Pulling carbon out of the air: NETS, BECCS, and CDR

ADM’s Agricultural Processing and Biofuels Plant, Decatur, IL. Credit: National Energy Technology Laboratory

Geoengineering Monitor has long reported on the speculative concept of “negative emissions”, together with certain favored approaches such as bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) – a geoengineering technique which recent studies show would have significant negative impacts on biodiversity, food security, and livelihoods.

To get a better sense of the technologies under discussion, we sent a correspondent to a “Carbon Dioxide Removal / Negative Emissions Technologies (NETs)” workshop earlier this month, co-sponsored by fora associated with American University, University of California – Berkeley, and Arizona State University.

A primary theme of the workshop was understanding NETs in the context of the Paris Agreement. Katharine Mach, senior research scientist at Stanford University and director of the Stanford Environment Assessment Facility, opened the day by describing the “pledge, review, and revise” approach of the agreement, and singled out the key role envisioned for BECCS in the models that underpin its target to stay below 2 degrees C average global temperature rise.

Wil Burns, co-director of the Forum for Climate Engineering Assessment at American University, made the case that the agreement provides authorization for countries to use artificial carbon sinks (CDR and NETs) as part of their Paris pledges. Burns built his case off of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)’s broad definition of mitigation, which includes not only emissions reductions, but also the enhancement of sinks.

However, insofar as they aim to deliberately increase carbon sequestration on a large scale that may affect biodiversity, all proposed artificial carbon sinks are geoengineering proposals – and therefore subject to a de facto moratorium under the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), most recently reaffirmed at the end of 2016. The CBD’s moratorium derives from the application of the precautionary principle, noting that the potential impacts of geoengineering on biodiversity and traditional livelihoods have been scarcely studied.

Ongoing discussions within the multilateral institutions will likely provide more clarity on the boundary between climate mitigation and geoengineering. But for the meantime, it appears clear that attempts to push CDR techniques through the mitigation loophole will run up against the CBD moratorium. And judging by the other panels at the Berkeley CDR / NETs workshop, that’s probably a good thing.

Outside of the lively debate on BECCS – the star child of CDR advocates – the other approaches on offer ranged from relatively mundane reflections about enhancing rocks and protecting forests, to more fantastical proposals for offshore kelp-platforms riding ocean thermals. The general feel was that of an oddball trade show, with subsequent presenters arising to pitch their particular techno-fix, all seemingly underlaid by a dark acknowledgement of the social and political realities preventing meaningful climate action.

Daniel Sanchez, a postdoc at Stanford University’s Carnegie Institution for Science, kicked off the BECCS panel with a detailed technical and economic assessment of deployment possibilities, making the case that BECCS could enable a carbon-negative power system in western North America by mid-century, given a stringent emissions cap. Interestingly, Sanchez noted that the primary value of BECCS lies in its capacity to function as an offset, and less so as a source of electricity.

This point was addressed indirectly by Daniel Babson, technology manager at the Bioenergy Technologies Office within the Department of Energy (DOE). Babson asked attendees to “imagine BECCS in a world with cheap CO2 and cheap energy,” noting that the Trump administration has upended assumptions about an inevitable national carbon price or cap leading to a more competitive position for future bioenergy deployment. Babson’s prognosis on whether BECCS could flourish without a price on carbon wasn’t particularly sunny, and he noted that the DOE was reorienting towards near-term carbon sequestration via value-added products, such as wood for use in buildings or infrastructure.

Babson also referenced another way in which the new administration is a setback for BECCS. US government funding for carbon-negative bioenergy R&D falls squarely between the Office of Fossil Energy and the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy – both of which are reportedly on the chopping block in the Trump administration’s proposed budget. If the Trump administration is successful in dismantling these offices, Babson will not only be out of a job (as he wryly joked), but BECCS proponents will have lost a critical source of funding and research.

Tim Searchinger, a research scholar at Princeton University and senior fellow at World Resource Institute, functioned as the black sheep of the panel discussion, making the case that studies showing large bioenergy emissions reductions potential are based on double-counting emissions reductions due to plant growth, and that replacing fossil fuels with bioenergy could actually increase GHG emissions, in addition to having major impacts on biodiversity and food security.

Searchinger asserted that so-called marginal or abandoned lands proposed for bioenergy feedstocks are largely already in use by local communities, or required by ecosystems to stay healthy. Margaret Torn, co-director of the Climate and Carbon Sciences Program at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, also raised questions about the ecological limits to bioenergy expansion, focusing on land and resource requirements such as nitrogen and phosphorus. Searchinger made the case that using all of the world’s current harvested biomass would only meet one fifth of the world’s energy needs in 2050, in the process displacing communities and undermining biodiversity.

The final speaker of the day was Janos Pasztor, former senior advisor on climate to the UN secretary general, and recently appointed as director of the new Carnegie Climate Geoengineering Governance Project.

Pazstor, fresh off a meeting with California governor Jerry Brown, introduced the new “C2G2” project as a response to the need for systematic governance frameworks to guide geoengineering research and potential deployment. The aim of the project, according to Pazstor, is to engage with non-governmental organizations, governments, and other groups to build a network of people who could feed into future governance mechanisms.

While building out a coherent governance framework to approach ethical, social-ecological, and technical aspects of geoengineering appears to be a promising step, Geoengineering Monitor believes that it will only be successful if the voices of women, peasant farmers, Indigenous peoples, trade unionists, and the poor have a firm seat at the technology assessment table. Otherwise, C2G2 and similar initiatives could easily end up as just a normalization exercise for geoengineering, dominated by those with a material interest in promoting technofix distractions at the expense of solutions that address the root causes of climate change and biodiversity loss.

Climate Change Policy and The Super-Hero Syndrome

Jeremy Thompson/Wikimedia Commons CC BY 2.0
Jeremy Thompson/Wikimedia Commons CC BY 2.0

by Roger Boyd (Resilience)

There is a genre of Hollywood “feel-good” disaster movie, where everything seems nearly hopeless until the end, and then suddenly, many times against all hope, the super-hero (or super-heroes) saves the day. Whether it be human heroes that blow up the Earth-killing asteroid just in the nick of time; good mutants that defeat the bad mutants just in time; bad mutants turned good mutants that destroy the stayed-bad mutants just in time; future humans and non-human allies that save the Galaxy from the Empire. Anyway, you get the general storyline. The bad people/organisms /things win for the first 95% of the movie then the good people/organisms/things win against all the odds in the last 5%.

The United Nations Climate Change bureaucracy, which tends to be full of economists, engineers and enviro-managers rather than actual climate scientists and ecologists, seems to have been watching too many of these feel-good disaster movies. Seems we need to make them watch the “feel bad” disaster movies instead, like the one where the Sun eats up the Earth, or perhaps a steady diet of the unlimited supply of zombie apocalypse movies. They need something a lot darker, where super-heroes don’t save the day. Then again, maybe they should just grow up and accept that super-heroes only exist in movies. Or maybe they should just listen to the scientists and ecologists a lot more.

The United Nation’s main super-hero is called BECCS (Bio-Energy Carbon Capture & Storage). I know, not exactly as catchy as Superman, Thor, Cat Woman, or Wolverine, but what would you expect from a bunch of climate bureaucrats? BECCS is a true super-hero. The Bad Carbon will continue spewing itself into our atmosphere for decades to come, threatening to remove the ecological basis for modern human civilization. BECCS’s friends, Energy Efficiency and Clean Power, will have held back Bad Carbon a bit, but could not stop BC in time! Then at the last minute, just before human civilization melts down, BECCS sucks up BC and deposits it deep in the Earth never to return (well at least for a few thousand years hopefully).

The problem is that BECCS is not real; it’s a bunch of hopes and a religious belief in technology wrapped together. It assumes that we can set aside about a third of the current arable land on the planet to grow energy crops, instead of food. Then we can burn all those energy crops to help power our modern civilization, and can store all of the resulting carbon dioxide (billions of tons of the stuff) underground safely for thousands of years. That’s a lot of carbon dioxide per year, needing an infrastructure equivalent to the current oil & gas industry to transport it and pump it into the ground. What tiny-scale testing of the CCS (Carbon Capture and Storage) part of BECCS that has been carried out so far could most politely be described as “deeply disappointing”.  Ignoring this, the U.N. people assume that BECCS will start riding to the rescue on a major scale within 20 years or less.

What if BECCS isn’t up to the task? Other eco-technocrats have an army of super-heroes ready to help. These eco-techies seem to be into super-hero ensemble movies – maybe we should call them “The C-Men”. If EE, CP and BECCS cant beat the deadly BC, there is always – wait for it, drum roll please… DAC!!!! (Direct Air Capture) will save the day! BECCS couldn’t suck up enough of the highly concentrated carbon dioxide at the power plant exhaust, but DAC can get enough of it after it has become highly diffuse in the air! If that doesn’t work there is EW (Enhanced Weathering: dig up truly colossal amounts of a certain type of rock, turn it into powder and spread it over the Earth), OF (Ocean Fertilization: fertilize carbon capturing organisms in the ocean), and SRaM (Solar Radiation Management: block/reflect the Sun’s energy to cool the planet).

Why do we need all these super-heroes? Because without these super-heroes we would have to accept that large-scale government intervention will be required to fundamentally change our societies to use a lot less energy. A lot like a war-style economy. A lot less belief in “free markets”, perhaps no economic growth for a while, a ton of pressure for a more equitable sharing of income and wealth, and a lot less use of fossil fuels. Not a reality that the powers-that-be want to deal with. So we get the mythical super-heroes instead.

Those that consider a Trump presidency to be a disaster do not understand that we are already in the disaster. Trump may speed up the disaster a little and is certainly more “in your face”, but he is just a symptom of a larger problem. In a way, you could say he is being a bit more truthful about his version of reality-denial. The problem is the inability of even the “progressives” among the powerful to accept the reality that the time for small measures is gone, and that drastic action is required now. In the early 1990’s, those actions may have been relatively mild. Now, they are much bigger and the longer we wait, the bigger and riskier they get. Only denial, facilitated by mythical technocratic future super-heroes, can keep us from this truth.

Responses to: The Trouble with Negative Emissions

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Last month we reported on Kevin Anderson and Glen Peters’ piece in Science describing how a reliance on negative emissions to draw carbon out of the atmosphere – rather than making necessary and drastic emissions cuts now – will only lock in carbon addiction and make reaching the 2 degree target set out in the Paris Agreement impossible. Below is further exchange on this topic, with a letter in response to the article, and a response to the letter.

Authors of the pro-negative emissions letter use the analogy of throwing a life-preserver to a drowning victim, where negative emissions technologies are the life-saver, and the drowning victim the planet. The life-saver may not ultimately result in a successful rescue, but offering the life-preserver is better than not doing so. The implication being that if negative emissions technologies could help, they should be tried. Anderson and Peters counter by saying that, to use the same analogy, relying on negative emissions is the equivalent of knowingly letting someone jump into a raging torrent, and telling them that we may be able to save them with a technology that we have not yet developed.

The promise of negative emissions

Edited by Jennifer Sills (Science)

In their Perspective “The trouble with negative emissions” (14 October, p. 182), K. Anderson and G. Peters assert that negative-emissions technologies are an “unjust and high-stakes gamble.” This characterization would sideline negative-emissions technologies and remove potentially important options from the portfolio for mitigating and ameliorating climate change.

As Anderson and Peters acknowledge, the remaining carbon budget is pitifully small; at the current rate, the world will blow through 600 Gt of CO2 in 15 years. Dumping this much CO2 in the atmosphere will almost certainly result in more than 1.5°C warming. Indeed, as advocates of a 350-ppm target point out, the remaining CO2 budget could be negative.

Anderson and Peters provide no evidence that faith in negative-emissions technologies is to blame for a delay in implementing other mitigation plans or for the failure of countries to cut emissions. This failure is easily explained by the free-riding behavior of some countries (1), and taking negative-emissions technologies off the table would not make collective action any easier. Indeed, given that negative-emission technologies require financial contributions, not changes in behavior, their development and deployment may well be less vulnerable to free riding. Furthermore, we need a lot of arrows in the quiver to stand a chance of meeting the Paris targets. This was a key finding from the integrated assessment modelers (2).

Rather than dividing mitigation into competing strategies, an inclusive approach would focus on stopping climate change as fast as possible while minimizing risk to vulnerable populations and to societal stability. Negative-emission technologies are not unique in facing challenges, risks, and uncertainties. It is true that negative emissions may fall short of closing the gap, but to characterize them as a high-stakes gamble is not consistent with the facts and the plausibility of meeting the Paris goals without them.

Throwing a life-preserver to a drowning victim may not assure a successful rescue, but it is not a high-stakes gamble. Offering the life-preserver is preferable.

Response

by Kevin Anderson and Glen Peters

As we wrote in our Perspective, we agree with Lackner et al. that negative-emissions technologies should “be the subject of research, development, and potentially deployment.” We support research on the technical, environmental, social, and economic viability of negative-emissions technologies. However, we stand by our conclusion that given the breadth and depth of fundamental uncertainties associated with negative-emissions technologies (1–6), a program of timely and deep mitigation in line with 2°C budgets should assume that they will not be deployed at a large scale.

A mitigation agenda that does not rely on future large-scale application of negative-emissions technologies will require a legislative environment that delivers profound social and behavioral change by high-emitters, rapid deployment of existing low-carbon energy technologies, and urgent research and development of new promising energy technologies, including negative-emissions technologies. If negative-emissions technologies do indeed prove to be successful, then a lower temperature rise can be subsequently pursued.

Lackner et al. claim that including negative-emissions technologies in assessments does not delay other mitigation tactics. On the contrary, evidence indicates that an assumption of negative-emissions success does delay conventional mitigation. Without negative-emissions technologies, much more ambitious and far reaching mitigation is required (2).

The 2°C scenarios assessed by the IPCC that do not include negative emissions but do allow afforestation have considerably lower fossil-fuel consumption than scenarios that include negative emissions [e.g., Fig. S4 in (7)]. The “emissions gap” (8, 9) between the necessary level of mitigation to deliver on the Paris goals and the collective proposition of governments (i.e., the sum of the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions) would be much larger if negative emissions were excluded.

We stand by our claim that postulating large-scale negative emissions in the future leads to much less mitigation today. Negative emissions facilitate the appealing option (10) of exceeding tight carbon budgets and assuming that the debt will be paid back later. If we cannot pay back our carbon debt because the negative-emissions technologies do not deliver as planned, then we have saddled the vulnerable and future generations with the temperatures we seek to avoid in the Paris Agreement. To use the analogy of Lackner et al., we knowingly let someone jump into a raging torrent, telling them we may
be able to save them with a technology we have yet to develop.

References

1. M. Tavoni, R. Socolow, Clim. Change 118, 1 (2013).
2. L. Clarke et al., in Climate Change 2014: Mitigation of Climate Change. Contribution of Working Group III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, O. Edenhofer et al., Eds. (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2014), pp. 413–510.
3. S. Fuss et al., Nat. Clim. Change 4, 850 (2014).
4. P. Smith et al., Nat. Clim. Change 6, 42 (2015).
5. P. Smith, Global Change Biol. 22, 1315 .(2016).
6. P. Williamson, Nature 530, 153 (2016).
7. G. P. Peters, Nat. Clim. Change 6, 646 (2016).
8. UNEP, “The Emissions Gap Report 2015” (United Nations Environment Programme, Nairobi, 2015).
9. J. Rogelj et al., Nature 534, 631 (2016).
10. O. Geden, Nature 521, 27 (2015).

Radical Realism About Climate Change

UniversityBlogSpot/Flickr CC by Lili Fuhr (Project Syndicate)

BERLIN – Mainstream politics, by definition, is ill equipped to imagine fundamental change. But last December in Paris, 196 governments agreed on the need to limit global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels – an objective that holds the promise of delivering precisely such a transformation. Achieving it will require overcoming serious political challenges, reflected in the fact that some are advocating solutions that will end up doing more harm than good.

One strategy that has gained a lot of momentum focuses on the need to develop large-scale technological interventions to control the global thermostat. Proponents of geo-engineering technologies argue that conventional adaptation and mitigation measures are simply not reducing emissions fast enough to prevent dangerous warming. Technologies such as “carbon capture and storage” (CCS), they argue, are necessary to limit damage and human suffering.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change seems to agree. In its fifth assessment report, it builds its scenarios for meeting the Paris climate goals around the concept of “negative emissions” – that is, the ability to suck excess carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.

But this approach ignores serious problems with the development and deployment of geo-engineering technologies. Consider CCS, which is the process of capturing waste CO2 from large sources like fossil-fuel power plants and depositing it in, say, an underground geological formation, thereby preventing it from entering the atmosphere.

It sounds good. But what makes it economical is that it enables enhanced oil recovery. In other words, the only way to make CCS cost-effective is to use it to exacerbate the problem it is supposed to address.

The supposed savior technology – bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) – is not much better. BECCS begins by producing large amounts of biomass from, say, fast-growing trees which naturally capture CO2; those plants are then converted into fuel via burning or refining, with the resulting carbon emissions being captured and sequestered.

But bioenergy is not carbon neutral, and the surge in European demand for biomass has led to rising food commodity prices and land grabs in developing countries. These realities helped persuade the scientists Kevin Anderson and Glen Peters recently to call carbon removal an “unjust and high-stakes gamble.”

What about other geo-engineering proposals? Solar Radiation Management (SRM) aims to control the amount of sunlight that reaches the Earth, essentially mimicking the effect of a volcano eruption. This may be achieved by pumping sulphates into the stratosphere or through “marine cloud brightening,” which would cause clouds to reflect more sunlight back into space.

But blasting sulphates into the stratosphere does not reduce CO2 concentrations; it merely delays the impact for as long as the spraying continues. Moreover, sulphate injections in the northern hemisphere could cause serious drought in the Africa’s Sahel region, owing to dramatic reductions in precipitation, while some African countries would experience more precipitation. The effect on the Asian monsoon system could be even more pronounced. In short, SRM could severely damage the livelihoods of millions of people.

If geo-engineering can’t save us, what can? In fact, there are a number of steps that can be taken right now. They would be messier and more politically challenging than geo-engineering. But they would work.

The first step would be a moratorium on new coal mines. If all currently planned coal-fired power plants are built and operated over their normal service life of 40 years, they alone would emit 240 billion tons of CO2 – more than the remaining carbon budget. If that investment were re-allocated to decentralized renewable-energy production, the benefits would be enormous.

Moreover, with only 10% of the global population responsible for almost 50% of global CO2 emissions, there is a strong case to be made for implementing strategies that target the biggest emitters. For example, it makes little sense that airlines – which actually serve just 7% of the global population – are exempt from paying fuel taxes, especially at a time when ticket prices are at an historic low.

Changes to land use are also needed. The 2009 International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development charts the way to a transformed agricultural system – with benefits that extend far beyond climate policy. We must apply this knowledge around the world.

In Europe, the waste sector could make a significant contribution to a low-carbon economy. Recent research, commissioned by Zero Waste Europe, found that optimal implementation of the European Commission’s “circular economy package” waste targets could save the European Union 190 million tons of CO2 per year. That is the equivalent of the annual emissions of the Netherlands!

Available measures in the transport sector include strengthening public transportation, encouraging the use of railways for freight traffic, building bike paths, and subsidizing delivery bicycles. In Germany, intelligent action on transport could reduce the sector’s emissions by up to 95% by 2050.

Another powerful measure would be to protect and restore natural ecosystems, which could result in the storage of 220-330 gigatons of CO2 worldwide .

None of these solutions is a silver bullet; but, together, they could change the world for the better. Geo-engineering solutions are not the only alternatives. They are a response to the inability of mainstream economics and politics to address the climate challenge. Instead of trying to devise ways to maintain business as usual – an impossible and destructive goal – we must prove our ability to imagine and achieve radical change.

If we fail, we should not be surprised if, just a few years from now, the planetary thermostat is under the control of a handful of states or military and scientific interests. As world leaders convene for the 22nd United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change to bring the Paris agreement into force, they should repudiate geo-engineering quick fixes – and demonstrate a commitment to real solutions.

With Sights Set on COP22, Group Offers Roadmap for ‘Fair Future’ in Warming World

by Nika Knight (Common Dreams)

A sustainable solution to the climate crisis will also work to alleviate poverty and seek climate justice, says Friends of the Earth Germany

“A future without climate chaos for all human beings on our planet is only possible if we don’t pin our hopes on large-scale technologies. Instead, we have to make sure that the energy and agricultural transitions are being pushed forward as fast as possible,” said Heinrich Böll Foundation president Barbara Unmüßig

An illustration from the report by Friends of the Earth Germany
An illustration from the report by Friends of the Earth Germany

At the upcoming United Nations climate conference in Morocco, negotiations for how to fulfill COP21‘s agreement to limit global warming to 1.5º Celsius must emphasize methods that will also alleviate poverty and climate injustice, rather than leaning on “questionable technologies” such as geoengineering and carbon offset, says Friends of the Earth (FOE) Germany.

“We cannot count on unproven, costly, and ecologically risky negative emission technologies to save us from climate chaos.”
—Hubert Weiger,
Friends of the Earth Germany

That’s the argument put forth in the group’s new report, “A change of course: How to build a fair future in a 1.5 degree world” (pdf, in German), published Friday alongside the German Catholic Bishops’ Organisation for Development Cooperation (MISEREOR) and the Heinrich Böll Foundation.

The climate conference will take place in Marrakech, Morocco, from November 7-18.

The report takes aim at popular so-called “negative emissions” technologies, such as geoengineering, carbon offset regimes, and bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS), arguing that leaders must pursue true sustainability instead.

“The fatal flaw of all negative emissions technology proposals is this: The hope for an atmospheric line of credit allows today’s urgent need for radical reductions in CO2 emissions to fall by the wayside,” the report argues. “What’s currently Plan B is in fact the best way to force Plan A into the background—a fundamentally different economy, one that preserves the planet for all forms of life.”

Instead of such “questionable technologies,” the report argues for policies that have poverty reduction and climate justice as their central focus.

“In reaction to the Paris Agreement, we need to phase out coal, speed up the transition to renewables, phase out combustion engines, and protect and restore forests and soils,” explained Hubert Weiger, chairman of Friends of the Earth Germany, in a statement.

“It is crystal clear that effective climate protection and equitable, sustainable development can only be considered together,” added Heinrich Böll Foundation president Barbara Unmüßig. “A future without climate chaos for all human beings on our planet is only possible if we don’t pin our hopes on large-scale technologies. Instead, we have to make sure that the energy and agricultural transitions are being pushed forward as fast as possible. Technological fixes such as geoengineering are betting on future possibilities such as sucking CO2 from the atmosphere or keeping sunlight away from the Earth. This is a dangerous distraction from the necessary steps that we can already implement today. The coming-into-force of the Paris Agreement asks for exactly this change in course.”

“As northern countries that have caused the climate catastrophe, we need to lead by example,” Weiger continued. “We cannot count on unproven, costly, and ecologically risky negative emission technologies to save us from climate chaos. If we postpone implementing the traditional climate mitigation solutions, we will miss the rapidly closing window of opportunity to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees.”

Indeed, new research has shown that the goal to limit warming to 1.5º is already a long-shot.

“The vague hope that we could all survive in a world that is 3 degrees warmer than before industrialization is deceptive,” said Pirmin Spiegel, director general of MISEREOR. “It is our responsibility to safeguard the lives of millions of people by limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees. This is not only a technological challenge; instead, it has widespread societal and cultural implications that we all have to face.”

A reliance on negative emissions technologies is locking in carbon addiction

The Paris Agreement on climate change and the carbon-reduction plans of many governments (including the UK) are unwittingly reliant on unproven technologies to suck hundreds of billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide directly from the atmosphere.

The journal Science has published a Perspective which reveals the scale and widespread reliance on ‘negative emissions technologies’, which remain at best experimental. Nevertheless the models being used to advise governments on what action to take are dominated by such highly speculative technologies – with many assuming their mass roll-out beginning within the decade.

“The beguiling appeal of relying on future negative emission technologies (NETs) is that they delay the need for stringent and politically challenging polices today – they pass the buck for reducing carbon on to future generations” said Kevin Anderson, co-author of the paper and Professor at the Universities of Manchester and Uppsala. “But if these Dr. Strangelove technologies fail to deliver at the planetary scale envisaged, our own children will be forced to endure the consequences of rapidly rising temperatures and a highly unstable climate.”

The scale of carbon removal emerging from the models underpinning governments’ thinking on climate change is breathtaking. By the middle of the century many of the models assume as much removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by negative emission technologies as is absorbed naturally today by all of the world’s oceans and plants combined.

Despite the modelling community’s reliance on negative emission technologies, there are no proven means by which we can remove carbon dioxide at such unprecedented scales” says Dr Glen Peters, a Senior Researcher at the Center for International Climate and Environmental Research – Oslo (CICERO) and co-author of the paper.

“Yet almost all of the scenarios with a likely chance of not exceeding 2°C and considered by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (the IPCC) assume that the large scale roll out of negative emission technologies is technically and economically viable.”

Dr Peters points to how “Carbon dioxide removal is an extremely attractive technology for fossil fuel companies, as they can continue production whilst shifting the burden of mitigation on to future generations.”

It is not well understood by many decision makers, NGOs and even academics working on climate change, that the climate models informing governments are so dependent on such a massive deployment of speculative and unproven technologies.

“The inclusion of the still more ambitious 1.5°C goal in Paris, relies on a belief in even greater levels of carbon removal. Without negative emissions, holding to a 1.5°C rise demands that the global economy fully decarbonises within a decade,” says Professor Anderson.

Negative emission technologies are not an insurance policy. They are a high risk gamble with tomorrow’s generations, particularly those living in poor and climatically vulnerable communities, set to pay the price if our high stakes bet fails to deliver as promised.

Professor Kevin Anderson

The trouble with negative emissions

By Kevin Anderson and Glen Peters (Science)

Reliance on negative-emission concepts locks in humankind’s carbon addiction

In December 2015, member states of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) adopted the Paris Agreement, which aims to hold the increase in the global average temperature to below 2°C and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C.

The Paris Agreement requires that anthropogenic greenhouse gas emission sources and sinks are balanced by the second half of this century. Because some nonzero sources are unavoidable, this leads to the abstract concept of “negative emissions”, the removal of carbon dioxide (CO2 ) from the atmosphere through technical means. The Integrated Assessment Models (IAMs) informing policy-makers assume the large-scale use of negative-emission technologies. If we rely on these and they are not deployed or are unsuccessful at removing CO2 from the atmosphere at the levels assumed, society will be locked into a high-temperature pathway.

CARBON BUDGETS

To understand the implications of the Paris Agreement for mitigation policy, we must translate its qualitative temperature limits into quantitative carbon budgets, specifying how much CO2 can be emitted across the remainder of the century to keep warming below a given temperature level (1). Uncertainties in the climate system mean that such budgets are specified with quantitative likelihoods.

Borrowing from the taxonomy of likelihoods used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the most generous interpretation of the Paris Agreement’s requirement to keep the temperature rise well below 2°C is, at least, a likely (66 to 100%) chance of not exceeding 2°C.

The IPCC has assessed 900 mitigation scenarios from about 30 IAMs (2). Of these, 76 scenarios from five IAMs had sufficient data to estimate the carbon budget for a likely chance of not exceeding 2°C. These scenarios give a carbon budget of between 600 and 1200 billion metric tons (Gt) CO 2 (10 to 90% range) for the period from 2016 until the peak in temperature [updated from (1)]. Increasing the likelihood of keeping temperatures below 2°C (or shifting the ceiling to 1.5°C) will reduce still further the available carbon budget (3). The budget is also subject to a reduction each year, currently around 40 Gt CO 2 , due to continued fossil fuel, industry, and land-use change emissions.

It is important to keep in mind that despite their intuitive appeal, the complexity of carbon budgets make it impossible to assign a specific budget to a given temperature rise.

anderson-graphFROM BUDGETS TO EMISSION PATHWAYS

Because the carbon budgets represent cumulative emissions, different emission pathways can be consistent with a given budget. Using the 76 scenarios consistent with a likely chance of not exceeding 2°C (see the figure), two key features are immediately striking. First, the scenarios assume that the large-scale rollout of negative-emission technologies is technically, economically, and socially viable (2, 4). In many scenarios, the level of negative emissions is comparable in size with the remaining carbon budget (see the figure) and is sufficient to bring global emissions to at least net zero in the second half of the century.

Second, there is a large and growing deviation between actual emission trends and emission scenarios. The sum of the national emission pledges submitted to the Paris negotiations (COP21) lead to an increase in emissions, at least until 2030. They thus broaden the division between pathways consistent with the temperature goals of the Paris Agreement (5) and require either much more severe near-term mitigation (6) or additional future negative emissions.

It is not well understood by policy-makers, or indeed many academics, that IAMs assume such a massive deployment of negative-emission technologies. Yet when it comes to the more stringent Paris obligations, studies suggest that it is impossible to reach 1.5°C with a 50% chance without significant negative emissions (3). Even for 2°C, very few scenarios have explored mitigation without negative emissions (2).

Negative emissions are also prevalent in scenarios for higher stabilization targets (7). Given such a pervasive and pivotal role of negative emissions in mitigation scenarios, their almost complete absence from climate policy discussions is disturbing and needs to be addressed urgently.

NEGATIVE-EMISSION TECHNOLOGIES

Negative-emission technologies exist at various levels of development (8–11). Afforestation and reforestation, although not strictly technologies, are already claimed by countries as mitigation measures. Bioenergy, combined with carbon capture and storage (BECCS), is the most prolific negative-emission technology included in IAMs and is used widely in emission scenarios. It has the distinct feature of providing energy while also, in principle (12), removing CO2 from the atmosphere. Assuming that carbon is valued, BECCS can thus provide an economic benefit that may offset, at least in part, the additional costs of using the technology (13). Generally, carbon is assumed to be fully absorbed during biomass growth, captured before or after combustion, and then stored underground indefinitely. Despite the prevalence of BECCS in emission scenarios at a level much higher than afforestation, only one large-scale demonstration plant exists today.

Other negative-emission technologies have not moved beyond theoretical studies or small-scale demonstrations. Alternative and adjusted agricultural practices, including biochar, may increase carbon uptake in soils (9). It may also be possible to use direct air capture to remove CO2 from the atmosphere via chemical reactions, with underground storage similar to CCS. Enhancing the natural weathering of minerals (rocks) may increase the amount of carbon stored in soils, land, or oceans. Introduction of biological or chemical catalysts may increase carbon uptake by the ocean. New technologies, designs, and refinements may emerge over time.

BECCS: A POLITICAL PANACEA

The allure of BECCS and other negative-emission technologies stems from their promise of much-reduced political and economic challenges today, compensated by anticipated technological advances tomorrow. Yet there are huge opportunities for near-term, rapid, and deep reductions today at little to modest costs, such as improving energy efficiency, encouraging low-carbon behaviors, and continued deployment of renewable energy technologies. Why, then, is BECCS used so prolifically in emission scenarios?

The answer is simple. Integrated assessment models often assume perfect knowledge of future technologies and give less weight to future costs. In effect, they assume that the discounted cost of BECCS in future decades is less than the cost of deep mitigation today. In postponing the need for rapid and immediate mitigation, BECCS licenses the ongoing combustion of fossil fuels while ostensibly fulfilling the Paris commitments.

The idea behind BECCS is to combine bioenergy production with CCS, but both face major and perhaps insurmountable obstacles. Two decades of research and pilot plants have struggled to demonstrate the technical and economic viability of power generation with CCS, even when combusting relatively homogeneous fossil fuels (14). Substituting for heterogeneous biomass feedstock adds to the already considerable challenges.

Moreover, the scale of biomass assumed in IAMs—typically, one to two times the area of India—raises profound questions (10) about carbon neutrality, land availability, competition with food production, and competing demands for bioenergy from the transport, heating, and industrial sectors. The logistics of collating and transporting vast quantities of bioenergy—equivalent to up to half of the total global primary energy consumption—is seldom addressed. Some studies suggest that BECCS pathways are feasible, at least locally (15), but globally there are substantial limitations (10). BECCS thus remains a highly speculative technology.

Although BECCS, like all negative-emission technologies, is subject to scientific and political uncertainties, it dominates the scenario landscape. Yet, as recognition of the ubiquitous role of BECCS in mitigation scenarios has grown, so have concerns about its deployment (10, 11). Its land-use impacts could include terrestrial species losses equivalent to, at least, a 2.8°C temperature rise (11), leading to difficult trade-offs between biodiversity loss and temperature rise. There is also little robust analysis of the trade-offs between large-scale deployment of BECCS (and all negative-emission technologies) and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). But such a level of caution is far removed from the technical utopia informing IAMs. Despite BECCS continuing to stumble through its infancy, many scenarios assessed by the IPCC propose its mature and large-scale rollout as soon as 2030 (see the figure).

MORAL HAZARD AND INEQUITY

The appropriateness or otherwise of relying, in significant part, on negative-emission technologies to realize the Paris commitments is an issue of risk (7). However, the distribution of this risk is highly inequitable. If negative-emission technologies fail to deliver at the scale enshrined in many IAMs, their failure will be felt most by low-emitting communities that are geographically and financially vulnerable to a rapidly changing climate.

The promise of future and cost-optimal negative-emission technologies is more politically appealing than the prospect of developing policies to deliver rapid and deep mitigation now. If negative-emission technologies do indeed follow the idealized, rapid, and successful deployment assumed in the models, then any reduction in near-term mitigation caused by the appeal of negative emissions will likely lead to only a small and temporary overshoot of the Paris temperature goals (3). In stark contrast, if the many reservations increasingly voiced about negative-emission technologies (particularly BECCS) turn out to be valid, the weakening of near-term mitigation and the failure of future negative-emission technologies will be a prelude to rapid temperature rises reminiscent of the 4°C “business as usual” pathway feared before the Paris Agreement (5).

Negative-emission technologies are not an insurance policy, but rather an unjust and high-stakes gamble. There is a real risk they will be unable to deliver on the scale of their promise. If the emphasis on equity and risk aversion embodied in the Paris Agreement are to have traction, negative-emission technologies should not form the basis of the mitigation agenda. This is not to say that they should be abandoned (14, 15). They could very reasonably be the subject of research, development, and potentially deployment, but the mitigation agenda should proceed on the premise that they will not work at scale.

The implications of failing to do otherwise are a moral hazard par excellence.

REFERENCES AND NOTES

1. J. Rogelj et al., Nat. Clim. Change 6, 245 (2016).
2. L. Clarke et al., in Climate Change 2014: Mitigation of Climate Change. Contribution of Working Group III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, O. Edenhofer et al., Eds. (Cambridge Univ. Press, Cambridge/New York, 2014), pp. 413–510.
3. J. Rogelj et al., Nat. Clim. Change 5, 519 (2015).
4. H. J. Buck, Clim. Change 10.1007/s10484-016-1770-6 (2016).
5. J. Rogelj et al., Nature 534, 631 (2016).
6. K. Anderson, Nat. Geosci. 8, 898 (2015).
7. S. Fuss et al., Nat. Clim. Change 4, 850 (2014).
8. M. Tavoni, R. Socolow, Clim. Change 118, 1 (2013).
9. P. Smith, Glob. Change Biol. 22, 1315 (2016).
10. P. Smith et al., Nat. Clim. Change 6, 42 (2015).
11. P. Williamson, Nature 530, 153 (2016).
12. A. Gilbert, B. K. Sovacool, Nat. Clim. Change 5, 495 (2015).
13. D. L. Sanchez et al., Nat. Clim. Change 5, 230 (2015).
14. D. M. Reiner, Nat. Energy 1, 15011 (2016).
15. D. L. Sanchez, D. M. Kammen, Nat. Energy 1, 15002 (2016).
16. The figure shows the median of the 76 IPCC scenarios that limit the global temperature rise to 2°C with 66% likelihood (2). Realized negative emissions are estimated by converting the BECCS energy consumption [exajoules (EJ) per year], assuming an average biomass emission factor of 100 metric tons of CO 2 per terajoule (TJ) and assuming that 90% of the CO 2 is captured. The emission pledges (INDCs) in 2030 are estimated based on cumulative emissions from 2011 to 2030 (5).

No country on Earth is taking the 2 degree climate target seriously

by David Roberts (Vox)

If we mean what we say, no more new fossil fuels, anywhere.

NASA/FLickr CCOne of the morbidly fascinating aspects of climate change is how much cognitive dissonance it generates, in individuals and nations alike.

The more you understand the brutal logic of climate change — what it could mean, the effort necessary to forestall it — the more the intensity of the situation seems out of whack with the workaday routines of day-to-day life. It’s a species-level emergency, but almost no one is acting like it is. And it’s very, very difficult to be the only one acting like there’s an emergency, especially when the emergency is abstract and science-derived, grasped primarily by the intellect.

This psychological schism is true for individuals, and it’s true for nations. Take the Paris climate agreement.

In Paris, in 2015, the countries of the world agreed (again) on the moral imperative to hold the rise in global average temperature to under 2 degrees Celsius, and to pursue “efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees.” To date, 62 countries, including the United States, China, and India, have ratified the agreement.

Are any of the countries that signed the Paris agreement taking the actions necessary to achieve that target?

No. The US is not. Nor is the world as a whole.

The actions necessary to hold to 2 degrees, much less 1.5 degrees, are simply outside the bounds of conventional politics in most countries. Anyone who proposed them would sound crazy, like they were proposing, I don’t know, a war or something.

So we say 2 degrees is unacceptable. But we don’t act like it is.

This cognitive dissonance is brought home yet again in a new report from Oil Change International (in collaboration with a bunch of green groups). It’s about fossil fuels and how much of them we can afford to dig up and burn, if we’re serious about what we said in Paris. It’s mostly simple math, but the implications are vast and unsettling.

Let’s start from the beginning.

Staying beneath 2 degrees means immediately and rapidly declining emissions

Scientists have long agreed that warming higher than 2 degrees will result in widespread food, water, weather, and sea level stresses, with concomitant immigration, conflict, and suffering, inequitably distributed.

But 2 degrees is not some magic threshold where tolerable becomes dangerous. A two-year review of the latest science by the UNFCCC found that the difference between 1.5 and 2 degrees means heat extremes, water shortages, and falling crop yields. “The ‘guardrail’ concept, in which up to 2°C of warming is considered safe,” the review concluded, “is inadequate.”

The report recommends that 2 degrees be seen instead as “an upper limit, a defense line that needs to be stringently defended, while less warming would be preferable.”

This changing understanding of 2 degrees matters, because the temperature target we choose, and the probability with which we aim to hit it, establishes our “carbon budget,” i.e., the amount of CO2 we can still emit before blowing it.

Many commonly used scenarios (including the International Energy Agency’s) are built around a 50 percent chance of hitting 2 degrees. But if 2 degrees is an “upper limit” and “less warming would be preferable,” it seems we would want a higher than 50-50 chance of stopping short of it.

So the authors of the Oil Change report choose two scenarios to model. One gives us a 66 percent chance of stopping short of 2 degrees. The other gives us a 50 percent chance of stopping short of 1.5 degrees. Here’s what they look like:

scenarios: 1.5 and 2 degrees (Oil Change International)

This image should terrify you. It should be on billboards.

As you can see, in either scenario, global emissions must peak and begin declining immediately. For a medium chance to avoid 1.5 degrees, the world has to zero out net carbon emissions by 2050 or so — for a good chance of avoiding 2 degrees, by around 2065.

After that, emissions have to go negative. Humanity has to start burying a lot more carbon than it throws up into the atmosphere. There are several ways to sequester greenhouse gases, from reforestation to soil enrichment to cow backpacks, but the backbone of the envisioned negative emissions is BECCS, or bioenergy with carbon capture and sequestration.

BECCS — raising, harvesting, and burning biomass for energy, while capturing and burying the carbon emissions — is unproven at scale. Thus far, most demonstration plants of any size attaching CCS to fossil fuel facilities have been over-budget disasters. What if we can’t rely on it? What if it never pans out?

“If we want to avoid depending on unproven technology becoming available,” the authors say, “emissions would need to be reduced even more rapidly.”

You could say that. This is from climate researcher Glen Peters, based on a scenario with a 66 percent chance of avoiding 1.5 degrees.

1.5 scenarios (Glen Peters)

Check out that middle graphic. If we really want to avoid 1.5 degrees, and we can’t rely on large-scale carbon sequestration, then the global community has to zero out its carbon emissions by 2026.

Ten years from now.

There’s no happy win-win story about that scenario, no way to pull it off while continuing to live US lifestyles and growing the global economy every year. It would require immediate, radical shifts in behavior worldwide, especially among the wealthy — a period of voluntary austerity and contraction.

That seems unlikely. So instead, let’s assume copious negative emissions technology will be available in the latter half of the century, just to give ourselves the most room possible.

In those scenarios, how much of the world’s fossil fuels can we burn? How much more can we find and dig up?

That math is daunting.

Staying beneath 2 degrees means ceasing all new fossil fuel development

First, a quick tour of terminology. There are fossil fuel resources (what is ultimately recoverable), reserves (what is known and economically recoverable), and developed reserves (what is known and recoverable in currently operating mines and fields). Here’s a handy guide:

fossil fuel terminology (Oil Change International)

Now let’s compare some numbers. It’s pretty straightforward. Roughly 95 percent of the carbon contained in fossil fuels gets released into the atmosphere, so a ton dug up means a ton emitted, more or less.

How do our carbon budgets compare with our fossil fuel reserves?

reserves v. carbon budgets (Oil Change International)

Another terrifying image.

On the left is global developed fossil fuel reserves. Remember the terminology: That’s what we can likely get out of currently operating fields and mines. On the right are our carbon budgets, for the 2 degree and 1.5 degree scenarios respectively. Existing developed reserves exceed the 2 degree budget, and oil and gas alone break the 1.5 degree budget.

If we are serious about what we said in Paris, then no more exploring for new fossil fuels. No new mines, wells, or fossil fuel infrastructure. And rapid, managed decline in existing fossil fuels.

We are betting our species’ future on our ability to bury carbon

An important note: The analysts at Oil Change assume that there will be BECCS from midcentury onward, but assume that CCS will not come online fast enough to substantially delay the decline of fossil fuels before then.

Obviously, that assumption could be wrong on either end. CCS could develop faster than expected or turn out to be utterly impractical and too costly on any time scale. It’s too soon to know.

What is clear is that we are betting our collective future on being able to bury millions of tons of carbon. It’s a huge and existentially risky bet — and maybe one out of a million people even know it’s being made.

Humanity is in a desperate situation

There are modeling scenarios that show us hitting our climate targets. But we should take no comfort from them. The fact is, we have waited until perilously late to act on climate change, and our range of options has narrowed. We face three choices:

1) In the event that massive carbon sequestration proves infeasible, avoiding dangerous climate change will require an immediate and precipitous decline in global carbon emissions over a decade or two. Given that most present-day economic activity is driven by fossil fuels, it would mean, at least temporarily, a net decline in economic activity. No one wants to discuss this, except climate scientist Kevin Anderson:

2) The second option is to immediately begin driving net global emissions down, hitting zero some time midcentury or shortly thereafter, and in the meantime develop the technology and infrastructure to bury millions of tons of carbon from biomass. Anderson explains just what that means:

The sheer scale of the BECCS assumption underpinning the [Paris] Agreement is breathtaking – 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 bio-fuel, 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.

3) The third option is to allow temperatures to rise 3 or even 4 degrees, which Anderson has called “incompatible with an organized global community.” Such temperatures would bring suffering to hundreds of millions of people and substantially raise the probability of runaway global warming that can’t be stopped no matter what humans do. Runaway warming would, over the course of a century or so, serve to render the planet uninhabitable. Quite a legacy.

All of these are desperate options.

When climate activists say, “We have the technology; all we need is the political will,” they act like that’s good news. But think about the political will we need: to immediately cease fossil fuel exploration, start shutting down coal mines, and put in place a plan for managed decline of the fossil fuel industry; to double or triple the global budget for clean energy research, development, and deployment; to transfer billions of dollars from wealthy countries to poorer ones, to protect them from climate impacts they are most vulnerable to but least responsible for; and quite possibly, if it comes to it, to limit the consumptive choices of the globe’s wealthiest and most carbon-intensive citizens.

That level of political will is nowhere in evidence, in any country.

So for now, it’s cognitive dissonance.

Climate scientists are now relying on a terrifying assumption

Mrs. Gemstone via Flickr by Ryan Cooper (THE WEEK)

How can we solve climate change? One option is obvious, if a bit strange: If dumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere is the problem, then we could always suck it back out.

If you think that sounds tricky, congratulations, you’re correct. However, scientists are increasingly relying on just this idea to construct workable future scenarios where global warming does not spin out of control. And the reason is that governments around the world have not been remotely equal to the task of keeping overall warming below 2 degrees Celsius, the level at which climate change becomes unacceptably risky according to the international Paris climate accords.

 As a result, scientists crunching the numbers on how humanity might achieve this goal are increasingly leaning on outlandish assumptions about pulling billions of tons of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. The math checks out — but the science is not guaranteed to work, and it would be a lot easier to just implement proper climate policy right now.

Here’s the basic shape of climate change. In order to stay below 2 degrees, humanity can emit a sum total of roughly 1 trillion tonnes of carbon dioxide for all time. Emissions in 2014 were about 32 billion tonnes. We’re headed towards that limit at high speed — so to stay below it (without pulling anything out of the air) humanity must cut its emissions very fast, very soon.

Now, world emissions may have actually declined slightly in 2015 — an encouraging sign, but a temporary one. Renewable energy has been advancing fast, but it’s massive structural change and economic chaos in China alone that is responsible for the decline, not any sort of worldwide systematic attack on use of fossil fuels. What’s more, developing countries — particularly India — are projected to emit a lot more as their economies grow. As I noted two years ago, even if 2014 were to be a permanent emissions peak, staying under 2 degrees would require a crash course of decarbonization never seen in history outside of economic collapse.

So the only escape hatch is to pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. In a new paper in Geophysical Research Letters, Benjamin M. Sanderson, Brian O’Neill, and Claudia Tibaldi examined what it would take to achieve the targets contained in the Paris climate accords — and most of their plausible future scenarios involve a years-long period of immense carbon dioxide removal. One plausible scenario for this involves biofuels (which would grow by pulling carbon out of the air, like any plant), and then sequestering the emissions far underground after the fuel is burned.

Staying under 2 degrees can happen if we get to net zero emissions on a fairly moderate course by 2085, for example — but it would require a long-term effort taking some 26 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere every year.

This sort of thinking is becoming more and more common as climate policy remains woefully insufficient. A pseudonymous scientist notes:

What I think is interesting is that negative emissions and temperature overshoots seem to now [be] becoming part of the narrative. One obvious reason for this is that we’re on the verge of leaving it too late to achieve these targets without them. We could still do so, but it would probably require drastic emissions reductions starting now… [And Then There’s Physics]

If we procrastinate much longer, it’s going to be nearly impossible to stay under that 2 degree limit. Meanwhile, climate change itself marches on. The last year has shattered temperature records across the globe, and seen multiple disasters of the sort predicted by climate models. The most powerful El Niño ever recorded has caused the worst recorded instance of coral bleaching, particularly hammering Australia’s Great Barrier Reef and the Maldives. Roads are buckling across Alaska as permafrost melts. Record heat in Siberia led to an anthrax outbreak among humans and reindeer.

 The politics of climate change always seem tough. But it should be noted that it will be vastly easier to head the problem off now than it will be to fix it after we’ve let it fester for another couple decades. Carbon dioxide emissions are the product of several gigantic industries today. Creating a brand new industry to reverse the damage of other massive industries will be a terrifically expensive logistical nightmare.

And there’s also no guarantee that it will work on the scale required! Technologies to scrub carbon from the atmosphere are still in the early development stage. Historically, human ingenuity has solved such problems — but there’s no guarantee it will happen, especially if it needs to be done very fast. It’s completely possible we’ll run into unsolvable technical bottlenecks, and be forced to rely on hugely risky Hail Mary geoengineering efforts like partially blotting out the sun with sulfur dioxide.

Don’t think of technology predictions 70 years out as a promise. Acting to prevent climate change as soon as possible is always going to be the smart move.

Climate change needs real solutions not more hot air

In the Canadian province of Saskatchewan, SaskPower's carbon capture coal power plant has begun. Day Donaldson under a Creative Commons Licenceby Almuth Ernsting (New Internationalist)

Are certain proposals to reduce carbon emissions based on technological hype?

At a COP21 side event last December, proponents of Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) hosted Mike Marsh, the CEO of publicly-owned Canadian energy company SaskPower. He presented on the ‘success’ of the first ever commercial coal power CCS project: the Boundary Dam Carbon Capture Project. It was inaugurated amongst great media fanfare in October 2014 and, according to SaskPower, it is capable of capturing 1 million tonnes of CO2every year.

Marsh must have hoped that the attendants wouldn’t have seen the flurry of bad media news that had just broken about the scheme. Saskatchewan’s opposition party had, under Freedom of Information provisions, obtained documents which belied his company’s claims that the scheme had ‘exceeded expectations’. They showed that the carbon capture plant had never been fully operational and had repeatedly been switched off for days or weeks at a time.

None of this stopped Marsh and the event organizers from continuing to tout the Boundary Dam project as a shining success. Nor were they deterred by a report by Saskatchewan Community Wind in March 2015, which illustrated that the CCS unit would result in more CO2emissions than a coal power station unit the same size that vented all of its CO2into the atmosphere. This is due to the fact that SaskPower sells the CO2 to an oil company, which pumps it into an ageing oil field in order to exploit oil which would not be recoverable otherwise. For every tonne of CO2pumped into the oilfield, at least 824 kilograms of CO2are released when the additional oil is burned. Moreover, 300 kilograms of the injected CO2escape during the process. During the Paris side event Marsh was questioned about the life-cycle emissions of the scheme, but chose not to answer.

This stark disconnect between CCS being hyped as a key solution to climate change and the dismal failure of CCS projects to reduce CO2emissions – or to work at all – sums up the strange role that this technology played during and around the COP21 climate negotiations.

One of the most hyped technologies in Paris was Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS). It is claimed that BECCS could suck vast amounts of carbon from the atmosphere, making it carbon negative. This claim relies on 3 assumptions: 1) that bioenergy can be carbon neutral even on a vast scale; 2) that the technology required for capturing CO2from biomass-burning power stations and from biofuel refineries is viable and that it won’t remain prohibitively expensive; and 3) that CO2pumped underground will safely remain there.

A new Biofuelwatch report about BECCS exposes each of these assumptions as a myth:

  1. Experience with biofuels and industrial biomass shows that both lead to huge greenhouse gas emissions from forest destruction, land conversion, soil depletion, fertiliser use, etc.;
  2. BECCS has never been tested, except for the capture of CO2from ethanol fermentation, which is much easier than capturing it from power stations. However, the carbon emissions resulting from the fossil fuels required to run these refineries are greater than the CO2captured, so this process is far from carbon-negative. The technical challenges and costs associated with BECCS are even greater than for coal CCS, and there’s not a single successful example of that yet either.
  3. The long-term fate of CO2pumped underground remains unknown. Recent evidence has emerged that ‘sequestration’ is nowhere near as secure as thought. Just after the Biofuelwatch report came out, a study was published which showed that CO2pumped into saline aquifers can leak through cement in abandoned oil and gas wells – of which there are at least 2.5 million worldwide.

The Paris Agreement calls for CO2emissions to be ‘balanced’ by ‘removals’ during the second half of the century. No specific technology is mentioned but BECCS was the most widely touted ‘carbon negative technology’ at the COP.

CCS and BECCS are unlikely to ever be applied on a large scale. The technical challenges and dire energy balances simply don’t make this technology viable. It is the hype itself which poses the real danger: this fantasy idea serves little real purpose other than to provide false reassurance that we can still prevent catastrophic climate change without having to stop burning fossil fuels.

Almuth Ernsting is co-director of Biofuelwatch. You can follow Biofuelwatch on Twitter and Facebook.