Biomass-based negative emissions difficult to reconcile with planetary boundaries


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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Fig. 1: Emission balance of optimal biomass production within regional safe and increasing risk zones for two biomass conversion pathways.
Fig. 2: Status of global PBs considering agricultural land use in SSP1 and biomass production within regional safe and increasing risk zones.
Fig. 3: Effect of biodiversity and freshwater conservation objectives for fixed biomass production targets.

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.

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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.

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Correspondence to Vera Heck.

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

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Heck, V., Gerten, D., Lucht, W. et al. Biomass-based negative emissions difficult to reconcile with planetary boundaries. Nature Clim Change 8, 151–155 (2018).

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