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Bioenergy with carbon capture and storage – why all the fuss?

Erwin Jackson provides an Insight on the launch of a new Climate Institute report - Moving Below Zero: understanding bioenergy with carbon capture and storage with associated analysis by Jacobs SKM

The IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report has sparked debate about innovative carbon-removal technologies like bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS), and the role they could play in the fight against dangerous climate change.

Concerns have been voiced in the media that if BECCS is done badly it could drive up the price of food in developing countries. There are also fears that BECCS may be seen as a “silver bullet”, giving the government an excuse to relax their efforts on deploying other renewables.

Both of these are very real risks and need to be addressed, but so too are the risks presented by climate change. So the question becomes do the risks from climate change vastly increase without BECCS, and if so, could we deploy BECCS in a way that minimises risks from the technology?

For many years at The Climate Institute we have advocated for a portfolio approach to managing climate risks. This includes exploring controversial technologies like carbon capture and storage (CCS), and we have weathered criticism from some for this position. We came to this view, not only based on the understanding that CCS is needed to reduce emissions from existing fossil fuel power generation and industries, but also that it can enable a key carbon-removal technology when combined with a sustainable biomass energy source. We were concerned, however, that there was a growing disconnect between the national climate policy debate and what the science and economics of climate change tells us. This is why we approached Global CCS Institute for their support in examining in more detail the role of carbon removal technologies and to allow this study to take place.

Why is carbon removal important?

Firstly, because of the simple maths. If we want to get carbon pollution in the air down to manageable levels, lower than they are today, we need to find ways to boost our natural carbon sinks.

We are currently heading for a 4°C increase in global average temperature, even if current policy commitments are met. This reflects the growing disconnect between the path laid out by government policy and what is in our collective interest.

So we need to seriously consider what the options are to improve our chances of keeping below the internationally-agreed 2°C temperature limit. BECCS is looking particularly important as it can remove and store carbon pollution on geological timescales. As part of a portfolio, it could offset emissions from sectors like agriculture and industries like steel and cement production that have very limited ways to reduce emissions to zero, and it also provides important insurance in the event that we can’t reduce emissions as quickly as we planned.

Welcome to the Idea of Carbon Removal from The Climate Institute on Vimeo.

An Australian case study

With this in mind, we set out to examine the role that BECCS could play in Australia. We teamed up with one of Australia’s leading energy modellers – Jacobs SKM – to model how Australia can adapt its behaviour and technologies to meet ambitious climate goals.

Australia is an interesting region because it is set to be among the worst affected of developed nations, meaning it is strongly in Australia's national interest to limit dangerous climate change. In addition to that, Australia has the resources to develop BECCS. It has a relatively abundant supply of agricultural residues (one of the more sustainable biomass sources) and a large natural geological storage potential both on and offshore.

The study showed that BECCS could play a significant role in achieving ambitious goals in Australia. In 2050 it has the potential to remove and displace emissions equal to 1.5 times that of Australia’s current transport sector (65 million tonnes of CO2). From now until 2050, that equates to 780 million tonnes. This is all without devoting any more land to bioenergy production.

As expected, the study also reaffirmed the need for zero-emission renewables and other low-carbon technologies to play a key role regardless of whether BECCS becomes viable or not. For example, energy efficiency and other renewable energy sources like wind and solar are required to reduce electricity emissions by 50 per cent in 2030 across all scenarios.

Finally, the study highlighted some of the difficult choices and trade-offs which would need to be made if BECCS doesn’t become viable. These include accepting higher levels of climate change; higher economic costs in achieving goals and/or greater reliance on international emission permits.

So what needs to be done?

The priority now is to develop the technology so it is available in time to make significant contributions to our emission-reduction goals. If we’re expecting developers to risk time and money in undertaking demonstration projects then we need a robust and reliable policy landscape. In the short term, this should include support targeted specifically at BECCS, e.g. in the form of capacity payments which provide a more stable revenue stream for developers to pay back hefty loans.

More broadly, governments should take a holistic and long-term view of national climate strategies, implementing policies to develop a portfolio of technologies. Focussing on a narrow suite of measures or sectors increases the risk that long-term climate goals won’t be achieved, and increases the cost of carbon reduction.

Policies should include a reward system for carbon-removal technologies such as carbon pricing with credits, or escalating performance standards. In Australia, this could be as part of the current Energy White Paper process, but also setting targets of 25 per cent reduction from 2000 levels by 2020 and around 60 per cent by 2030

Finally, in the longer term as the technology starts to be implemented, the issue of sustainable bioenergy will become increasingly important and will need to be addressed on both a global and regional basis. If bioenergy is not sourced sustainably it can lead to other social and environmental impacts and undermine the viability of - and public confidence in - the technology. ‘Advanced’ biofuels such as algae will help as they don’t compete with food production, but also ensuring we only import biofuels from regions that have proper regulation and community-based schemes in place to deliver the standards we would expect at home.

With carbon dioxide levels now 40 per cent above pre-industrial levels, it is critical that we begin the conversation now about how to sustainably integrate carbon-removal technologies into national climate policies with long-term carbon-reduction signals and deployment incentives. Starting this now means we can address the risks and maximise the opportunities that carbon-removal technologies present.

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