Large scale investment in Carbon Capture is a dangerous diversion

This site has published a number of articles on Carbon Capture and we have also produced a two-page briefing on BECCS (Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage). 

The excellent People and Nature blog has recently published a really useful addition to the debate in the form of a review of a paper on Carbon Capture and Storage by June Sekera, a public policy analyst, and Andreas Lichtenberger, an ecological economist.

Here are some headlines from the report:

Carbon dioxide removal (CDR) systems, touted as techno-fixes for global warming, usually put more greenhouse gases into the air than they take out.

Carbon capture and storage (CCS), which grabs carbon dioxide (CO2) produced by coal- or gas-fired power stations, and then uses it for enhanced oil recovery (EOR), emits between 1.4 and 4.7 tonnes of the gas for each tonne removed.

Direct air capture (DAC), which sucks CO2 from the atmosphere, emits 1.4-3.5 tonnes for each tonne it recovers, mostly from fossil fuels used to power the handful of existing projects.

And if Carbon Capture were to be used at large scale things get much worse.

To capture 1 gigatonne of CO2 (1 GtCO2, just one-fortieth of current global CO2 emissions) would need nearly twice the amount of wind and solar electricity now produced globally. The equipment would need a land area bigger than the island of Sri Lanka and a vast network of pipelines and underground storage facilities.

We strongly recommend reading the full review.

The original paper – “Assessing Carbon Capture: public policy, science and societal need”, by June Sekera, a public policy analyst, and Andreas Lichtenberger, an ecological economics researcher – is free to download on the Biophysical Economics and Sustainability web site.

A metal sign warning of a buried carbon dioxide pipeline, located near the intersection of county roads 520 and 521 in Huerfano County, Colorado. Image by Jeffre Beall CC BY 4.0

New Briefing on BECCS

The latest ScotE3 takes a critical look at BECCS – Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage.  Like all the ScotE3 briefings it is designed as a short, and hopefully clear, introduction to the topic.  We welcome feedback and ideas for improvement.

You can read the text of the briefing below and download the full pdf from the resources page.

briefing 10 graphic for blog

What is BECCS?

When people talk about BECCS in relation to the climate emergency they are referring to ‘Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage’.   Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) is a range of technologies that can be used to extract Carbon Dioxide from other gases.  The separated carbon dioxide is then stored under the surface of the earth in geological formations that trap the gas long-term.  So carbon that would otherwise be adding to the earth’s atmosphere is locked away.

BECCS adds another stage to the CCS process.  Fast growing woody plants, which take carbon from the atmosphere as they grow, are chopped down, the biomass is burnt in a power station to generate energy, and CCS is used to separate out and store the carbon.  CCS and BECCS are often referred to as Negative Emissions Technology or NET.

Why is it important?

CCS and BECCS really matter because currently almost all the carbon reduction targets set by institutions and governments around the world assume that CCS and BECCS can be implemented at large scale.  Typically targets talk about aiming for ‘net zero’ emissions.  The net here is not to be confused with Negative Emissions Technology! The assumption is that carbon emissions will continue, but what’s pushed out into the atmosphere will be exactly balanced by carbon that’s sucked in through CCS and safely captured.  It’s this assumption that allows the Scottish Government to talk about a climate emergency and set targets to reduce emissions while at the same time supporting continuing production of North Sea Oil and Gas and welcoming the development of new oil and gas fields.

The arguments against BECCS

So why should we be worried?  Surely a technology that allows us to reach net zero is to be welcomed?  Isn’t it a good thing that it’s the core component of the climate strategies advocated by the IPCC, the UK Committee on Climate Change and the Scottish Government?  In fact there are a lot of reasons to think that BECCS is a dangerous diversion that cannot achieve the results that many of its advocates suggest and that would have knock on effects that would be disastrous.

Maintaining the status quo?

The big energy companies are interested in BECCS because it allows them to continue business as usual; license to continue exploiting fossil fuels and to maintain their power and profitability.  The Scottish Centre for Carbon Capture and Storage takes a different view, arguing that there is a role for CCS in some specialised areas where it is hard to replace hydrocarbon fuels by electricity, but admitting that the technology is very expensive and should be one subsidiary strand of a transition to a sustainable economy.   Technologies for CCS exist in theory and have been trialled in laboratories but there are hardly any examples of it working in real life applications.  The UK Committee on Climate Change argues that Scotland is particularly suitable for growing biomass crops and that 32% of UK production could take place in Scotland.   But globally something like three times all the land currently in cultivation would need to be turned over to biomass.  Clearly this can’t happen, but even at much lower levels growing crops to be burned, as biomass would displace food crops and the prices of staple foods would increase forcing the poorest further into hunger and starvation.

Restoring ecosystems that capture carbon

Forests are a very important way in which carbon is removed from the atmosphere; about 25% of current emissions are taken up.  However, worldwide forests are under threat and clear cutting of forests to grow soya and other crops for meat production causes around 10% of global carbon emissions.   An end to deforestation and proactively working to re-establish natural forests could have a big impact on carbon reduction.  Trees are important but not just any trees.  When monoculture plantations replace trees – for example Palm Oil the same land area is much less efficient at absorbing carbon.  BECCS often assumes clearance of existing forest for monoculture cultivation of biomass.  And there are many other serious impacts: displacement of indigenous communities, destruction of ecosystems and of pesticides.

Separating out carbon dioxide from other gases or from the atmosphere is an energy intensive process so it’s expensive financially and in terms of our overall energy budget.   Operating at large scale might reduce the cost per ton of carbon but it would still need very large amounts of clean energy.

Scotland has a number of locations where the underground rock formations are suitable for underground storage of carbon dioxide.  Many parts of the world do not.  Proponents of CCS suggest that carbon storage could be a profitable new industry – however, long distance transport of captured gas would also require a lot of clean energy.

System change

Ultimately, however, the problem with BECCS and CCS is political.  Governments and corporations favour it as a solution because it seems to allow existing infrastructure and power relationships to be preserved.  It suggests that climate catastrophe can be averted by technical fixes.

Even if the technology works and can be introduced rapidly and at scale it seems highly unlikely that it can mitigate emissions sufficiently to avoid going well beyond a 1.5 degree rise.  However, for as long as CCS remains the main plank of mainstream strategies it diverts action and investment away from sustainable strategies that we know could work.  And it acts as a barrier to the systemic change that is required to save the planet.

All our material is published under a CC0 public domain license (unless otherwise stated.  You are welcome to share, reuse and reversion.  This briefing draws heavily on a FOE(S) and FOE(international) webinar. 


Carbon Capture and Storage

Mainstream policies on tackling the climate crisis centre round the possibilities of continuing to use hydrocarbons while reducing emissions through carbon capture and storage (CCS). The Scottish Government seems increasingly interested in this approach.  Over the next few weeks we want to promote critical discussion on CCS.  As a first step we are pleased to share the video of a webinar that FOE(Scotland) did with Friends of the Earth International on BECCS (bioenergy carbon and capture and storage).  Please comment and send ideas for more contributions and other resources that it would be useful to share.