Biomass with capture: silver bullet or bulldust?

With atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide already at 40 per cent above pre-industrial quantities and rising fast, we need to expand our emissions reduction options, not limit them. We need to scale up renewable energy and energy efficiency efforts, and we need to do it fast. We need to stop deforestation and scale up reforestation. We need to turn off the taps increasing carbon pollution levels, but also to pull the plug.

On Sunday, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s latest mitigation report stressed that in many scenarios, avoiding 2 degrees by 2100 was not possible without carbon-removal technologies, particularly bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (also known as BECCS or bio-CCS). The IPCC also warned that the costs for those scenarios would be substantially higher without these tools. 

Nature has the blueprint to remove carbon from the air, as plants and trees absorb carbon dioxide when they grow. The natural cycle returns that carbon dioxide to the atmosphere but BECCS and other technologies can remove it from the cycle (as explored in our recent Moving Below Zero report).

Appropriately managed, BECCS has the potential to best remove and store large quantities of our carbon over geological timescales, while providing energy supply. The challenge is to develop and deploy these capabilities as a support, not substitute, for urgent action in other renewables, energy efficiency and low carbon technologies.

The IPCC draws on international models, but no detailed national studies have been done on how much carbon removal technologies like BECCS can contribute to domestic emissions reductions, so we wanted to test this for Australia.

To this end we commissioned leading economics firm Jacobs SKM to conduct a world first national level study into how BECCS can help achieve a carbon budget for Australia that can credibly help international efforts to avoid 2 degrees warming - a goal both major parties reaffirmed their support for this week.

We chose a budget that uses the Climate Change Authority’s estimate of a fair share of international effort, around 1 per cent, but towards a global budget that has at least 75 per cent chance of avoiding 2 degrees, not 67 per cent. This 8.5 billion-tonne budget would run out by 2030 on current pollution levels.      

The research found that BECCS using food wastes, sustainable plantation forest biomass and crop residues, could remove and displace up to 65 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent (MtCO2-e) annually by 2050 in Australia. That is about 1.5 times current emissions from all cars in the nation.

Globally, BECCS could remove up to 10 billion tonnes of pollution per year in 2050, according to the International Energy Agency.

Strong and early policy action on energy efficiency and other renewables is needed regardless of whether BECCS is available or not, SKM found. Afforestation and other emission-reduction options relating to land-use change are also critical. For example, energy efficiency and other renewable energy sources like wind and solar are required to halve emissions from electricity from around 200 MtCO2-e today to 100 MtCO2-e in 2030 across all scenarios. Renewables would be 30-40 per cent of electricity supply in 2030.

If we don’t tap into the mitigation potential of BECCS, there will be environmental and economic trade-offs that need to be made.

The research indicates that excluding BECCS – even if putting maximum effort into other emission-reduction options – reduces the chance that national climate goals can be achieved domestically. Without BECCS the national carbon budget would be exceeded by around 1.7 billion tonnes, or a 20 per cent overshoot by 2050. This increases the reliance on the use of increasingly expensive international emission offsets to achieve national goals.

The cost of emission reductions without carbon removal technologies is also significantly higher: up to $60 billion to 2050.

There’s no silver bullet in the climate challenge. While the IPCC's report is the latest in saying we can achieve the increasingly difficult goal of keeping below 2 degrees warming at a fraction of ongoing growth, there’s no free lunch. 

Deploying BECCS will, like other climate solutions, need clarity on the overall carbon pollution reduction goals (5 per cent by 2020 is inadequate and irrelevant) as well as long, loud and legal decarbonisation signals. BECCS will also require the recognition of the need for carbon removal and incentives to urgently deploy demonstration technologies. International and national sustainability standards will also be crucial.  

A demonstration BECCS plant has been operating in Illinois for three years capturing and storing a million tonnes of carbon pollution from the industrial processing of bio-ethanol. It is due to move to commercial scale next year. The technologies required exist but the policies and incentives don’t.

A big question remains over whether the level of bioenergy needed could be produced in a socially and ecologically sustainable manner. Proper consultation and standards will be required to ensure the protection of conservation and cultural values as well as enhancing, not hindering, poverty-alleviation efforts. These risks don’t mean we shouldn’t consider the potential of BECCS or other carbon removal technologies, they mean we need to work out how to do it properly.

John Connor is chief executive of The Climate Institute.

*The Moving Below Zero report was supported with a grant from the Global CCS Institute. The Climate Institute has supported the need for CCS deployment since 2007.