Moving Below Zero Emissions

Atmospheric levels of CO2 are already at 40 per cent above pre-industrial quantities and rising fast, meaning we need to expand our emission reduction options, not limit them.  This was one of the key messages of the latest IPCC Fifth Assessment Report, focused on mitigation.

There was the usual set of recommendations: the urgent need to curb emissions, scale up renewable energy, stop deforestation and tap into energy efficiency measures. But this year’s report also contained a sharp message about the need to deploy carbon removal technologies, like bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS or bio-CCS) and bio-char.

The International Energy Agency has said that bio-CCS is the most prospective of these innovations, with the ability to store carbon for thousands of years and remove up to 10 billion tonnes of pollution per year in 2050.

That’s a sizable chunk in an ever-shrinking carbon budget of how much the world can emit if we are to avoid dangerous global warming of more than 2oC. If we zero-in at the national level, the abatement potential of bio-CCS is even more significant.

To test his concept in Australia, The Climate Institute (Australia) commissioned leading economics firm Jacobs SKM to crunch some numbers for how the technology could apply. Australia has a number of attributes that make it a perfect test case study candidate. It is one of the developed nations most vulnerable to climate change. It also has relatively abundant supply of agricultural residues (one of the potentially more sustainable biomass sources) and a large natural geological storage potential both on and offshore.

The modelling found that bio-CCS can play a significant role in achieving ambitious goals in Australia. By 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, the modelling indicated that 780 million tonnes was possible. This is all without devoting any more land to bioenergy production.

The study also reaffirmed that regardless of whether bio-CCS becomes viable or not, Australia will need energy efficiency and other renewable energy sources like wind and solar to reduce electricity emissions by 50 per cent in 2030 across all scenarios.

Without carbon removal technologies, Australia would exceed its national ‘carbon budget’ by around 1.7 billion tonnes, or a 20 per cent overshoot by 2050. The cost of that scenario also comes with a larger price tag: up to $60 billion to 2050.

The study highlighted a few difficult choices and trade-offs that would need to be made if bio-CCS doesn’t become viable, including accepting more dangerous levels of climate change and higher economic costs to curb carbon pollution.

Deploying carbon removal technologies requires clarity on the overall emissions reduction goals, and long, loud and legislative decarbonisation signals. Technologies like bio-CCS will also require the recognition of the need for carbon removal and incentives to urgently deploy demonstration projects. International and national sustainability standards will also be crucial, as will national policies to ensure bio-energy does not adversely impact food production, conservation and cultural values. These are big challenges but they shouldn’t mean we don’t consider the potential of bio-CCS or other carbon removal technologies, it means we need to work out how to do it properly.

Carbon removal is not as untenable as it may seem. A demonstration plant in Illinois has been running for three years and is about to become commercial later this year. So far it has captured and stored a million tonnes of carbon pollution from the industrial processing of bio-ethanol a year.

So the technologies exist. What we are missing are the right policies and incentives.

image via cc: Thomas Hawk, flickr

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Kristina Stefanova