2 emissions from producing synthetic fertilizers; clearing trees, shrubs, and grass from hundreds of millions of hectares of land; destroying large reservoirs of soil carbon; and transporting and processing the switchgrass.

Even more problematic is the revelation that CCS and BECCS would most likely be used for “enhanced oil recovery,” with compressed CO2 pumped into old oil wells for storage, thereby creating a financial incentive to recover more oil. The US Department of Energy estimates that such methods could make 67 billion barrels of oil – three times the volume of proven US oil reserves – economically recoverable. Indeed, given the money at stake, enhanced oil recovery could actually be one of the motives behind the push for CCS.

In any case, no form of CCS advances the goal of a structural shift toward full decarbonization, which is what social movements, academics, ordinary citizens, and even some politicians are increasingly demanding. They are prepared to accept the inconveniences and sacrifices that will arise during the transition; indeed, they view the challenge of creating a zero-carbon economy as an opportunity to renew and improve their societies and communities. Dangerous, elusive, and pie-in-the-sky technologies have no place in such an effort.

A clear understanding of the climate crisis expands the range of potential solutions considerably. For example, by banning new coal plants and shifting fossil-fuel subsidies toward the financing of renewable energy through feed-in tariffs, sustainable energy could be brought to billions of people worldwide, while reducing fossil-fuel dependency.

While such innovative and practical solutions are prevented from being scaled up, billions of dollars are pumped into subsidies that reinforce the status quo. The only way to reform the system and make real progress toward mitigating climate change is to work to eliminate fossil fuels completely. Vague goals based on nebulous technologies simply will not work.

[This article was originally posted to Project Syndicate]