A new briefing from ETC Group outlines the ethical, political and environmental arguments against solar radiation management (SRM), and explains why even SRM experiments are a bad idea. The backgrounder was released in late March 2017 after Harvard University announced they are planning open-air SRM experiments in Arizona in 2018. Read the briefing and related materials at: http://www.etcgroup.org/content/why-srm-experiments-are-bad-idea
ETC Group also issued a news release and supporting materials explaining how the new US administration could “inflate geoengineers’ balloon” and create favourable circumstances for geoengineering experiments now and in the future.
This week’s headline news from the world of technofix climate solutions is that a team of researchers led by the University of Illinois-Chicago has developed an artificial leaf. This leaf is a solar cell that uses the power of the sun to mimic photosynthesis and converts carbon dioxide into a fuel. Whereas a real leaf sucks up carbon dioxide and turns it into more tree, this artificial leaf turns it into a gas that can then be burned, releasing the carbon back into the atmosphere.
Climate Central’s story on this research lead with the line: “If humans could invent a leaf-like solar cell that could turn carbon dioxide pollution from the atmosphere into fuel for electric power plants, it could help reduce reliance on fossil fuels and cut emissions that contribute to global warming.”
Which is really quite amusing, given that millions of years of evolution has provided us with a perfectly adequate and natural leaf-like solar cell that can turn carbon dioxide pollution from the atmosphere into fuel, and certainly helps cut emissions that contribute to global warming.
Most uses of leaves and trees as fuel in electric power plants do make climate change worse of course, but humans have also been sustainably managing woodland on a small scale for thousands of years, such that forests and soils keep sequestering carbon, and humans get fuel and shelter. The key issue here being scale.
Here’s a thought: What if all of the research money currently being ploughed into false climate solutions, such as this artificial leaf, carbon capture and storage, and technologies involving solar radiation management or direct air capture, was put towards genuine and proven climate solutions instead, like regenerating natural ecosystems that have plants and trees with non-artificial leaves, and agro-ecology, where the trees and plants also have real leaves?
Maybe if we stop destroying perfectly good real leaves that already do a great job of removing carbon pollution from the atmosphere, no one will think there’s a need for artificial ones? Perhaps if governments and industry took climate change seriously and actually started drastically reducing greenhouse gas emissions, we wouldn’t even be talking about these ridiculous ideas.
The theory is based on extending the lives of the microbubbles generated by ship movements from the minutes that they currently last, to days. These bubbles are created by “surfactants”, and their lifetimes in sea water “are strongly dependent on the amount of natural surfactant (surface-active carbohydrates, proteins, and lipids often derived from phytoplankton) and amphiphilic nanoparticles which help stabilize microbubbles.”
Therefore, the study suggests, to achieve global cooling on the scale and scope required, extra surfactants would need to be added to ship wakes, and additional shipping movements would need to account for the fact that there are far more wakes in the Northern Hemisphere, than the Southern.
The most obvious flaw is that the study doesn’t mention what these surfactants could be, or what their effect on the oceans would be. The “assessment of the amount or type of surfactant required is beyond the scope of this study, as is the assessment of undesirable side effects from the addition of surfactant.” However, this is tempered by the statement that the surfactants would need to be benign, and not harmful ecologically as, otherwise, “surfactants may be microbially and photochemically processed with undesirable impacts on ecosystems”.
Granted, this study was just a modelling exercise, playing with changes to sea surface albedo. On the face of it, perhaps it’s a good idea to look into making seemingly small tweaks to already global phenomena, to counteract global temperature rises. The fundamental problem though is that ideas such as this one are being taken increasingly seriously by policy-makers, and encouraged by corporations wanting to maintain the status quo.
This kind of study could well inform policy decisions, despite the glaring omissions from it. For example, without knowing what the surfactants would be, or what volumes would be required, or indeed what the impacts of substantially increasing shipping in the southern hemisphere would be, studies like this should not be taken seriously. Natural surfactants may be derived from phytoplankton and marine processes, but they can also be highly toxic, and indeed carbon intensive in their production. Likewise, the contribution of shipping to global anthropogenic CO2 emissions is close to becoming the largest single source after cars, housing, agriculture and industry.
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.
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.
UN climate conferences provide a platform for advocating real solutions to the climate crisis – but also for selling and promoting false ones. At the climate conference this and next week in Paris, many civil society groups and social movements are advocating genuinely meaningful responses to the climate crisis: keeping fossil fuels in the ground, ending perverse subsidies, shifting from industrial agriculture to agroecology controlled by small farmers, protecting forests and other ecosystems through community forestry and territories, guaranteeing areas conserved by Indigenous peoples and local communities, and building a new economic system that does not dictate endless growth. However, many activist voices and demands are being silenced inside and outside the conference, in part due to the French government’s decision to ban climate protest marches and put at least 24 climate activists under house arrest, using emergency powers acquired in response to the recent terrorist attacks.
Meanwhile, the organizers of the climate conference have welcomed in fossil fuel firms and other corporate interests, which are represented by lobby groups such as the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, We Mean Business and the International Chamber of Commerce. Participants in the conference have been using this opportunity to launch private-public partnerships that are little more than new corporate lobby groups operated under the auspices of the United Nations, and include groups such as the Global Compact and the Sustainable Energy for All Initiative.
This week’s climate conference also has its share of techno-optimists peddling often absurd science-fiction “solutions.” One of the most widely cited media commentators on the Paris climate conference has been Tim Flannery. He has been cited by press agencies and leading news outlets around the world in the run-up to the conference.
Flannery is an Australian academic, former government adviser and chief councilor of the Australian Climate Council. He recently launched his latest book Atmosphere of Hope: Searching for Solutions to the Climate Crisis. It has won widespread media acclaim, and even the reputable science blog Yale Environment 360 has granted Flannery an uncritical interview about his proposed “solutions.” Some of Flannery’s “third-way solutions” are proposals that have been widely cited in spite of a lack of scientific backing. He remains an outspoken proponent of biochar (i.e. fine-grained charcoal added to soils), a concept based on the assumption that biomass is essentially carbon neutral. Biochar advocates argue that adding biochar to soils is a reliable way of sequestering carbon and that this process will thus gradually draw down carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
Another idea that excites him is storing “carbon dioxide snow” in Antarctica. He has read a peer-reviewed study that convinced him that carbon dioxide snow is falling in Antarctica, which could be stored in large “chiller boxes” powered by wind turbines. Unfortunately, the lead author of the study that had so excited Flannery urged him to read the study more carefully before referring to it. He clarified that temperatures in Antarctica are too high and pressures too low for carbon dioxide to fall as snow.
Flannery’s background reading about “carbon negative cement,” another of his favorite “solutions,” seems to also have been rather cursory. This, he writes, is already on the market and has been well tested, with its use merely held back by engineers who are reluctant to use any product without a track record. Yet the company that manufactures it, Solidia, merely claims that their way of producing cement reduces carbon dioxide emissions by 30 percent – not that it is carbon neutral, let alone carbon negative.
An “even more amazing innovation,” according to Flannery, is a new method for modifying coffee grounds to store atmospheric methane. He forgets to mention that, to “modify” the coffee grounds, researchers mixed it with potassium hydroxide (which takes a great deal of energy to produce), kept it at an elevated temperature for 24 hours and then heated it to 700 to 900 degrees Celsius. The whole process hasn’t gone beyond a single laboratory experiment so far.
The negotiating text in Paris contains proposed text about “zero net emission,” based on the assumption that actual emissions can be neutralized by future “negative” ones. This is based on conclusions in the 2014 report of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). According to that report, most relevant models predict that “negative emissions” in the form of bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) would be required later this century if we are to avoid more than 2 degrees Celsius of warming. BECCS would involve capturing carbon dioxide from biofuel refineries or biomass burning power stations and burying it underground. The idea that large-scale BECCS is feasible and can draw billions of tons of carbon from the atmosphere has risen to prominence since the 2014 IPCC report was published.
But just how did the IPCC come to effectively endorse the idea of BECCS (albeit with some mentions of “uncertainties”)? For this it is important to understand the setup of the IPCC. It consists of three different working groups: about climate science, climate change impacts and climate change mitigation. The first two have a consistent record of carefully reviewing and summarizing the peer-reviewed science. Their findings are highly regarded by virtually all except for climate change deniers. While those working groups are – quite appropriately – dominated by climate and earth systems scientists and ecologists, climate economists have risen to prominence in the IPCC working group on mitigation.
At the heart of this working group’s latest 2014 report is a review and summary of integrated-assessment models. An open call for such models was issued in 2007. Different technology options and emissions scenarios were to be entered into models to show how such different technology choices and socioeconomic pathways would translate into different concentrations of greenhouse gases and thus different risks of warming.
At an expert meeting convened by the IPCC in September 2007, modelers were told that to ensure the robustness of the modeling studies, “scientifically peer-reviewed publication is considered to be an implicit judgment of technical soundness.” Thus, if a company’s representatives manage to publish a peer-reviewed study in whichever journal, which “concludes” that the company’s technology is sound, modelers can assume the result to be fact. Peer-reviewed studies written by industry representatives are commonplace. Climate change deniers would have a field day if the IPCC working group on climate science set such a low standard for evidence!
As for the “GHG and carbon cycle accounting, land use implications, and economic considerations” of different technology choices used in models, those were to be assessed by a panel. Quite how wasn’t made clear, but the discussion of the life-cycle greenhouse gas impacts of different, supposedly low-carbon and carbon-negative technology choices in the latest IPCC report is woefully brief. At the 2007 expert meeting, some participants expressed concern that at least some models were expected to include “negative emissions” – namely through bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS). They pointed out that there were “technical concerns about the … characterisation of the negative emissions technology” and about potential consequences, including on emissions of the powerful greenhouse gas nitrous oxide from greater fertilizer use.
Judging by the IPCC’s 2014 report, those concerns were brushed aside. The vast majority of models considered by the IPCC “find” that BECCS is needed if we want to have a greater than 50 percent chance of keeping global temperature rise within 2 degrees Celsius. Modelers had done as they had been requested: They had included “negative emissions” from BECCS into their models – often on a grand scale, without considering whether such a technology was viable, whether carbon pumped underground can be trusted to stay there forever, nor whether burning billions of tons of wood, crops and other biomass every year could possibly be “carbon neutral” (the prerequisite for it to become “carbon negative” with carbon storage).
BECCS could, according to the models summarized by the IPCC, sequester up to 10 billion tons of carbon dioxide every year. That figure was based on two sources: One was a literature review by a Ph.D. student. The other was a report published by the International Energy Agency (IEA), written by Ecofys.
Ecofys is a consultancy that is fully owned by a Dutch energy company (Eneco Group) that has built the first large biomass power station in the Netherlands, hence clearly not unbiased. Ecofys’ estimate of the maximum BECCS potential is derived from estimates of the global potential for “sustainable biomass,” made up of “residues” and “energy crops.” But how did they estimate that? For the “residues,” they lifted a figure from a preliminary report, which contained no details at all about what that figure was based on. For the “energy crops,” they used figures from one study that estimated how much could be produced by converting “abandoned cropland” and natural grasslands to bioenergy plantations.
Natural grasslands are home to a signification proportion of the world’s biodiversity and they store large amounts of carbon, most of it in soil – and much of that is emitted when grasslands are ploughed up and turned into monoculture plantations, as several peer-reviewed studies confirm. Yet in the Ecofys/IEA report and thus in the IPCC report, all this bioenergy is simply assumed to be carbon neutral (and thus carbon negative with carbon capture and storage). The fact that the IPCC report suggests a massive “negative emissions” potential from BECCS raises serious concerns that scientific standards have been abandoned in relation to climate change mitigation.
This is only one of the problems with BECCS, as a new Biofuelwatch report shows in detail: The technologies that would be required to sequester significant amounts of carbon dioxide from biomass burning power stations are beset with major problems and challenges. Overcoming those to render BECCS technically and economically viable seems unlikely. Carbon sequestration can be combined with additional oil extraction, but this would likely result in greater overall carbon emissions. Sequestering carbon without such oil recovery, on the other hand, is even less likely to become economically viable, and evidence shows that it is far from reliable.
In short, there is no credible scientific basis whatsoever for suggesting that BECCS could ever sequester up to 10 billion tons of carbon dioxide per year. Yet this very claim is the basis for the text proposal about “negative emissions” debated by governments in Paris right now.
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.