The Economy, Land & Climate Podcast

What is BECCS and what does it mean for climate policy?

September 03, 2021 Economy Land & Climate Insight Team Episode 6
The Economy, Land & Climate Podcast
What is BECCS and what does it mean for climate policy?
Show Notes Transcript

In this episode, Alasdair speaks to Dr Dan Quiggin, Senior Research Fellow at Chatham House  currently researching the implications of using Bioenergy with Capture and Storage or BECCS .

He then asks Ember, Chief Operating Officer, Phil MacDonald [NB after 43mins] for his analysis of negative emissions,  BECCS and Dr Quiggin's findings.   

They reach sobering conclusions about the potential impact of pursuing BECCS to remove carbon from the atmosphere.

 

Alasdair:

Hello, and welcome to the economy land and climate podcast. My name is Alasdair MacEwen, and since the topic of negative emissions has come up in so many of our previous interviews and episodes, we decided to dedicate a special extended episode to explaining the much touted bioenergy with carbon capture and storage or BECCS, with the aim of giving our listeners more information about how it works, and what its impact might be. To do that, in part one of our podcast, I spoke to Dr. Daniel Quiggin, senior research fellow at the energy environment and resources program at Chatham House, and where Dr. Quiggin is about to publish fresh research which comprehensively examines BECCS.

Daniel:

And when the impacts of climate change, we know are going to be so catastrophic on people, relying on a technology at that scale with those inherent risks, in my mind is madness. And so you need some sort of check and balance and what I call a brake mechanism.

Alasdair:

In the second part of the podcast, and for the final 20 minutes, I asked energy think tank COO, and recent author of report analyzing the potential cost of BECCS at the Drax power plant, Phil MacDonald, for his assessment of negative emissions technologies, and to explain the wider consequences of government pursuing technologies like BECCS.

Phil:

But we must understand the co2 that's in the atmosphere to understand whether we getting some negative emissions, all the negative nations or no negative emissions at all, and we're actually building a fleet of super emitters around the planet.

Alasdair:

But first, I began by asking Dan Quiggin to explain why we had come to need negative emissions.

Daniel:

So I think it's first important to step back in answering why we need negative emissions, and think about it in the context of climate change. So Paris set a target of 1.5 degrees by the end of century. And indeed, for many years, climate scientists have had a two degree target. Those targets of 1.5 or two degrees exists for a really important reason, which is that after two degrees, or the climate science indicates that runaway climate change is likely to occur, which is essentially a byproduct of the fact that there are many different Earth system tipping points and feedback mechanisms that exist. So for instance, the melting of ice and snow in the Arctic reduces the Albedo effect. So snow reflects sunlight back into the atmosphere. As that melts, you end up with a darker brown, or black surface because of the rocks, which then increases the amount of global warming, that happens because the earth is absorbing more heat. And there are many different system feedback mechanisms that are likely to kick in around 1.5 or two degrees. So climate scientists are really concerned that we end up with runaway climate change after two degrees worth of warming. So Paris set this 1.5 degrees target in order to create a little bit of a buffer. So then asking, why do we need negative emission technologies? Well, the amount of carbon budget the amount of emissions that we can emit between now and two degrees, or even 1.5 degrees worth of warming is very, very, very, very slim. So for the energy sector, by memory, it's something like 600 gigatons of co2. And we currently in the energy sector, emit around about 35 gigatons. So you've got less than 20 years, in order to reduce emissions to zero in order to achieve a carbon budget that's meant to last us until the end of century. So there's discrepancy there of at least 60 odd years. And this is really important. So this drives the necessity for negative emissions, if we can't balance them, in the short term. Negative emissions allow us to create a net balance between the emissions that we haven't managed to reduce that far, and the emissions that are required for that carbon budget to prevent runaway climate change. And at the same time, there are what are called residual emissions, which are those emissions from sectors like steel or cement, which many people say are very difficult to decarbonize, because the technologies that currently exist to do it are either too expensive or very much still in the R&D phase. So this creates a need for negative emissions and indeed, many of the models that the IPCC utilize which are called integrated assessment models saw a gap 10 or so years ago, where there was this discrepancy between what we needed to achieve our carbon budget in terms of emissions, or emissions reductions, and what was going to happen. And so those modelers essentially put in a fudge factor that says some sort of technology needs to come along in order to square off this discrepancy or gap between what is needed and what is likely to occur. And those were essentially greenhouse gas removals or negative emission technologies. Fast forward to the present day. And those technologies have essentially been classified into two different forms. So nature based solutions, which includes things like afforestation, peat, land restoration, and so on. And negative emission technologies, which are engineered removals, so through human made technologies. So the two principal ones are direct air capture, which is essentially passing large amounts of air over filters, which removes or scrubs the co2 out of that air, and then stores it. And bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, which is utilizing plants or forest materials, and then you burn them, and you capture the emissions from them. And there are problems with both technologies, but here we'll just focus on BECCS, or bioenergy with carbon capture and storage. BECCS essentially is working by saying that photosynthesis occurs in all plants and forests, and so they sequester or they store co2 as they grow. And then if you burn them, and are able to capture that co2, you are able to essentially remove co2 from the atmosphere.

Alasdair:

You said that we're wanting to concentrate in particular on BECCS, why are we wanting to concentrate in particular on BECCS when when we're talking about this?

Daniel:

BECCS in terms of comparing it to direct air capture or nature based solutions such as afforestation and peatland restoration, many experts think that it's got a much greater potential in order to achieve those negative emissions that are required. So for instance, direct air capture is very much a new in development technology, whereas bioenergy in the form of forests or dedicated biocrops have been burnt for many years in order to produce power. And then there is this technology called carbon capture and storage, which has also been in developed for some time, which essentially could be sort of plunked on top of a bioenergy power station to turn that bioenergy power station into BECCS. So the focus has been on BECCS in terms of the kind of panoplia of different greenhouse gas removal options, because it is seen as having the greatest potential for deployment and hence creating those negative emissions that are required.

Alasdair:

If I could just try and understand it in other words, I would ask you in terms of costs, so that, you know, if you're looking at the potential of using bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, because you could also produce power, as well as capturing carbon and capturing storing carbon, it's been seen as more attractive. Is that right? And it's also just because it's been, you know, I suppose you were saying this earlier, that's been in the modeling, that BECCS has been in all these climate models, and therefore, that's also why it's been more in focus and more used?

Daniel:

Yeah, I think that's a really important way of looking at it. Cost is obviously incredibly important. And within the integrated assessment models that the IPCC and others utilize, they are essentially what are called cost optimizing models. So if we want to decarbonize society, we also need to think about how much that's going to cost society. And because energy has a big cost associated with it, if you have a technology, a greenhouse gas removal option, that can produce energy at the same time as sequestering carbon and creating those negative emission technologies, as compared to other options that don't create some value or good that society once which has an associated cost, then those models are going to choose that option over others. So because BECCS produces power, or in theory produces power at the same time as sequestering co2, then the models are going to choose it over other options.

Alasdair:

Okay, that's interesting. And can you just explain the BECCS process itself? it? Because I think that's useful to know.

Daniel:

Yeah. So BECCS in many ways, it's actually quite simple to understand. I think lots of people are quite confused about how it works. So bioenergy has been burnt for power production for many years. And indeed, there's various different European and UK policy mechanisms that have encouraged the use of bioenergy as a renewable technology for many years. There's question marks over whether bioenergy is actually a renewable technology. And I don't think we're going to go into that today. But in essence, the kind of the theory of BECCS says that all plants including trees, as they grow, they photosynthesize, and the process of photosynthesis is that the plant or the tree absorb co2 as it grows. And so your plant is essentially acting, your plant or your tree, is essentially acting as the thing that is sucking the co2 out the atmosphere. And then all BECCS is then trying to do is to try and say, 'okay, let's burn it, produce some power, and at the same time capture that co2', which is where the CCS component of the BECCS acronym comes in. So carbon capture and storage is the really the key thing to try and understand. So CCS, essentially, there are different types of CCS, and I'll just focus on what's called post combustion capture. Post combustion CCS essentially says you burn your feedstock your tree or your plant or whatever, and then you put a scrubbing device on top of your chimney of your power station, and that has a solvent in it, where you pass your emissions called stack emissions through that solvent, the solvent binds to the co2 molecules, and then you pipe that solvent plus the co2 that is bound to it through a heat process. That heat releases the co2. And then you compress the co2 and liquefy it, and then pump that co2 to a storage site, to a geological formation. And quite often, these geological formations that have been identified are old disused oil wells. So you've got a nice geological formation where you can store that co2. So you've kind of got each of those components of the acronym of CCS in there. So therefore, you've got your components of CCS, you're capturing it, and you're storing it. The main problem in that process is that the heat required to separate your solvent, and the co2 that is bound to it, is vast. So you need to apply a lot of heat in order to separate that solvent and the co2. And that's important because you need to recycle that solvent, back through the whole process such that you can capture the next load of of emissions that are burnt from the next lot of biomass. And so that heat in itself comes from the biomass. So, and I'll finish in a second, the point here is that a bioenergy power station produces power by creating heat and driving your turbine. But you're losing some of that heat that's being produced in order to do the CCS process to separate the solvent and the co2. So in essence, the power produced through the BECCS process goes significantly down in relation to a normal biomass or bioenergy power station. So there are big question marks over exactly how much power is going to be produced by BECCS relative to a biomass standard, traditional biomass power station. And that therefore brings into the question if the integrated assessment models and all the models that indicate that BECCS is the best option, and the most cost effective option are actually correct, because those models have made assumptions as to how efficient the process is. And we're only just starting to see very recently that what's that's called an energy penalty, the amount of energy that you're losing to the CCS process, that that energy penalty is actually really quite high. So the models could be inherently wrong.

Alasdair:

Okay, that's very interesting. And I think that brings us quite neatly on to the kind of, the question that we have about - so we've explains a little bit about, you know, what negative emissions are. We've also, you know, you've also very succinctly explained what bioenergy with carbon capture and storage is, and we've started to go into some of the issues around, the perhaps some of the the uncertainties and the problems around, BECCS itself. I mean, that is my next question, which is, can you actually give us an explanation or a bit of a summary of the limitations and concerns that there might be in the impacts around using BECCS? I mean, you've gone into some of these, the specific ones about the the limitations of the technology itself, in terms of what you might say, at plant level, maybe and how it's used in the BECCS power plant. But also there are obviously implications around the land and the biodiversity impacts, and it'd be really interesting to know about those concerns as well.

Daniel:

So I think that the first major one that is quite highly cited within the public domain is that different feedstocks, there's a variety of feedstocks that can be used, so you could use trees, just normal forests. And within forests, there are a number of different feedstocks so are you using the waste and residues from a sawmill? Are you using what are called thinnings, which is the process of kind of giving, in theory more space to breathe for the trees that are in managed forests and woodlands. Are you using whole round wood trees as they're called, so there's a variety of different feedstocks within woody biomass. And then there's also a number of other feedstocks, so switchgrass, short rotation crop willow, miscanthus, and other dedicated biocrops, and wheat and wheat straw. And each of these different feedstocks come with, importantly, a different carbon payback period. And because trees take a long time to grow, to their sort of mature size, they come with the largest carbon debt, and therefore carbon payback period. And the range of payback periods is somewhere between 35 to 100 years. So if you burn one of these trees, or associated feedstocks with the woody biomass, that has a high carbon payback period, and let's just, for example, call it 100 years, you burn it, you capture the co2, you do the whole BECCS process. Well, if it's going to take 100 years for that tree to be replaced, in terms of its carbon by the next generation of trees, then essentially, then the emissions that you've stored in your geological formation are not negative emissions, not net negative, because that new tree is going to take 100 years to replace the co2 that you've stored. So the carbon payback period is really important in defining or calculating if you have actually achieved that net negativity. And there is a massive and highly contested set of literature and debates that are currently going on around what are those carbon payback periods for a variety of different feedstocks, specifically to do with woody biomass. And so it's a really poorly understood area with a lot of counterfactuals, right? Because you can say, well, these trees, were going to be cut down anyway for furniture, for house building, and so on. So if they were going to be cut down anyway, then using waste and residues, you shouldn't have a carbon payback period. But if we get to the point where the scale of BECCS is so large, and in some of the models that we're talking about the scale of BECCS is absolutely enormous, like, you know, the sort of the midpoint of the IPCC estimates is somewhere around like four Giga tons, which is about 10% of current energy sector emissions all the way through to like 20 Giga tons and more. So if you scale this up the amount of woody biomass which is the predominant feedstock that is burned within biomass power stations now, and indeed is essentially what Drax is burning and what Drax is likely to burn when they when they do BECCS at their Selby plant. If you start scaling this up, you're going to need more and more and more, you know, whole trees essentially vast areas of forest. So the likelihood is, is as we deploy more, deploy more more BECCS, we're going to need more and more mature trees, what are called mature trees that have a high carbon payback period, which then undermines the entire process. Because if we want to try and achieve net negativity net zero within a particular time frame in order to prevent runaway climate change, but actually, you're only going to get that net negativity in 35-100 years time, then we haven't actually really achieved anything in terms of BECCS providing greenhouse gas removals. There are also other problems in terms of the land use. So like, you know, how many trees do you need? What area does that take up? What does that mean for biodiversity? If you've got vast plantations of forests that are just growing, dedicated, woody biomass feedstock? Is that going to be to the detriment of of biodiversity? Because if you've got monoculture trees, you're not going to support the same level of biodiversity. And indeed, there's reports that have come out by a joint report by it bears and the IPCC recently like raising the alarm on this. And it's really only a sort of a new debate that's happening. Also, we need food. And food requires land. And so if we have vast areas of land growing biomass in any form, whether that's energy crops, or woody biomass, then BECCS starts to be in competition with food production. And so you get land tension. So there are some reports that say we're going to need like, two to three times India's agricultural land area, in order to support the kind of level of BECCS that some of the models are forecasting, well, that would be catastrophic, that would be catastrophic for the world's poor. You know, in developed countries, we probably have the money to pay for inflated food prices. But are people in India and parts of Africa going to be able to afford inflated food prices, because we're trying to achieve BECCS. So there's a real kind of inherent tension around BECCS when you start to scale it. And just to kind of finish on this point, I just like to highlight the the level of BECCS that the IPCC, the midpoint of the IPCC pathways are expecting is four gigatons - would require 30,000% increase relative to what Drax currently burns in terms of woody biomass as a massive, massive increase. So that scaling issue really starts to bring in these biodiversity and land tension problems, as well as that carbon payback and carbon debt problem

Alasdair:

30,000% increase. And so what does that mean, in terms of, you know, if we were just just for, for our listeners to get an idea of, of how much land that is, how much land that involves, could you kind of give us a bit of an idea.

Daniel:

So within the UK, so not a global level now, in terms of the CCC's projections, the numbers that I have in my head relate to wheat straw rather than to woody biomass, because I've sort of done the modeling around it. If we were to use wheat straw, which is a byproduct of wheat, so you use the wheat grain for whatever food stuff, and you use the wheat straw, which is currently a waste or predominantly a waste, and you wish to use a wheat straw within BECCS, then that would require somewhere between 20 to 30% of the UK is agricultural land area that's for the CCC's target around BECCS, with 100% being supplied by wheat straw. In terms of some of the global projections that the IPCC and others have put out, which is sort of around sort of five to 10 gigatons of co2 source of negative emissions by the end of century. That's the one that requires this sort of two to three times India's agricultural land area being required for BECCS. So there are there are many other people who are far better versed than I am on the the costs and the subsidies of BECCS. So Phil can speak to this much better than I can. But I suppose from where I'm sat, the big concern that I have is that the models and the way that policymakers are thinking about BECCS is that it produces a good amount of power, whilst it's also doing this co2 sequestration and storage and creating the negative emissions, however, what we're seeing is that the the energy penalty, or the amount of energy that's required in the CCS process, is actually quite high. So probably the amount of power that's going to be produced is lower than what the models and the policymakers are expecting. And that then means that the subsidy that will be required is going to be higher, because a BECCS operator will be hoping to sell the power into the wholesale market. So you generate the power you you sell it to the wholesale market, you derive some revenues. And if those revenues are lower, because you're selling less power, because the energy penalty is higher, the operator is going to require a higher subsidy. And it's only just been recently that we started to see coming out of Drax reports exactly what that energy penalty is likely to be. And I won't go into the details of it here. But that energy penalties is a lot higher than than what many people were expecting and what the models are indicating. So therefore, the subsidy is likely to be higher in terms of what's required.

Alasdair:

But do you want to talk a little bit about supply chain emissions and the issues around supply chain emissions?

Daniel:

So alongside carbon debt, in terms of the whole life cycle analysis of BECCS, another really important part is what are the emissions along the supply chain irrespective of the carbon debt and the carbon payback period that's associated with the feedstock? BECCS requires a number of different processes in order to get either the woody biomass or the bioenergy crop from plant or tree form into a type of material that can be combusted. And generally, that combusted material are pellets, they're called pellets, tiny little pellets that you can put into your, into your power station and burn and combust. So the question around supply chain emissions is one where's the feedstock coming from? Is it coming from the other side of the world? So you have lots of transportation emissions associated with it? Or is it coming from a nearby to the power station? Or the BECCS power station? And simultaneously, what's the processing required to get it from plant or tree form into those pellets? So let's first think about the transportation. So at the moment, Drax, and others, not just Drax, but lots of different biomass power stations source their feedstocks from all over the world, not just the UK. Some of it comes from the US and even further afield. So shipping woody biomass, which is the predominant feedstock that is burned comes with the emissions associated with putting those trees essentially into shipping containers, or ships and moving them from one side to another.

Alasdair:

Sorry, could just before you go on, can I ask aren't the majority of pellets being imported into the UK for use in biomass power stations like Drax?

Daniel:

Yeah, by far the majority, the majority is not sourced within the UK, the majority comes from outside the UK and therefore they have transportation emissions associated with them. And then the other category is how do you turn your raw material, your tree or your biocrop into that pellet that can be burned. And that requires drying because there's a high moisture content of your raw material, because plants contain a lot of water, and you don't want to burn water because it's it's not efficient. So you have to dry it, that requires energy input. So what is that energy? Is it is it a fossil fuel? Or is that done renewably? A lot of the time it's done through burning the bark. So that's kind of okay, but that's not always the case. And then you have to grind up the material, pelletise it and then as I say, ship it and bring it over to the UK. So all along that supply chain, you don't just have the carbon debt and associated carbon payback period with your feedstock, but you also have that whole supply chain of emissions. And at the moment, most of the models, not all of them, but a lot of them work on the basis that the supply chain emissions on are negligible to non existent. And there's this thing called the capture rate that is often cited. So the capture rate has to do with at the point that you burn your biomass in your BECCS power station, how much ends up back out into the atmosphere, versus how much is geologically stored. And what's often cited is a capture rate in excess of 80%, quite often these days 90%, or even 95%. But those capture rates do not factor in that entire supply chain. So in order to really work out what your what's called a carbon efficiency or your net negativity of your entire backup process, you need to factor in this entire supply chain, and associated emissions on top of your capture rate and what you lose to the atmosphere within your power station. And that is only just starting to be recognized and also calculated for different feedstocks originating from different regions of the world. So at the moment, policymakers are making this kind of broad brush assumption that BECCS equals 90 to 95% co2 being captured. Whereas in reality, it doesn't. And just I'll just finish on this that the other really important point to recognize is that because of the way UNF Triple C accounting, or co2 accounting processes and mechanisms work, is that land use emissions accounted in the point where in the country that they occur. So if you have the US growing, the trees that are going to be burned in your BECCS station, they're accounted for in the US, or whatever other country. At the point that those pellets arrive in the UK, they're treated as zero rated in terms of co2 emissions. So you have this weird accounting procedure, that means that if the UK is importing, which it does the majority of it biomass that's going to be used for BECCS, you're relying on the other country to report robustly what happens in terms of land use emissions, and the processing and the grinding and the pelletising of those of that biomass into your pellet. And quite often countries don't necessarily report those emissions correctly or robustly to the UNF Triple C. So in a way, what BECCS under current reporting procedures is doing is essentially putting the onus or the responsibility for those supply chain emissions back on to the country of origin that grew that biomass. Now, that's not entirely correct, because there's increasingly tight legislation and regulations that are coming in, in the EU and the UK that's trying to tighten up the kind of minimum requirements on those supply chain emissions, but they still don't fully robustly do it. And they also rely on third party verification through unregulated parties. So there's this program called the sustainable Biomass Program that produces certificates for suppliers of biomass. And there are question marks over to the robustness of that process.

Alasdair:

My understanding from what you say is that, therefore, because of the supply chain, emissions not being properly taken into account, and because of these carbon accounting differences between how they're recorded, or a carbon accounting trick you could even say, is that we're not then able to know what the true level of negative emissions that would be produced from any of these, from BECCS itself. And so then going back to what you'd said before, about how policymakers are putting into their models, they're putting into their models with actually very little knowledge of what what could actually be produced from BECCS and with an inaccurate assessment of what BECCS might actually produce. And it might not - and we don't know this for sure, but it might not be producing any negative emissions at all, or actually, maybe as you say, sorry, you call it carbon efficiency as well, but the carbon efficiency or the negative emissions produced might even just be very low. Is that is that fair to say?

Daniel:

Yeah, that's really fair to say and it really depends on as I say, the country of origin, what processes they use along the supply chain. How decarbonised the supply chain is, are you using energy to dry that biomass from renewable sources from the bark? Or are using fossil fuels? There's so many different factors. And they're not well characterised for the entire supply chain, nor are they well reported. And so that's a real problem. And so, yeah, you're exactly correct, that the net negativity that BECCS could produce in the future, is really poorly understood. Yet the assumptions that the policymakers are working on come from these models that we know are inadequate in defining and characterising accounting for that whole supply chain and the carbon debt associated, and so on, and so on. So I think what's really important for me to say here is that like, I'm not against BECCS wholesale. I think it's a really important technology to develop, it could play a really important role in preventing climate change. But we're building in, we're working towards incentivizing BECCS at a scale that is so vast, at the same time as all of these nuances and elements that could potentially undermine the total net negativity that BECCS provides. So going sort of full tilt, for BECCS and relying on it at the scale that we're relying on it could be catastrophic. And so I don't know, there's this report that I'm writing at the moment, and the title is kind of, you know, some people like the the draft title, some people don't, the title that I want to put in, essentially, is BECCS the policy tail wagging the science dog, maybe not the sort of most catchy title in the world. But for me, it's sort of summarises the problem that we have. Policymakers are going for this. They're demanding it, they think it's the only option possibly viable. Yet the science and the evidence have hasn't caught up to the extent that we can say, yes, policymakers, that is the way to go. So there are inherent risks. And when the impacts of climate change, we know we're going to be so catastrophic on people, relying on technology at that scale with those inherent risks, in my mind is madness. And so you need some sort of check and balance and what I call a brake mechanism, such that in a few years time, we can step back, assess and decide to continue or take a different course. But we certainly shouldn't be baking in the level of BECCS that we currently are because over reliance on a technology that hasn't proved itself is in my mind is near to insanity. One

Alasdair:

point I wanted to ask you about was around, I suppose policy prevarication. And the issue that well, I suppose, we have a situation where I mean, arguably, there's a limited knowledge that policy makers have about about BECCS and its use of BECCS. However, we have the residual emissions that need to be filled. And it's seen as the 'okay, well, what should we fill are our net zero plans with? We'll put in we'll put in BECCS because we don't know that there are other technologies that exist' and therefore we put in BECCS to to kind of fill those residual emissions to look like we're tackling that. But at the same time, we've got a situation where we have a relatively slow decarbonisation of the economy. And and that's not going as fast as it could be. And therefore, there's an incentive for for perhaps corporates that are promoting the greenhouse gas removal technologies as a whole to promote them then as the solution and actually stop, stop existing decarbonisation and actually prevent existing decarbonisation taking place. Could you say a little bit more about that maybe?

Daniel:

Yeah, so there's been some interesting work done on that by Duncan McLaren, I think of Lancaster University, which essentially looks at the moral hazard of BECCS or actually, not just BECCS, negative emissions and GGR, in kind of totality. And essentially, he argues, and I agree with him, and hopefully I sort of quote him correctly here. He essentially is saying that reliance on technologies that aren't yet proven, may slow down the deployment of technologies that we know now can decarbonize. So you know, there's an argument to say, if we think BECCS is gonna come along and save the day, I'm sort of being a bit reductionist there, but just for argument's sake, gonna come along and save the day, why would we go so hard on the deployment of technologies such as wind and solar now? And so he's making the argument that simply having such enthusiasm and reliance around these technologies that haven't proved themselves creates the moral hazard that we don't reduce emissions through proven technologies, now making our lives even harder in the future, if BECCS doesn't deliver in the way that we're assuming it to do, which is a huge risk. And so there's increasing discussions and a few papers around how do we how do we encompass and deal with this moral hazard within net zero, the net zero target, which is a target in some countries, is a legislative target in others, is just an ambition in some others. But you know, there's hundreds of countries now kind of pledging net zero. So what do we do with net zero? And I think for me, the answer and this is what some papers and policy discussions are starting to lean towards, is that if you separate net zero into removals on one hand, and reductions on another, and so you have two targets, embedded within netzero. And you could just for argument's sake, have reductions at 80%. By 2050. And 20%, reliance on removal was or even less, you could have like 99%, reductions and 1% removals. And you watch as you assess, you monitor and report how BECCS and other negative emission technologies are performing over time. And if they show themselves and prove themselves to work really well, well then you you increase your removals proportion of that reductions versus removal split with a net zero. But that's not currently the case. Currently, it's just one target. So I think there are ways of addressing this. But they're not currently embedded within net zero. So that's where I think the policy discussion needs to go next. Else that moral hazard that Duncan and others have have highlighted, is just going to continue to exist, and we could just blow our carbon budgets and have a runaway climate change.

Alasdair:

That was Dr. Dan quiggin of Chatham House on BECCS. In this second part of the podcast I asked Phil McDonald from Ember for his thoughts and reflections on BECCS, how they fitted into Dan Quiggin's thinking on the subject, and how BECCS might fit into the wider perspective we have around net zero.

Phil:

So I just want to focus on what Dan said around the fudge factor that was introduced the models, because it's important to kind of understand this, this point. The model has put this imagined future tech into the models to make the numbers add up. So they, back then it wasn't existing technology, it was it was an idea. And as Dan says, like a big chunk of this negative emissions was, is, due to come from BECCS, but still a kind of technology that doesn't exist yet. And so they, so kind of like the question is like why did they do this? Why did they focus on BECCS rather than some of the other options that are available to us? So they could have relied on less hard technology like that and more of the kind of soft social change. So for instance, things around dietary change. And a good example is the CCC, the Climate Change Committee, is quite limited in how it thinks people's diets will change to a more plant based diet. Because understandably, it is difficult to model what is going to happen in these social changes. So it puts quite a low emphasis on dietary change, and instead puts, a big chunk of the models, is reliant on this technology, and why is that? I think it's because big shiny infrastructure has always been appealing to, especially to politicians, rather than than having to change how your voters act and behave. And so I think that's, that's kind of, it's always been appealing, but it does create this kind of vacuum that has has to be filled. So you create this gap in the models where negative emissions technology has to come into, and then negative. And then we have to kind of find the technologies even when they're not very, they might not be perfect, because because the model is, is looking for these technologies in a way. So I think there's a, there's a kind of interesting thing to think there about all the all these models are just imagining the future and how you can imagine a different route to gain these these negative missions, or not getting negative missions at all. The other point to add to what Dan is saying, is just that, I feel like introducing these, introducing these to the model, it creates a false sense of security. So when you look at the models, where you look at whether we're on course, for 1.5, or two degrees or three degrees, you have to remember that there's this chunk, which is often hidden in the top line, the headline of it, that is filled by negative emissions, that doesn't exist. So hopefully it will exist, but it doesn't exist yet. And so that, that allows us to move a little bit slower on emission cuts, because we're assuming that BECCS will fill the gap in future. The kind of other side to this is that when BECCS was first imagined as an idea back in, you know, it was in 2000, 2001, where the concept first comes up, it does allow for us to go negative. And so that was actually important for pushing politicians to come up with more ambitious targets to begin with, because they can suddenly, though the technology doesn't exist, they can imagine it into the models, and then it allows you to go a bit faster. So it's been important in both ways, which is interesting to, to think about.

Alasdair:

I'll pick up on that point. That is interesting that in a way, because we've had the net zero target, it has allowed politicians to be more ambitious. Because they had the space in which they thought well, we can find technological answers to this rather than finding simply changing our lifestyles, etc.

Phil:

On this question, another way of looking at the question of why do we need negative missions, it's because there's a demand coming from the private sector now. So as we have this, in the last year or two, we've had a proliferation of net zero targets from companies and these have been driven by by some of these campaigns like the race to zero, that UNF Triple C is running and the science based targets initiative, which are trying to get companies to commit to these net zero targets. But once we have these, these targets, companies, obviously, because it's quite an easy option to use, rather than cutting emissions it's easy to say, easier to say, we're going to pay for negative emissions to happen somewhere else. And so I think that's kind of creating now quite a demand in the market for these technologies to come into existence. And that's not just BECCS, that's also a lot of private sector interest in direct air capture, which is, you know, as we've mentioned, sucking, sucking co2 out of the air, which is DACs. And I think one just to kind of make some examples of these, there's things like the Microsoft have committed to 2030, though, there'll be going net zero, and as part of that they've put out this $1 billion for carbon removal tech, and that's including BECCS so there's a big push there. And then maybe even more, it's even more difficult when we're looking at things like BP who were talking about net zero by 2050. And there are they're suggesting that they'll still be pumping oil and gas, but they'll be using this carbon removal tech to to enable them to be net zero overall. And so that's the there's obviously some obvious dangers there around around that poll.

Alasdair:

But one question, which is just about the pressures that the UK Government is under around around net zero, just wondering if you could say something about the pressures that one might have around net zero and how that has affected the use of or the development of negative emissions technologies.

Phil:

Yeah, so the UK Government is, has obviously been leading the way on these on net zero targets coming up with this like, you know, the first major country to have a 2050 net zero target. And so that creates a quite a lot of pressure for itself on on negative emissions, and particularly as we come up to COP, we've got Glasgow in November, the government wants to have something that it can say that's delivering on this negative emissions, that it's not just, the net in net zero is not just something imagined is something concrete. And so that creates quite a pressure to, to kind of maybe quicker than they would like move on supporting companies that are offering it. And the worry from our side is that some of those, some of those that are being offered are being offered with that in mind, that they're the government isn't going to do enough due diligence on negative emissions, because it's, it's desperate to kind of have something to shout about to the rest of the world. And that obviously creates, that creates then a secondary danger in that, once the UK is shouting about, well, 'we've got it, we've got negative emissions', then the rest of the world will will follow on thinking the UK is has done the due diligence. And so then you obviously that's, that then creates a cycle of possible danger if the negative emissions don't deliver, as we expect.

Alasdair:

How do you think, you know, there could be an adaptation, which that wasn't the pressure that the UK government was under?

Phil:

part of the focus has to be kind of like going back to the models and looking at where there are actually options to to bring down like, so at the minute the chunk of residual emissions that the Climate Change Committee is assuming will be there by 2050 is quite substantial. Looking at that, and understanding where there are actually other options to, other than negative emissions. So in some cases, it may be that with industry or with heat that you can electrify it much, much more quickly than expected. And then there are social change. So already, we seem to be outstripping what the Climate Change Committee has assumed will happen on dietary change, and that has a big effect on emissions. So I think thinking more flexibly about that, and being aware that the, aware of the pull of just because it's a shiny, big, like power plant, big, big piece of infrastructure, that may not be the necessarily the right way to go. And there are other ways of delivering these emissions. Clearly, the most important problem with BECCS is they may not deliver negative emissions, but there's a there's an important, there's a problem, that's maybe not quite as important, but it is still a major issue, in that BECCS is going to be very expensive. And I think we've really, we've kind of kicked the tires enough on this technology now on biomass to understand that, that it's baked in that it's going to be very expensive. So all across Europe, that is the coal phase is accelerating, lots of countries are putting in, have put now an end date on coal, and the companies are looking for alternatives. And obviously burning word is is one that they would like to do, it enables quite a lot of the reuse of the same same infrastructure, but we're just seeing that they cannot do it without major subsidies. So basically, it just isn't happening, even though it's clearly in the company's interest. So there's a big, you know, very big private sector interest to reuse these assets. They just can't do it until they're delivered significant government subsidies. And we've seen that like, you know, just across the board in in Europe. And I guess we were kind of again, in the in the UK, we're a bit ahead of the game that this their biggest biomass generator in the form of Drax and and again, so Drax is obviously trying to, has had now a decade, work on efficiencies, supply chain efficiencies, cutting costs and stuff and they still can't drive the price down that low, it appears there's just inherent costs with with harvest, with growing a forest, with harvesting all this wood, which is the main way that that BECCS is going to come from there's all these other other materials that Dan is mentioning, but at the minute the focus really is on forestry, and and so there's just all these costs, you know, baked in with the pelletisation process, the drying of the pellets, the supply chain, you know, shipping from all over the world. The storage is so much more difficult than coal, coal, you can just leave out in a in a field, you can look on any of the you know, look on satellite images and just see coal dumped in a field where it has to be stored very delicately because it's, if it gets down but it's no good. It can ignite itself if it's if it's piled up too high. So all Those introduces more more costs. And that makes for further difficulties. And so so we know that the feedstock is a is going to make biomass very expensive. And then that necessarily leads on then you're adding carbon capture and storage technology, which is a is clearly an extra, just an extra cost. Like you're not, you're not getting anything from carbon capture and storage, you're not getting any further power generation or anything like that the only thing you're getting is the negative emissions. And so that adds a further cost on top of what Drax is doing already. And so we've tried to calculate this because Drax haven't put anything in the public domain about the subsidies that they're demanding from the government behind closed doors. And so we've tried to calculate it using the studies commissioned by Bayes and we're finding that this finding the cost, the cost is definitely just without a doubt going to be more expensive than nuclear per megawatt hour. And everyone is already aware how expensive nuclear is in the UK. And there's a big range beyond that about how much it's actually going to cost. I think it kind of leads on to leads on to an extra thing to think about so they're going to - Drax is looking for this first commitment from the government on BECCS. And there's then an interesting question about once they have this monopoly, and once they're delivering these negative emissions, do they have the government over a barrel for further subsidies? So the suggestion that they made that, you know, they only need an initial burst of subsidies that maybe can last for 15 years. But clearly, you're just not going to be burning, you're never going to be burning biomass, and pumping out into the sea, unless you're being paid subsidies like that, the whole process doesn't make sense. You can't make enough power from it. So you've got to get subsidies. And so we're going to need that up to 2050. So even if the initial contract that they want, the government is just for a few years, that they're going to be able to get another one, and then the government is going to be locked into needing it. So just to add to Dan's point about the energy penalty of of carbon capture and storage, we do have some existing examples of how it works in the real world not with biomass that hasn't been done yet. That's still an idea. But with coal and gas, and so we, the flagship project in the US is the Petra Nova plant, which planet. That's the danger that you think that we're heading is, which was, a coal and CCS project, and only ran for a few years, before giving up. But the interesting thing is that it both has this. So there's this coal plant, there's the CCS plant on it, and then capturing the carbon from that coal capturing some of the carbon from that coal, and then to run the CCS plan, required them to build another gas plant next door to it, which isn't capturing the co2. So that I think that may be that kind of image helps you understand how the energy penalty of CCS and so I think it's this idea of, that's really what we have to understand with BECCS like, are we getting any power from it at all? And also are there that there's so many points along the supply chain all the way up to the actual burning and capturing where there's hidden co2 in the system. And we need to obviously have that understanding of the full lifecycle before we understand are we getting negative emissions, just because we're storing some co2 under the north sea. It's useful to imagine, say, we get to 2040, we've decided to go for BECCS, there's multiple BECCS plants running around the world burning through a lot of forest, as Dan has mentioned, and in the IPCC models, it will look like we're bending the curve, it will look like co2 emissions are going down the hill and heading towards net zero as we like in the models as they currently exist. What matters, though, is what the atmosphere is, is actually seeing whilst it looks like in the models that were on this glide path towards 1.5, or two degrees. In actual fact, we're supercharging the atmosphere with co2 because we haven't done the full accounting. And so we just have to remember this that like, it doesn't matter what fancy accounting we're doing. What matters is the co2 that's getting into the atmosphere. And that's, that's the thing to really understand. And then like it goes back to these points around carbon data and everything, but we must understand the co2 that's in the atmosphere to understand whether we're getting some negative emissions or the negative emissions, or no negative emissions at all, and we're actually building a fleet of super emitters around the towards then with BECCS? the risk with BECCS is that yes that we're building that we haven't done the the accounting properly and when we understand the full system, the full lifecycle or the supply chain or the cost to utting down forests and b rning them that in actual fact i 's a net emitter rather than n gative emission.

Alasdair:

My thanks to Phil MacDonald of Ember and Dr. Dan Quiggin of Chatham House in putting this podcast together. If you enjoyed the podcast, please do subscribe or follow us. And we'll hope to have more interesting interviews on climate topics in the very near future. Thanks for listening