(c) Ben Andrew (rspb-images.com)

Today, Mair Floyd-Bosley, Senior Policy Officer for Bioenergy and BECCS writes about her experience when giving evidence to MPs on bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS).

It was October 2021. I waited with anticipation in the House of Commons, sitting in a wood panelled room, ready to speak on behalf of nature and climate. I had been invited to give evidence to the Environmental Audit Committee, a cross-party group of MPs whose role is to scrutinise the Government’s environmental decision making. This time, they are conducting an inquiry on ‘negative emissions technologies’.

‘Negative emissions technologies’ might sound like climate lingo, but they are fundamental to how the world’s decision makers are shaping our future on the planet. Deploying these technologies could take up vast amounts of global land, damage nature, and even undermine our chances of a safe climate altogether.  

While most of us are familiar with the idea of reducing our greenhouse gas emissions, ‘negative emissions’ are the proposed ways that we can remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere and store them.  

Of course, we know that the simplest ‘negative emissions technology’ is nature: protecting and restoring thriving habitats, like peat, woodlands, wetlands, semi-natural grassland, kelp, seagrass, and saltmarsh will lock up carbon in plants and soil.  

However, the UK Climate Change Committee is looking to one particular ‘negative emissions technology’ to meet the UK’s net zero target: bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, or ‘BECCS’.  

Bioenergy is already providing 12% of UK energy. The vast majority of the UK’s bioenergy is produced by burning wood pellets sourced from forests in the south eastern USA.   

Shockingly, burning wood for energy is allowed to be classed as ‘zero carbon’ in our energy sector, meaning the UK does not have to account for any carbon dioxide pumping out of bioenergy smokestacks. International rules assume that the carbon should be accounted where the biomass is harvested – for example, in the US or Estonia. In fact, this accounting is often deeply flawed, meaning millions of tonnes of CO2 is being released into the atmosphere unaccounted.

This has been disastrous for the climate, and UK billpayer money: Drax, the UK’s biggest wood burning power plant, and the UK’s single biggest CO2 emitter, has received billions in renewable energy subsidies and tax breaks to burn wood, even though it releases more CO2 into the atmosphere than coal.  

Drax argue that new trees they plant in the forest will suck up an equal amount of carbon to that emitted. However, new trees planted cannot suck up the same amount of carbon for decades or even centuries, which is far too long to meet our urgent climate targets. Harvesting trees to burn also puts precious natural ecosystems at risk: logging forests for biomass goes on in biodiversity hotspots around the world.

Enter BECCS, claiming to make wood burning carbon negative through ‘bioenergy with carbon capture and storage’. This technology has not yet been proven at scale, but in theory, could catch CO2 in the smokestack before it enters the atmosphere, and transport it through pipelines to be stored underground. Proponents of BECCS argue that if this CO2 is captured and stored, then any CO2 sequestered by new trees is ‘extra’, and counts as ‘negative emissions’.  

Despite not yet fully existing, BECCS is currently firmly rooted in the UK’s net zero plans. It allows certain industries, like aviation and agriculture, to keep emitting vast quantities of CO2 with the promise it will one day be removed from the atmosphere.

Staggeringly, global projections for bioenergy crops for BECCS take up the equivalent of almost half of the world’s current cropland. This would likely reduce space for food, squeeze out nature, drain finite water sources, pollute with fertilisers and pesticides, and threaten communities’ access to land. 

If the true climate and environmental harms of bioenergy were properly accounted for, BECCS would not have the credibility it currently does.

This brings us back to the House of Commons. In the evidence session, I argued that BECCS is a false solution:

  1. Current BECCS calculations used by the UK Government miss huge sources of emissions, which, if corrected, would show BECCS could actually make climate change worse.
  2. Carbon capture and storage technology has been in development for decades but consistently failed to deliver.
  3. We simply can’t risk the impacts on nature of harvesting so many forests and crops.

It’s vital that all four UK governments accurately account for all these impacts when making decisions about climate solutions. Currently, they are largely ignored.

Now we must wait for the Environmental Audit Committee’s recommendations, which we expect very soon – I hope they will reflect the following:

We must instead invest in only the most sustainable of climate solutions, reducing energy demand and curbing excess consumption, restoring natural habitats and rolling out low-carbon renewables. We can’t let false solutions like large-scale BECCS dominate our decision making. Nature and climate depend on it.

As a follow-up to the evidence session we were pleased to see that Duncan Baker MP published a piece on his website reiterating our concerns, and calling for reduced reliance on BECCS. Read his article here.