Every generation throws a different hero up the pop charts, sang musician Paul Simon. And every political cycle, it seems, promotes its own signature solution to the problem of how to curb and prevent climate change. This year’s answer is bioenergy with carbon capture and storage — a plan on a colossal scale to grow grass and trees on an area half the size of the United States, harvest and ship this biomass to power stations, burn it and then trap the carbon dioxide from the exhaust gases. The greenhouse gas would then be piped underground and stored indefinitely. The scheme’s acronym — BECCS — barely does its complexity justice.
Perhaps this is the first you have heard of BECCS. That wouldn’t be a surprise. It is something of an overnight sensation — the boy band launched to number one on the back of a reality television show, rather than the grizzled rockers who earned their fame after years of concerts attended by three people and a dog. Yet at the Paris climate talks late last year, which were widely acclaimed as a triumph, the BECCS scheme was quietly installed as the world’s Plan A.
That’s because it comes with a very catchy tune that politicians can’t get out of their heads. BECCS solves the problem of future carbon emissions and cleans up the past. The plants suck CO2 from the atmosphere, which ends up safely underground. We get the benefit of burning them to generate electricity, the world gets to keep its power infrastructure, and the atmosphere experiences what BECCS enthusiasts call negative emissions. Rather brilliantly, the more energy the scheme produces, the more the planet edges away from dangerous levels of global warming.
What’s not to like? Well, in a World View article published after the Paris talks, climate scientist Kevin Anderson compared BECCS to a fairy godmother, conjured up to wish away reality in a puff of optimism. And in a Comment piece this week, environmental scientist Phil Williamson takes a hard look at some of the questions that BECCS seems to pose, and finds few answers.
How would we preserve forests and grasslands, faced with such a demand for energy crops? How much carbon would be released during the agricultural stage? How much water will we need, and where will we get it? How much will it cost to build the network of compressors, pipes, pumps and tanks that will be needed to liquefy and transport the separated CO2? Can it even be separated at a sensible cost?
Recent years have seen a series of solutions to global warming thrown up the political agenda. From biofuels and carbon offsets to ocean fertilization and conventional carbon capture, each has had its moment in the sun, only to be replaced by something younger with a new sound.
BECCS may yet prove to have staying power. But to avoid another one-hit climate wonder, governments must spend the money to do the groundwork — as Williamson says — and to answer those questionsand plenty more. Politics is the art of the possible. But serious action on climate change must be based on the science of the probable.
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