green corn field and blue sky

The ups and downs of BECCS –  where do we stand today?

green corn field and blue sky
(c) AlinaMD

Dr Alexandre Köberle and Mathilde Fajardy, co-authors of Grantham Institute briefing paper BECCS deployment: a reality check, consider bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) technologies, the controversy surrounding them and their role in meeting climate targets.

The rise of BECCS

‘Negative emissions technologies’ gained attention in 2015, when world leaders united behind the landmark Paris Agreement to limit global temperature rise to “well below” 2°C above pre-industrial levels. These ambitious targets can only be achieved through immediate drastic reductions in emissions or, in case of delayed action, by actively removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere later in the century – using negative emissions technologies.

Bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) is one of the most advanced of these technologies. This process involves converting biomass to energy, for example by burning crops or grasses, capturing the carbon dioxide emitted when it is burned, and locking it away deep underground. Most published scenarios consistent with Paris Agreement targets anticipate that BECCS will remove large quantities of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere in the second half of this century. In fact, most scenarios rely on BECCS to remove carbon dioxide at a rate that is about a third of today’s annual emissions. This would potentially restrict temperature rise enough to avoid dangerous levels of climate change. For politicians and world leaders, BECCS came to be seen as a vital safety net; to be used if we don’t manage to reduce greenhouse gas emissions quickly enough.

The backlash

However, the prevalence of BECCS in scientific scenarios has caused ongoing controversy amongst the research community. Scientists scrutinising BECCS in detail are questioning its ability to deliver any negative emissions at all, let alone at the scale required, and in a sustainable way. Questions they are considering include, what are the dangers of relying on untested technologies at such a large scale? What are potential side effects of ramping up bioenergy production? How much can be produced without compromising societal goals like food security or biodiversity? Does the promise of future ‘negative emissions’ allow governments to delay action to reduce emissions? From being a way to deliver drastic emissions cuts in 2015, BECCS technologies are now being carefully constrained in scenarios, and combined with other solutions such as reducing demand for energy.

Reaching a consensus

The controversy surrounding the role of BECCS in meeting climate targets has highlighted the need for better communication about negative emission technologies to the wider research community, to the political sphere and to industry. In BECCS deployment: a reality check, researchers at Imperial College London lay out the pros and cons of BECCS, investigate limits to its sustainable deployment, and assess the extent to which its different configurations (see figure below) can help meet climate objectives without compromising other societal goals.  While writing this paper, we encountered all of the arguments around BECCS. We and our co-authors, along with the four reviewers, all come from different backgrounds and have different takes on the potential of BECCS. This experience was a reminder to us of how current the controversy is, and its scale: if a group of researchers from the same community cannot agree, how will policy-makers across the globe find a way to navigate this issue?

Chart showing Two examples of biomass conversion routes for BECCS: bioelectricity and biofuels
See in full here: http://www.imperial.ac.uk/grantham/publications/beccs-deployment-a-reality-check.php

A silver lining…

BECCS alone cannot deliver the scale of negative emissions required without serious challenges to agriculture and the natural environment. Instead, it must be part of a portfolio of technologies that could reduce emissions at a sustainable scale. The discussions around BECCS have sparked interest from researchers and policymakers in other negative emissions technologies, such as direct air capture (sucking carbon dioxide ­directly from the air) and natural solutions (using land management to increase the carbon uptake of soils). These approaches are now sharing the spotlight with BECCS.

Right now, BECCS can already be of value  in increasing the potential of the existing bioenergy industry. Currently, biomass is solely used for energy purposes. With the addition of carbon capture and storage, the bioenergy industry can become a source of both energy provision and carbon dioxide removal. This approach to bioenergy could be of particular value in balancing carbon emissions to net zero carbon in certain sectors, like aviation, where carbon-negative biofuels could be one of the only solutions.

For more on the energy and environmental costs and benefits of different BECCS technologies, and a set of actionable conclusions to move the BECCS discussion forwards, read the briefing: BECCS deployment: a reality check. On 9 April, the Grantham Institute is hosting a panel discussion about BECCS with the authors of the briefing paper and representatives from industry. Find out more

For the latest news, views and events from the Grantham Institute, sign up to our weekly update newsletter.  

4 thoughts on “The ups and downs of BECCS –  where do we stand today?

  1. This is an excellent paper which counteracts the glib use of acronyms like [CCS, BECCS] by people who do not have clue as to their environmental resource implications. I commend the work of ‘Biofuel Watch’ , which I support , in researching and publicising these, and the need to take land out of cultivation and return it to the wild. However the task of reducing atmospheric CO2 is much easier with a dependable source of zero carbon energy, which would enable re-use of CO2 [the RS is holding a meeting soon which covers this].
    It is now time for Grantham to have a grown-up discussion about nuclear fission energy ,especially as Gen 4 reactors and fissionable element recycling are a near-term possibility. Despite recent cost over-runs, the prospects for major cost reductions hold good, with the lowest resource ‘footprint’. Despite recent developments in offshore wind , it is approaching maturity and the cost of intermittency is not fully accounted for as there is still plenty of dispatchable gas power available. As for the recent CCC report [3rd May] , which, although containing much that is useful, the take-away message is “CCS and carry on fracking -sod the fugitive emissions!

  2. John Edwards

    I have just read the above report -a good review of the present situation , but it does not go far enough in examining the future resource-saving potential of the new fission technology. There is no ‘Moore’s law’ in renewable energy, and CCS and investment has been diminishing.

  3. John Edwards,

    The Extinction Rebellion movement communicates the urgency of the situation, but what is needed is a ‘Manhattan Project approach , public, vertically integrated, and focussed on solutions that really work , eschewing those that do not, making use of resources we already have e.g. stockpiles of potentially fissionable elements and conversion of existing power station sites.

Leave a Reply