On 27 April 2017, 108 civil society organizations signed a letter requesting the IPCC to reconsider its list of authors for the upcoming Special Report on keeping global warming below 1.5°C. Two senior employees from major oil companies were selected among the authors for the Report, which the letter considers a major hurdle to make a fair report, and a violation of the IPCC’s conflict of interest policy.
Organizational signatories were from six continents, and included global international organizations such as 350.org, ActionAid, Friends of the Earth International and Greenpeace International, along with many other national and regional organizations from around the world.
The two authors in question work with ExxonMobil and Saudi Aramco, the second- and third-largest corporate emitters of greenhouse gases worldwide respectively. These two companies bear a large part of the responsibility for causing climate change, along with 88 other corporate emitters who together are responsible for 2/3 of cumulative historical carbon dioxide and methane emissions since 1854, according to a study by Richard Heede.
The letter states that “it is difficult to understand that the IPCC could include authors from the industries that have caused the most damage, and for whom private profits would be affected if the necessary reductions are carried out.”
The two authors have vested interest in continued use of fossil fuels, which is directly incompatible with reaching the 1.5°C goal. Furthermore, one of them, Dr. Haroon S. Kheshgi has for long time argued for the use of geoengineering techniques, risky technologies to counteract some of the symptoms of climate change, which would allow oil companies to continue exploiting their reserves.
Therefore, the signatories argue that “it is worrying that the industry representatives are precisely those with interests in promoting unacceptable pathways and high-risk technologies, such as climate geoengineering, which distract from the real emissions reductions that are required to avoid catastrophic warming.”
While two oil industry employees are included on the list of authors along with other representatives of industry-sponsored associations, none of researchers nominated by independent civil society organizations were accepted.
Signatories “request the IPCC to reconsider the selection of authors, both for this and all upcoming reports, to ensure that no conflict of interest exists, and that multiple disciplines, regions and viewpoints are included.”
The IPCC has responded for now that civil society concerns “have been noted and been brought to the attention of the body responsible for these matters,” and that “the appropriate action will be taken accordingly.”
Civil society expects the IPCC to answer before the next meeting of authors to this Special Report, scheduled June 5-11, and will continue watching the process.
Read the letter from civil society and the list of signatories here.
For further information: Silvia Ribeiro, Latin America Director, ETC Group: firstname.lastname@example.org
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.
A sustainable solution to the climate crisis will also work to alleviate poverty and seek climate justice, says Friends of the Earth Germany
“A future without climate chaos for all human beings on our planet is only possible if we don’t pin our hopes on large-scale technologies. Instead, we have to make sure that the energy and agricultural transitions are being pushed forward as fast as possible,” said Heinrich Böll Foundation president Barbara Unmüßig
At the upcoming United Nations climate conference in Morocco, negotiations for how to fulfill COP21‘s agreement to limit global warming to 1.5º Celsius must emphasize methods that will also alleviate poverty and climate injustice, rather than leaning on “questionable technologies” such as geoengineering and carbon offset, says Friends of the Earth (FOE) Germany.
“We cannot count on unproven, costly, and ecologically risky negative emission technologies to save us from climate chaos.”
Friends of the Earth Germany
The climate conference will take place in Marrakech, Morocco, from November 7-18.
The report takes aim at popular so-called “negative emissions” technologies, such as geoengineering, carbon offset regimes, and bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS), arguing that leaders must pursue true sustainability instead.
“The fatal flaw of all negative emissions technology proposals is this: The hope for an atmospheric line of credit allows today’s urgent need for radical reductions in CO2 emissions to fall by the wayside,” the report argues. “What’s currently Plan B is in fact the best way to force Plan A into the background—a fundamentally different economy, one that preserves the planet for all forms of life.”
Instead of such “questionable technologies,” the report argues for policies that have poverty reduction and climate justice as their central focus.
“In reaction to the Paris Agreement, we need to phase out coal, speed up the transition to renewables, phase out combustion engines, and protect and restore forests and soils,” explained Hubert Weiger, chairman of Friends of the Earth Germany, in a statement.
“It is crystal clear that effective climate protection and equitable, sustainable development can only be considered together,” added Heinrich Böll Foundation president Barbara Unmüßig. “A future without climate chaos for all human beings on our planet is only possible if we don’t pin our hopes on large-scale technologies. Instead, we have to make sure that the energy and agricultural transitions are being pushed forward as fast as possible. Technological fixes such as geoengineering are betting on future possibilities such as sucking CO2 from the atmosphere or keeping sunlight away from the Earth. This is a dangerous distraction from the necessary steps that we can already implement today. The coming-into-force of the Paris Agreement asks for exactly this change in course.”
“As northern countries that have caused the climate catastrophe, we need to lead by example,” Weiger continued. “We cannot count on unproven, costly, and ecologically risky negative emission technologies to save us from climate chaos. If we postpone implementing the traditional climate mitigation solutions, we will miss the rapidly closing window of opportunity to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees.”
Indeed, new research has shown that the goal to limit warming to 1.5º is already a long-shot.
“The vague hope that we could all survive in a world that is 3 degrees warmer than before industrialization is deceptive,” said Pirmin Spiegel, director general of MISEREOR. “It is our responsibility to safeguard the lives of millions of people by limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees. This is not only a technological challenge; instead, it has widespread societal and cultural implications that we all have to face.”
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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]
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.
Rather than relying on far-off negative-emissions technologies, Paris needed to deliver a low-carbon road map for today, argues Kevin Anderson in Nature. (A longer version of this article can be found here.)
The climate agreement delivered earlier this month in Paris is a genuine triumph of international diplomacy. It is a tribute to how France was able to bring a fractious world together. And it is testament to how assiduous and painstaking science can defeat the unremitting programme of misinformation that is perpetuated by powerful vested interests. It is the twenty-first century’s equivalent to the victory of heliocentrism over the inquisition. Yet it risks being total fantasy.
Let’s be clear, the international community not only acknowledged the seriousness of climate change, it also demonstrated sufficient unanimity to define it quantitatively: to hold “the increase in … temperature to well below 2°C … and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C”.
To achieve such goals demands urgent and significant cuts in emissions. But rather than requiring that nations reduce emissions in the short-to-medium term, the Paris agreement instead rests on the assumption that the world will successfully suck the carbon pollution it produces back from the atmosphere in the longer term. A few years ago, these exotic Dr Strangelove options were discussed only as last-ditch contingencies. Now they are Plan A.
Governments, prompted by their advisers, have plumped for BECCS (biomass energy carbon capture and storage) as the most promising ‘negative-emissions technology’.
What does BECCS entail? Apportioning huge swathes of the planet’s landmass to the growing of bioenergy crops (from big trees to tall grasses) — which absorb carbon dioxide through photosynthesis as they grow. Periodically, these crops are harvested, processed for worldwide travel and shipped around the globe before finally being combusted in thermal power stations. The CO2 is then stripped from the waste gases, compressed (almost to a liquid), pumped through large pipes over potentially very long distances and finally stored deep underground in various geological formations (from exhausted oil and gas reservoirs through to saline aquifers) for a millennium or so.
The unquestioned reliance on negative-emission technologies to deliver on the Paris goals is the greatest threat to the new agreement. Yet BECCS, or even negative-emission technologies, received no direct reference throughout the 32-page package. Despite this, the framing of the 2°C goal and, even more, the 1.5°C one, is premised on the massive uptake of BECCS some time in the latter half of the century. Disturbingly, this is also the case for most of the temperature estimates ascribed to the outcome of the voluntary emissions cuts made by nations before the Paris meeting.
The scale of the assumption is breathtaking. It would be the equivalent of decades of planting and harvesting of energy crops over an area of one to three times that of India. At the same time, the aviation industry envisages powering its planes with biofuel, the shipping industry is seriously considering biomass to propel its ships and the chemical sector sees biomass as a potential feedstock — and by then there will be 9 billion or so human mouths to feed. This crucial assumption deserves wider scrutiny.
Relying on the promise of industrial-scale negative-emissions technologies to balance the carbon budget was not the only option available in Paris — at least in relation to 2°C.
Reducing emissions in line with 2°C remains a viable goal — just. But rather than rely on post-2050 BECCS, deciding to pursue this alternative approach would have begged profound political, economic and social questions. Questions that undermine a decade of mathematically nebulous green-growth and win–win rhetoric, and questions that the politicians have decided cannot be asked.
Move away from the cosy tenets of contemporary economics and a suite of alternative measures comes into focus. Technologies, behaviours and habits that feed energy demand are all amenable to significant and rapid change. Combine this with an understanding that just 10% of the population is responsible for 50% of emissions, and the rate and scope of what is possible becomes evident.
The allying of deep and early reductions in energy demand with rapid substitution of fossil fuels by zero-carbon alternatives frames a 2°C agenda that does not rely on negative emissions.
So why was this real opportunity muscled out by the economic bouncers in Paris? No doubt there are many elaborate and nuanced explanations — but the headline reason is simple. In true Orwellian style, the political and economic dogma that has come to pervade all facets of society must not be questioned. For many years, green-growth oratory has quashed any voice with the audacity to suggest that the carbon budgets associated with 2°C cannot be reconciled with the mantra of economic growth.
I was in Paris, and there was a real sense of unease among many scientists present. The almost euphoric atmosphere that accompanied the circulation of the various drafts could not be squared with their content. Desperate to maintain order, a club of senior figures and influential handlers briefed against those who dared to say so — just look at some of the Twitter discussions!
It is pantomime season and the world has just gambled its future on the appearance in a puff of smoke of a carbon-sucking fairy godmother. The Paris agreement is a road map to a better future? Oh no it’s not.
Seemingly out of the blue (or rather, out of the black smog of the UNFCCC process), some of the largest historical culprits for climate change, countries including the United States, Canada and the European Union, have decided to back an “ambitious goal” of limiting global temperature rise to 1.5°C. To achieve this, radical emissions cuts would be needed from now, but in the case of these countries, that’s not their real intention.
Instead, behind the smokescreen of a more ambitious goal, there is a set of Trojan Horse technologies being proposed, collectively called “geoengineering”.
The new proponents of the 1.5°C goal include also the largest oil companies. (*) They tell us that they can continue to burn fossil carbon and protect their assets because they are inventing something called Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) that will eventually capture CO2 emissions and store them “safely” in deep geological formations.
And, further still, they say that they can develop bioenergy with CCS (BECCS), a so-called “negative emissions” technology that will burn carbon that is locked up in the soils and forests, and bury this underground too. These are false “solutions” proposed by the oil industry, that will allow it to keep polluting in the false hope that future technological innovation can bring down emissions at a later date.
These phantom technologies won’t function, but they will bring vast new subsidies to the industry, and allow it to access even more oil through Enhanced Oil Recovery, where CO2 is pumped into aging oil fields to squeeze even more out of them. Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) was called Enhanced Oil Recovery before, but it has been renamed as a “climate technology”.
The expansion of large scale plantations for bioenergy will be devastating for ecosystems, and displace forest and peasant communities from their territories. This will destroy many of the real alternatives to climate crisis, alternatives that really cool the planet.
In a few years, when efforts to reduce emissions and the technological quick-fixes have failed, with the temperature continuing to rise, industry and government will tell us that the only way out is “solar radiation management”, an even more dangerous geoengineering technology.
The terminology underpinning this cover-up is changing rapidly: from “net zero” to “climate neutrality”, to “net GHG contributions” and now in the latest COP21 draft to “greenhouse gas emissions neutrality”. They are all the same trap designed to open the door to false climate solutions and geoengineering.
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.