Carbon-negative bioenergy to cut global warming could drive deforestation:
An interview on BECS with Biopact's Laurens Rademakers
November 6, 2007
Laurens Rademakers, a natural resource management consultant and co-founder of bioenergy research group Biopact, says that the emerging concept of coupling bioenergy production with carbon capture and storage could trigger conversion of natural forests for energy crop feedstock plantations. These plantations would not only produce income from energy production but would generate carbon credits for sequestering atmospheric carbon dioxide. Rademakers says that several tropical countries -- Nigeria, Gabon, both Congos, Equatorial Guinea, Angola, Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, Papua New Guinea, Venezuela, Ecuador -- are especially well-suited for the scheme with large offshore sequestration sites as well as conditions conducive to industrial plantations. Rademakers fears that unless other ecosystem services beyond carbon become bankable, that "bio-energy with carbon storage" (BECS) could undermine efforts to conserve forests through an "avoided deforestation" framework currently being pushed by the World Bank, the U.N., and a coalition of rainforest nations.
Biodiverse lowland rainforest giving way to oil palm plantations in Kalimantan on the island of Borneo. Image courtesy of Google Earth.
"Not only does [BECS] deliver clean energy, it also takes CO2 out of the atmosphere -- both services that have a potential market value," Rademakers told mongabay.com. "Therefore, forest rich countries must convince the public that forests are more than carbon sinks and that biodiversity and other ecosystem services must be quantified and expressed in monetary terms as well. It will mean putting up a lot of money to compensate these countries to conserve the last remaining rainforests."
While BECS could drive large-scale conversion of forests by industrial agricultural interests, if plantations are instead established on already-cleared lands BECS could provide a means for reducing carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere and supplying clean energy without degrading ecosystem services or biodiversity.
INTERVIEW WITH LAURENS RADEMAKERS
Mongabay: What's the big deal with BECS?
Rademakers: At Biopact we have been tracking the concept of carbon-negative bioenergy and biofuels, which consist of coupling bioenergy/biofuel production to carbon capture and storage (CCS) (so called 'bio-energy with carbon storage' or BECS). Developments towards this concept are going very rapidly, with a first biomass gasification plant coupled to carbon storage already in the pipeline.
Courtesy of Biopact
We've been very positive about this trend, because no other energy concept can cut CO2 emissions so drastically (in fact, BECS systems take historic emissions out of the atmosphere; according to the Abrupt Climate Change Strategy group, BECS, if implemented on a global scale, can take us back to pre-industrial CO2 levels by mid-century). All other renewables are 'carbon-neutral' at best.
Now we're beginning to worry a bit. If this technology is transferred to forest-rich countries, it might speed up deforestation, and 'avoided deforestation' would probably not be able to compete. The UNFCCC will push to include CCS technologies in the CDM - this is what might allow BECS systems to emerge.
The problem is that many of the large suitable carbon sequestration sites that have been identified are located in oil producing countries that happen to be forest-rich and that can produce high yielding and competitive biomass crops - both conditions that make BECS highly attractive: Nigeria, Gabon, both Congos, Equatorial Guinea, Angola, Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, Papua New Guinea, Venezuela, Ecuador.
You see the problem. Carbon-negative bioenergy would allow producers to bank in on carbon credits, year after year, as well as on the profits from the biofuels they produce. A back of the envelope calculation shows this would probably bring in far more cash than 'avoided deforestation'. So unless other ecosystem services are bankable, we think this new concept could pose a major problem to avoided deforestation.
Mongabay: Hold on a second, can you clarify the difference between ordinary bioenergy and bioenergy with carbon storage?
Rademakers: In bioenergy, you burn biomass (trees and energy crops) in a power plant to create heat used to generate electricity. As the wood is burned, the power plant releases carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere. This process is conventionally considered "carbon neutral". You do not add CO2 to the atmosphere because you use 'renewable' biomass. This is basic biomass energy. That's why its called renewable and climate friendly.
Courtesy of Biopact
This entire process is called "carbon capture and storage". It is being developed by the coal, oil and gas sector.
So if you apply carbon capture and storage (CCS) to carbon-neutral biomass power and fuel plants, you obtain carbon negative bioenergy. With it, you actually take CO2 out of the atmosphere while at the same time you produce energy.
To put it very graphically: suppose you were to cut down a rainforest and burn it in a biomass plant, and capture the CO2 from the combustion, and then sequester this CO2 in a depleted oil reservoir, you would be putting all the carbon originally contained in the above ground biomass of that forest under the ground. Now if you then plant new trees on the razed land and let them grow, they take up CO2 from the atmosphere again. You then burn these new trees again in the power plant, capture the CO2, sequester it in the depleted oil reservoir. Repeat this as often as you want. All the while you are producing energy, while taking CO2 out of the atmosphere. Hence the name "carbon negative energy" or "negative emissions energy".
The difference is clear:
- Coal power plants emit CO2 and so they are called "carbon positive" - they add CO2 to the atmosphere
- Wind power, solar, geothermal, tidal, etc... are all "carbon neutral" - they do not add CO2 to the atmosphere, but they do not take CO2 out of it either - they are merely "neutral"
- Bioenergy with carbon storage is "carbon negative" - it takes CO2 out of the atmosphere.
But then again, the technologies are new and untried; capital requirements are huge. There are only a few carbon capture and storage projects being tried out today (in the oil and gas sector). But CCS technologies are being developed very rapidly. And huge funds are pouring into the CCS sector. So it's only a matter of time before the biomass sector will begin to apply it.
Mongabay: What areas are potentially impacted by BECS? Do production plantations need to be located near underground formations used for geosequestration?
Rademakers: In one paper which identified potential storage sites for BECS, an optimal radius is set at maximum 300 kilometers for large plants (CO2 is brought to the site by pipeline), even though much larger distances for CO2 transport are feasible. It's a complex calculus depending on many factors. But of course, the closer the plantation and the power or fuel plant are located to the sequestration site, the more feasible. Alternatives have been suggested: densifying the bulky biomass on the plantation (via pyrolysis), which is then shipped to the CCS plant where the fuel is further upgraded to useable fuels, while the CO2 is captured and stored. Carbon-negative fuels (either liquid or gaseous) are then used locally or exported.
The future of forests?
Importantly, because you can grow biomass virtually anywhere, many more geosequestration sites become available than if you were to stick to existing coal plants. In principle, you can even utilize relatively small geosequestration sites, both on and offshore.
Well, in this context, we did a quick check of which sites have been identified as potential geosequestration sites, and then mapped these onto regions with a high biomass potential that would not threaten forests and those that would, and we found that major tropical forests fall within the problematic zones: all countries mentioned earlier have a large offshore sequestration capacity (gas and oil fields - and many of them are being depleted), whereas several have good onshore sites.
But more importantly, carbon storage is still seen as risky in two ways. Leakage of CO2 would be a risk to populations living near by. This is why we will not see CCS projects close to urban agglomerations (certainly in the US/EU there would be serious protest; environmental groups and civil society is already beginning to react); the advantage with BECS is that you can decentralize the entire system: build a a plant near a sequestration site that is far away from densely populated zones, grow biomass next to it, and then ship out the fuels to end markets.
Secondly, and this is a major advantage of BECS compared to CCS coupled to fossil fuels. If the CO2 leaks from the geosequestration site, you have a potential disaster when this CO2 comes from fossil fuels, because then you add the greenhouse gas to the atmosphere, speeding up global warming. But in case leakage were to occur and carbon dioxide from the originally "carbon neutral" biomass escapes, then you do not add CO2 to the atmosphere. This is why we have told European citizens (during a public consultation) that the smartest way to test and demonstrate CCS technologies might be to start with biomass right away. Leakage would be far less problematic when the CO2 comes from biomass than if it were to come from coal.
Moreover, a development that might speed up interest in BECS is the fact that trees are being developed which store up to 30% more carbon in their tissue; recently a team developed such a transgenic eucalyptus, already an excellent energy crop: 30% more carbon 'storage' and 15% increased biomass yield; other teams are working on grass species which do the same in their above ground biomass. If you use these trees and grasses as 'carbon capture' machines, you can sequester vast amounts of CO2 via BECS, and clean up the atmosphere.
We ran an overview of these developments at A quick look at 'fourth generation' biofuels
Mongabay: What is the likelihood of this actually occurring in developing countries? Isn't geosequestration technology still in its infancy?
Rademakers: Such projects are large-scale and require vast capital inputs (even though the ACCS has identified the potential for the use of even relatively small sequestration sites with bioenergy - e.g. "Deep geological CO2 storage: principles, and prospecting for bioenergy disposal sites" (23 pages, 5MB pdf). So the really poor developing countries will not participate anywhere soon. But on the other hand, many of these countries already have an oil and gas industry in place, and they would probably want to utilize this infrastructure after the oil is gone; BECS has been suggested as a way to extend the life of these expensive infrastructures after the oil & gas has been pumped out.
Moreover, the UNFCCC has said it will take CCS into the CDM in developing countries whose energy mix contains 'a high amount' of coal. We're not sure how high this will be, and whether the "additionality" rule would exclude BECS, but we think it won't ("additionality": you're only eligible for certified emission reductions if the technology/fuel you use in the project would not have been used if it weren't for these credits; this is to avoid 'free riders'). So the inclusion of CCS into the CDM might make BECS attractive to investors.
When it comes to actual projects that are en route to becoming genuine BECS systems, there have been three recent announcements:
- The USAF which will make carbon-neutral/carbon-negative synthetic biofuels by co-gasifying biomass with coal, after which the syngas is liquefied via the Fischer-Tropsch process; the CO2 is sequestered; if biomass were to be used alone, you'd have a carbon-negative fuel: A closer look at the revolutionary coal+biomass-to-liquids with carbon storage project
- A consortium of Norwegian research groups/companies just announced a major investment in carbon capture technology development ('Just Catch'), with an explicit focus on its application to biomass/biofuels (called 'Just Catch Bio'): Carbon-negative bioenergy recognized as Norwegian CO2 actors join forces to develop carbon capture technologies
- GreenPoint Energy has also announced it will do a first BECS project (gasification of biogas that will be of natural gas quality and pumped into the existing natural gas pipeline grid; CO2 scrubbed out, and sequestered): Carbon-negative bioenergy is here: GreatPoint Energy to build biomass gasification pilot plant with carbon capture and storage
Mongabay: A big appeal of avoided deforestation is its potential to both provide ecosystem services (i.e. emissions offsets) and offer integration with poverty alleviation initiatives. It seems like BECS offers potential to offset emissions, but it would have limited appeal for poverty alleviation in that these facilities would like be run by the same industrial interests that are pushing commercial plantations in forests around the world. Would you agree?
Rademakers: You're precisely pointing at why "BECS" is problematic: this is for big industrial conglomerates, so any plantations would mean zero real jobs, zero local development, and land grabs, but yes, carbon credits. That's where my fear comes from: it requires extensive uniform, efficient plantations. You cannot invest in a carbon sequestration site (say a depleted gas field) and all the technologies needed to capture, transport and store the gas, if you don't have a large enough source of carbon dioxide (in this case coming from processing biomass).
Intact lowland forest
New and established oil palm plantations
In short, the BECS concept could certainly help mitigate climate change, but it could also be environmentally threatening, because, to be commercially feasible, you want to locate all components of the system as close to each other as possible. That is: one big plantation, close to one big depleted oil field/saline aquifer/unmineable coal seam. And, as said earlier: there are many forest-rich countries with lots of such excellent geosequestration sites located close to forests.
That's what we're trying to GIS/map out further - which places are threatened? It remains a virtual exercise, but it could be worth the effort. In the end, at Biopact we push the envelope and analyze when bioenergy becomes an advantage to developing countries and when it becomes a threat. Forest rich countries must be encouraged to keep their rainforests intact: these ecosystems are more than a mere carbon store [sink], they are the womb from which an incredible biodiversity emerges. But on the other hand, realism obliges us to ask the question: will proposed schemes like 'avoided deforestation', which merely look at forests as carbon stores, be able to compete with alternatives such as the production of carbon negative bioenergy and biofuels? BECS could more attractive, because not only does it deliver clean energy, it also takes CO2 out of the atmosphere, both services that have a potential market value. Therefore, forest rich countries must convince the public that forests are more than carbon sinks and that biodiversity and other ecosystem services must be quantified and expressed in monetary terms as well. We are sure that people want to compensate these countries to conserve the last remaining rainforests, even if this means putting up a lot of money - more money than BECS could bring in.
Finally, we highlight the threats posed by BECS systems. But it must be stressed that such systems are one of the most powerful means to fight climate change. If we succeed in developing energy plantations on degraded land, far away from pristine rainforests, then BECS would be a great concept that should be promoted by all those who want to help tackle climate change.
About Laurens Rademakers
Laurens Rademakers (1975, Belgium) is a consultant in natural resource management with a focus on Central Africa's extractive industries. Studies in social anthropology allowed him to augment his expertise with insights into the social, cultural and economic drivers which determine communities' relationships with the environment. In 2005 he created Biopact with colleagues from Belgium and Africa. This small, independent volunteer organization aims to analyze the complexities, opportunities and pitfalls of the emerging bioenergy and biofuels sector as it relates to the developing world. Rademakers currently focuses on developing strategies aimed at convincing organizations of the need to conduct thorough social impact assessments (SIA) and cultural impact assessments (CIA) besides the more classic environmental impact assessments (EIA) when engaging in extractive industry projects in developing countries. This type of analyses is still too often neglected. However, he thinks that without such prior assessments, firmly rooted ethnographic insight, future projects in the sector are doomed to fail over the longer term. In his spare time Laurens translates Biopact's views to a larger audience.