There is no silver bullet for the climate challenge: with atmospheric levels of CO2 already at 40 per cent above pre-industrial quantities and rising fast, we need to expand our emission reduction options, not limit them.
So while globally the media focus and the public’s general understanding have tended to zero in on carbon markets and carbon taxes, scientists have been increasing investigating carbon-removal technologies. Innovations like bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS or bio-CCS) and bio-char can potentially remove carbon from the air and store it for a long time.
Media reports finally gave the technologies some airtime earlier this month, after the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report pointed out that without carbon removal technologies, we significantly reduce the chance of keeping to the internationally agreed goal of keeping global mean temperature from rising more than two degrees celsius.
The surplus of carbon in the air is caused by the amount of emissions released, minus how much is withdrawn through carbon sinks like forests and oceans. That means we need more renewable energy, energy efficiency and efforts to prevent deforestation. But in a low risk strategy to avoid warming of more than two degrees, we also need bio-CCS and some of its cousins, like bio-char and wood storage.
Carbon removal, if you’ve never heard of it before, is not as untenable as it may seem. A demonstration plant in Illinois, USA, 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.
The technologies exist. What we are missing are the right policies and incentives.
Bio-CCS is the most prospective, with the ability to store carbon for thousands of years. It has the ability to remove up to 10 billion tonnes of pollution per year by 2050, according to the International Energy Agency. We wanted to know what it could do in Australia, so we commissioned leading economics firm Jacobs SKM to crunch some numbers.
Australia is one of the developed nations most vulnerable to climate change. It also has the resources to develop bio-CCS, with 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. In 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, to 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 by 2030 across all scenarios.
Finally, the study highlighted some of the difficult choices and trade-offs which would need to be made if bio-CCS doesn’t become viable. These include accepting higher levels of climate change, greater economic costs to achieve goals and/or greater reliance on international emission permits.
Without the technology, Australia’s national "carbon budget" would be exceeded by around 1.7 billion tonnes, or a 20 per cent overshoot by 2050. The cost of emission reductions without carbon removal technologies is also significantly higher: up to $60 billion to 2050.
Deploying carbon removal technologies requires clarity on the overall emissions reduction goals and strong legal decarbonisation signals. The development of demonstration projects for technologies like bio-CCS should also be undertaken urgently. International and national sustainability standards will also be crucial, as will national policies to ensure bio-energy does not adversely affect food production and natural environments.
Governments that are serious about avoiding dangerous climate impacts should take a holistic and long-term view of national climate strategies, implementing policies to develop a portfolio of technologies. Focussing on just a few favourites increases the risk that long-term climate goals won’t be achieved, and increases the cost of carbon reduction.
As one of the authors of the recent IPCC reports said in advance of its launch, catastrophic climate change can be averted more easily than politicians around the world would have us think. In his words, if we apply the right set of tools to the job, “it doesn’t cost the world to save the planet”.
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