Getting BECCS right

Biomass has a complicated history, but new research shows it can be a powerful climate solution

by Meron Tesfaye, PhD, senior policy fellow

I began working on a biomass-based climate solution during an interesting time for the field. In 2013, I was a graduate student planning to join a growing body of biofuel and bioenergy researchers to quantify biomass resources. But it was during this time that much of the academic chatter around biofuels began to change. This was at the tail end of the biofuel boom and bust — a rise in oil prices and national energy security concerns a decade earlier had compelled the US to make massive investments in biofuel and stand up policies and targets like the Renewable Fuel Standard and Renewable Portfolio Standard.

Unfortunately, the results of these investments and policies fell short of nationwide aspirations. The rapid increase in corn-ethanol production provided only limited emissions reduction benefits and required use of agricultural land to produce more corn, which contributed to increased food prices. Beyond that, bioenergy facilities supported by renewable energy targets contributed to the worsening local air quality for frontline communities.

Because of this mid-2010s reckoning of global biomass use for fuel and electricity production, many are skeptical of bioenergy with carbon capture and sequestration (BECCS) as a carbon removal solution. BECCS is a process that captures and permanently stores atmospheric CO2 while simultaneously producing energy, fuel, or carbontech products from biomass. The climate change problem is too big to leave a solution like BECCS unexplored to its fullest potential, regardless of early skepticism. And recently, there has been encouraging research and policies that support the idea that BECCS may be underutilized and holds massive potential. However, realizing this potential will require the carbon removal community and industry to be proactive in evaluating BECCS on a localized basis, accounting for all emissions across the supply chain, and centering vulnerable communities and ecosystems.

Global climate models today pose a problem for BECCS

BECCS has taken center stage in global integrated assessment models (IAMs), which have bet big on the viability of bioenergy to deliver negative emissions. We will need a vast portfolio of carbon removal solutions to meet our climate goals — no one solution, including BECCS, is a silver bullet. Yet, most IAMs exclude other carbon removal pathways except for AFOLU (agriculture, forestry, and other land use) and presume rapid and large-scale BECCS deployment, despite lacking real-world data. Importantly, modeling often doesn’t account for local and human rights implications, and relies on the Global South for biomass feedstock production despite the fact that research, deployment, funds, and political discourse is concentrated in the Global North. Such an approach minimizes the responsibility of Global North countries as the largest historical emitters of CO2 and diminishes Global South nations to mere pieces of the global climate goals equation.

With BECCS, global models must grapple with local realities and global climate benefits, explicitly quantifying trade offs including land use, economic concerns, and food and water accessibility — and currently, these models fall short. BECCS has fewer co-benefits and a larger water and land footprint compared to nature-based and tech-based carbon removal solutions, respectively. So it’s even more essential that we ground models in the realities and challenges of BECCS in order to get this solution right and reliably use it to remove gigatons of CO2 from the atmosphere.

Emerging research suggests viable path for BECCS

If deployed thoughtfully, BECCS can support the realization of net-zero (and then net-negative) emissions goals, with a number of studies illuminating new pathways for BECCS. Princeton University and Berkeley Lab studies show that BECCS can utilize feedstock produced on existing corn-producing land, avoiding additional land use. In a future where the US achieves net-zero goals, these studies affirm that BECCS can provide decarbonized transportation fuel, generating revenues of more than $100 billion to farmers. Another study from Lawrence Livermore Lab showed that BECCS derived from different waste biomass sources, like forestry, agricultural and municipal solid wastes, can make a significant contribution to California’s net-neutrality goals. These studies are propelling BECCS from concept to solution on a national and regional level while addressing critical issues like land use, food security, and rural livelihood typically associated with biomass-based solutions.

BECCS has potential to be a thriving solution to meet climate goals

For BECCS to make meaningful contributions to emissions reductions and carbon removal, it’s important that BECCS address its legacy and tackle crucial considerations head on. The following principles guide our thinking around BECCS, and explore how we can utilize this technology to the fullest extent:

Evaluate BECCS on a local and regional basis: Local and regional models and assessments should evaluate opportunities and trade-offs by integrating metrics of food security, water and land use, energy production, and impact on biodiversity and social systems in future BECCS carbon removal estimates and deployment targets.

Account for the full life cycle of emissions transparently: Not all BECCS processes are created equal and not all forms of BECCS offer net-negative emissions. BECCS projects should demonstrate their net-negative emissions by transparently and verifiably accounting for the full life cycle and carbon balance of their operations.

Ensure the protection of vulnerable communities and ecosystems: BECCS project developers should ensure deployments that protect biodiversity, preserve good local air quality, and safeguard vulnerable populations from physical and economic displacement.

Build engagement and trust among all stakeholders: For BECCS to thrive as a climate solution, practitioners, policymakers, and scientists should take proactive steps to rebuild trust and remedy the environmental and social harms associated with the current and past use of biomass for climate solutions. For instance, BECCS projects recently announced in California and in the Midwest must ensure community acceptance by being transparent, engaging in meaningful discourse, and addressing the relevant social and environmental concerns of those directly impacted.

BECCS is on the cusp of greener political pastures once again. The current administration is committed to achieving net-zero emissions by 2050, and bills like the CLEAN Future Act and the American Jobs in Energy Manufacturing Act are being considered in Congress. The low-carbon fuel standard (LCFS) in California is succeeding, raising the price of carbon credits to ~$190 per ton CO2, and making carbon-negative transportation fuel production using BECCS more viable by the day. Encouragingly, a number of states like Washington, New Mexico, and Minnesota are following suit and considering their own version of LCFS. It is essential to meet the moment not just by introducing targeted tax incentives for emerging climate technology but also by seizing the opportunity to reshape and recast BECCS as a worthy climate solution through thoughtful research, policy, and deployment strategies developed through a justice lens.

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