So, what do you know about BECCS?

I had a friend called Becs once.

Was she raised to be burnt for fuel, with the resulting carbon captured by air filters?

Not that I can remember, no.

Probably a different thing. Bio-Energy with Carbon Capture and Storage is a way to make energy from plants.

Oooh! I know this one. Like bio-ethanol for cars, right?

Yes, but with an extra step or two. The logic goes like this: plants absorb CO2 as they grow, so the idea is to grow lots of plants and trees and have them suck CO2 out of the atmosphere, then burn them for fuel.

I was awake for this part of biology. But doesn’t the CO2 fly away when you burn the plants?

Fly? What biology class did you- never mind. Yes, it normally goes back into the atmosphere. But with carbon capture and storage, filters take the CO2 out of the air and trap it.

Do we keep it in boxes?

More like storage tanks. Then, best case it gets pumped underground under high pressure to form rocks, not to be seen for millions of years.

This sounds awesome – where can I get me a BECCS factory?

Well, two problems: one, those fancy filters that suck carbon out of the air have never been proven at commercial scale;  two, burying it underground is also unproven at scale, as well as really expensive and energy intensive.

Good thing we haven’t bet the farm on this then.

Mmmmm…

Was that mmmm significant?

We… may have allowed the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to base most of their future projections on our ability to remove lots of carbon from the air with BECCS. In fact, out of 116 scenarios, 101 feature BECCS’ magical carbon sucking abilities.

WTF, IPCC?

Right. And that’s not the half of it – because of the long supply chain and the inefficiencies from transportation and capturing the CO2, there are times when energy from BECCS can produce more emissions than from fossil fuels.

Okay…

Also, the land required to grow all those trees and plants would be massive, not to mention the water, or the huge amounts of fertiliser needed. It’s estimated that to safely use BECCS – within planetary boundaries – would take 60 million tonnes of CO2 out of the atmosphere.

Awesome! How much CO2 do we pump out each year?

Around 36 billion tonnes.

Hmmm, carry the two… that’s… not enough.

Correct. Even going into the ‘risky’ end of the spectrum would max out at 6 billion tonnes a year, but this would create its own environmental problems, like needing twice the amount of water used by global agriculture today. We’d also need more untested technology, like biomass to hydrogen conversion.

Why can’t we just talk about kittens sometimes?

Also also, a large part of the CO2 captured gets used for ‘enhanced hydrocarbon recovery’ – basically pumping it underground to force out the last dregs of an oil or gas deposit.

So, wait – a big slice of our climate policy is being used to extract more fossil fuels?

Right now, yes. It’s a technology with immense potential, but mostly untested. Having this in the equation also means we’re tempted to say, ‘never mind our emissions now, BECCS will sort it out in the future’.

Like deciding to get liposuction instead of going on a diet?

Sort of.

So, what’s the future look like?

More research, at bigger scales. But the reality is that without some massive leaps in carbon capture technology as well as infrastructure to transport the CO2, we don’t have the land or resources to make BECCS the kind of solution people are hoping for.

You mean we’re screwed?

Not necessarily – solar and wind are in a period of massive growth. Combine more renewables with efficiency savings, better public transport, incentives for industry and shipping and air travel to use less energy…

OK, colour me interested. Where can I find out more about these solutions, wicked or otherwise?

That was subtle. There’s more info on the book here. Also, if you like solutions and bad jokes, make me a weekly part of your life:

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