Letter | Published:

Biomass-based negative emissions difficult to reconcile with planetary boundaries

Nature Climate Changevolume 8pages151155 (2018) | Download Citation


Under the Paris Agreement, 195 nations have committed to holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels and to strive to limit the increase to 1.5 °C (ref. 1). It is noted that this requires "a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of the century"1. This either calls for zero greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions or a balance between positive and negative emissions (NE)2,3. Roadmaps and socio-economic scenarios compatible with a 2 °C or 1.5 °C goal depend upon NE via bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) to balance remaining GHG emissions4,5,6,7. However, large-scale deployment of BECCS would imply significant impacts on many Earth system components besides atmospheric CO2 concentrations8,9. Here we explore the feasibility of NE via BECCS from dedicated plantations and potential trade-offs with planetary boundaries (PBs)10,11 for multiple socio-economic pathways. We show that while large-scale BECCS is intended to lower the pressure on the PB for climate change, it would most likely steer the Earth system closer to the PB for freshwater use and lead to further transgression of the PBs for land-system change, biosphere integrity and biogeochemical flows.

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Change history

  • 14 March 2018

    In the version of this Letter originally published, in Fig. 2, the labels for the yellow and green areas were swapped: the yellow areas should have been labelled ‘Global uncertainty zones’ and the green areas should have been labelled ‘Global safe zones’. This has now been corrected in the online versions of the Letter.


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We thank H. Kreft and C. Meyer for providing the endemism richness data sets and B. Bodirsky for discussions on the planetary boundary for biogeochemical flows. This research was funded by the DFG in the context of the CE-Land and CEMICS2 projects of the Priority Program 'Climate Engineering: Risks, Challenges, Opportunities?' (SPP 1689). We acknowledge the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF), the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research and the Land Brandenburg for supporting this project by providing resources on the high-performance computer system at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research.

Author information


  1. Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, Potsdam, Germany

    • Vera Heck
    • , Dieter Gerten
    • , Wolfgang Lucht
    •  & Alexander Popp
  2. Department of Geography, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Berlin, Germany

    • Vera Heck
    • , Dieter Gerten
    •  & Wolfgang Lucht
  3. Integrative Research Institute on Transformations of Human–Environment Systems, Berlin, Germany

    • Wolfgang Lucht


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V.H. designed the study with input from D.G., W.L. and A.P. V.H. developed the methodology, performed all simulations, analysed the results and created the figures. Land-use data from MAgPIE were provided by A.P. V.H. led the writing process with contributions from D.G., W.L. and A.P.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Vera Heck or Dieter Gerten.

Supplementary information

  1. Supplementary Information

    Supplementary Methods, Supplementary Tables 1–2, Supplementary Figure 1–7 and Supplementary References.

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