by Meron Tesfaye, PhD, senior policy fellow
After spending a year digging into bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) through my fellowship at Carbon180, it’s clearer to me than ever how urgently we need to scale carbon removal. The latest IPCC report is an undeniable call to decarbonize our world away from fossil fuels and remove existing carbon from the atmosphere. The cost of climate inaction is high, disproportionately distributed, and bound to touch each one of us. In my current home of Sacramento, CA, we’re enduring extreme heat waves and worsening air quality, and in my home continent of Africa, we’re at risk of losing many economic and political urban centers with millions living in low-elevation coastal zones. If we take transformative action today, like deploying a suite of carbon removal solutions, we can relieve some of these pressures and create opportunities for vulnerable communities around the globe to build climate resilience.
Right now, the US has the opportunity and responsibility to play a leading role in scaling up carbon removal practices and technologies like BECCS. According to global models, BECCS has the potential to remove 0.5–5.2 billion tons of CO₂ annually from the atmosphere using plant biomass to create energy and carbontech products. Still, this estimated potential says very little about how BECCS ought to be deployed — that part is yet to be decided.
Towards that effort, during my time at Carbon180 I have been reflecting on how BECCS deployment can meaningfully contribute to carbon removal while also bolstering communities’ well-being and protecting ecosystems at scale. After a year of research, here’s a glimpse into how we think about reliable and equitable BECCS deployment, attributes we expect to see in BECCS projects, and federal policies that can enable it.
Foundational principles for meaningful deployment of BECCS
Global models provide a strictly top-down view of BECCS, which inadequately captures local realities. Getting BECCS right requires us to drive honest dialogue about trade-offs, address the legacy of the biofuel and bioenergy industry, and maximize BECCS’s carbon removal as well as community and environmental benefits. After conducting deep analysis of the field and convening discussions with various ENGO partners, academics and stakeholders, I’ve identified the following principles to guide how we approach BECCS deployment policy efforts:
- Evaluate deployment strategies on a local and regional scale to meaningfully integrate resources, concerns, and opportunities.
- Promote high-quality and transparent life cycle accounting to ascertain climate benefits.
- Ensure the protection of vulnerable ecosystems and biodiversity to safeguard against unintended consequences.
- Center equity considerations and benefits to frontline communities to ensure lasting positive impacts.
- Proactively engage with the public to rebuild trust and enable future BECCS projects to thrive.
- Diversify the landscape of BECCS academics, stakeholders, and policymakers to include voices beyond current discourse.
The four dimensions of an exemplary BECCS project
These principles are foundational for standing up a climate sector of high-quality BECCS projects. They can help guide the creation of meaningful carbon removal projects that provide tangible environmental, economic, and social benefits. To assess these projects, I created a scorecard and rubric that evaluates BECCS projects across key attributes. Regardless of varying feedstocks and conversion technologies and processes, exemplary BECCS projects must possess the following attributes across four dimensions:
Ensure sustainable feedstock and ecosystem protections
As a land-based technology, feedstock production in BECCS needs to mitigate risks like land use change, competition with food production, high water and fertilizer use, etc. High-quality BECCS projects must prioritize feedstock production routes that maximize co-benefits and avoid destruction of existing ecosystems and biodiversity.
Provide reliable net-negative emissions outcomes
It is essential that BECCS projects account for full supply chain emissions, from cradle-to-grave, in a verifiable manner to ensure net-negative outcomes. Exemplary BECCS projects should go further in making this accounting publicly available and accessible. It is also essential that BECCS projects work in synergy with other emissions reduction and carbon removal efforts to maximize climate benefit and competing incentives.
Center community well-being and prosperity
Biomass sources and BECCS facilities are often located in close proximity to rural and high-poverty regions where land-based activities like agriculture and forestry are dominant. Therefore, exemplary BECCS projects must consider cumulative impacts to proximal communities, protecting them from any increased vulnerability to physical, economic, health, or environmental harm. High-quality BECCS projects must ensure lasting community benefits through high-quality local jobs, workforce development, and increased economic welfare.
Build trust in engagement and partnerships
BECCS project developers and actors must also commit to being trustworthy partners from the inception of projects through deployment and beyond. This can be achieved through meaningful community engagement and robust efforts to close any community knowledge gaps necessary for decision-making. Trusted actors should serve as ambassadors for high-quality BECCS, breaking the cycle of extractive relationships between industry and frontline communities by providing equitable solutions and building public acceptance.
Concretizing exemplary attributes through federal policy
We believe these ideal attributes can be institutionalized through federal policy, thereby ensuring all BECCS projects deliver climate, environmental, and socioeconomic benefits. Below are a few policy recommendations and how they interact with the four dimensions of high-quality BECCS.
Currently, there are a host of challenges to scaling up BECCS projects that can safely and equitably remove gigatons of carbon from our atmosphere. It is my hope that this set of guiding principles helps shape projects that safeguard vulnerable communities from climate extremes while enabling new economic opportunities — delivering transformational climate benefits across the globe.