We highly recommend enabling JavaScript for the best experience. You can find detailed instructions for your browser at enable-javascript.com.

Forest advocates say zero-carbon goals too reliant on unrealistic tech

November 16, 2016

by Justin Catanoso

  • To reduce their carbon footprints, some international energy companies are promoting bioenergy carbon capture and storage (BECCS).
  • However, critics say BECCS techniques are land-intensive and that carbon capture is costly and largely unproven. They urge more attention be paid to phasing out fossil fuels instead of uncertain carbon capture technology.
  • Industry reps say they are working such strategies into their own models regarding carbon-emission reductions and identifying land for forest growth and carbon storage.

MARRAKESH, Morocco – Forest preservation advocates, for decades the overlooked stepchildren in United Nations climate negotiations, find themselves at the center of a raging debate in the 22nd UN summit here in the Red City.

The reason: the need to reduce deforestation and increase forest restoration are enshrined for the first time in the Paris Agreement, which became international law on November 4. Both are deemed critical in absorbing greenhouse gas emissions as 195 nations pledge to move steadily to reduce their burning of fossil fuels in pursuit of net zero-carbon economies in the second half of this century.

The problem: the emissions reduction goals of international energy companies in Marrakesh appear to be hinged on unrealistic means. These companies keep promoting new technologies to enable the continued burning of fossil fuels and carbon-based energy, one being “bioenergy carbon capture and storage,” or BECCS. In this scenario, huge forests would be grown primarily to be burned as biomass with the carbon released from this energy production theoretically captured and stored.

Critics here argue that the technology is not only land-use intensive, but also that carbon capture is costly and largely unproven. Other forms of geoengineering that would allow further fossil fuel use, like space deployed sun shades, are generally deemed by climate scientists as equally unworkable, if not laughable.

“Limiting global temperature-rise by 0.5 degrees C by 2100, as written in the Paris Agreement, requires immediate and dramatic cuts in all energy sectors,” Nils Hermann Ranum, policy chief for Rainforest Foundation Norway, told Mongabay. “Halting deforestation and restoring degraded forests are key parts of any climate solution, but must be accompanied by phasing out fossil fuel emissions.”

Edward Perry of Birdlife International speaks at a panel at COP22 in Marrakesh, Morocco. Photo by Justin Catanoso
Edward Perry of Birdlife International speaks at a panel at COP22 in Marrakesh, Morocco. Photo by Justin Catanoso

Still, representatives from energy companies and associations voiced optimism in future innovation at a Friday panel titled, “Industrial Reliance on Carbon Capture and Storage in a Carbon Constrained World.” While skeptics heard more denial and business as usual, the panelists said they are working such strategies into their own models regarding carbon-emission reductions and identifying land for forest growth and carbon storage.

Lili Fuhr, who heads the ecology and sustainable development for Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung in Berlin, countered: “The only way to make carbon capture and storage cost effective is to use it to exacerbate the problem it is supposed to address.”

Edward Perry, global climate change policy coordinator for the United Kingdom’s Birdlife International, led a panel discussion on sustainable landscapes on Saturday. He is not opposed to innovation, he said, but it must to realistic.

“The important role that ecosystems like forests and wetlands play (as carbon sinks) was recognized in the Paris Agreement,” Perry told the audience. “Countries have done the same thing with their NDCs,” or nationally determined contributions to their voluntary carbon reduction pledges.”

“As we all know, if you add up all the NDCs now, we are on a pathway closer to a 2-degree C increase (by 2100), not the goal of 0.5, “ Perry added. “We have a lot of work to do to ramp up our ambition, and forests have a critical role to play. Restoring ecosystems can help close the gap, protect biodiversity and help forest communities. If we don’t ramp up action, we become increasingly reliant on things like carbon capture and storage, which is riddled with uncertainty.”

In a report on carbon capture funded in part by Ranum’s group, Rainforest Foundation Norway: “No BECCS project is yet in operation. And while the basic technology is in use on a small scale in the oil industry, the idea of doing it on a huge scale, as a continuous process that removes emissions from major power plants across the world, raises questions about its practicality and sustainability.”

by Justin Catanoso,  professor of journalism at Wake Forest University and board member of the Center for Energy, Environment and Sustainability. Justin is covering COP22, his third UN climate summit.

Banner image by Matthew D. Wilson via Wikimedia Commons (CC 2.5)