Bioenergy Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS) technologies are among the most problematic in carbon removal geoengineering. This two-part series analyses the status of BECCS in South America, Africa, and Asia and shows that BECCS is far from being the silver bullet to climate change that some actors portray it to be.
Geoengineering is being increasingly promoted as a “necessary” and “viable” solution to the climate crisis. Overall, there is concern not only about the lack of research regarding the potential impacts of these emerging technologies, but also about the lack of international governance frameworks and regulations to control their testing and deployment. These technologies are mainly supported by countries like the USA, Saudi Arabia, UK, Japan and the EU. At the policy-making multilateral level, while there are United Nations (UN) bodies like the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) that have a moratorium on geoengineering, others like the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) are not only more welcoming of it, but are even facilitating working streams where geoengineering approaches can proliferate, such as Article 6.4 of the Paris Agreement and the oceans and climate change dialogues.
Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR) is one of the main proposals of geoengineering, and encompasses a wide array of approaches that claim to remove CO2 from the atmosphere, including Bioenergy Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS). BECCS technologies consist of burning very large quantities of cultivated crops, trees, or plant residues from farmlands and forests to generate electricity, and then capturing and storing the carbon dioxide emissions arising from the combustion process underground. The CO2 is then transported and stored underground, theoretically, for long-term storage using extremely energy-intensive and often water-intensive processes or/and machines to capture the CO2 in large-scale underground pipeline networks.
We have analyzed the status of BECCS in South America, Africa, and Asia, and as this series of articles show, BECCS is far from being the silver bullet to climate change that some actors portray it to be, as we simply do not have enough land to take BECCS to scale and if roll-out, it would have significant negative impacts on land, communities, the climate, and the environment.
Part Two: BECCS in Asia: worsening forest loss and the climate crisis
Japan’s government is an early and strong supporter of CCS, and CCS technologies are considered key to achieving Japan’s carbon neutrality goal by 2050. The country's industry ministry is working to create a legal framework for CCS, and released a long-term road map earlier in 2023 that targets commercial deployment and aims for the storage of 6-12 MtCO2/yr by 2030, and 120-240 MtCO2/yr by 2050.
Japan is also a key actor in pushing for the establishment of a common international legislative framework for CCS projects and creating rules to govern them at the regional level. This is particularly important for Japan since there is a scheme in the regulatory framework that allows Japan to transport CO2 and store it in other countries whenever it is not possible to store it in Japan itself. Thus, it is not surprising that Japan already has a few CCS operations facilities, including a BECCS project.
Japan has been a significant importer of Palm Kernel Shells (PKS), a byproduct of palm oil crushing, ever since palm oil by-product became authorised as biomass for the Feed in Tariff (FIT) system in 2012. Estimates point to imports of 2.5 million MT of PKS and other palm residues in 2019, used as feedstock by medium and large (over 20 MW) FIT-eligible biomass power plants. This figure is expected to reach 5 million MT by 2025, due to an increasing number of biomass power plants requiring reliable and cheap feedstock. As of April 2022, palm oil and its derivatives used in biomass power plants in Japan were not required to be certified by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO).
The Japanese market includes a mix of certified, and non-certified, and illegally sourced commodities, referred to as a ‘leakage market’. The Japanese government incentivizes the use of “renewable energy” and has spurred the use of palm oil, palm kernel shells, and wood pellets for so-called renewable power generation.
In October 2020, Toshiba Corporation announced that “it has started the operation of a large-scale carbon capture facility” and that “the new facility to commence operation will be the world’s first Bio energy power plant to be applied with a large-scale Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS) capability.” This is the Mikawa Plant, operated by Toshiba ESS’s subsidiary, SIGMA POWER Ariake Corporation (SPAC), in Omuta, Fukuoka Prefecture. It is funded by Japan’s Ministry of Environment (MOE) and uses PKS as its primary fuel source.
Another biomass power plant in Mikawa using PKS sources its raw material from the provinces of Johor, Sarawak, Sabah, in Malaysia and West Kalimantan, Central Kalimantan, North Sumatra, Riau, Jambi of Indonesia.
The growing demand for PKS in Japan has resulted in a series of harrowing environmental, political, and social impacts in SouthEast Asia. For instance, palm oil development is a root cause of Indonesia’s forest and peatland fires, which reportedly led to the destruction of some 4.4 million ha of land between 2015 and 2019. Exports of palm oil linked to deforestation in Indonesia is estimated to be around 12 Mt, worth US$6 billion in 2019 alone. Forest Trends estimates that 89% of Indonesia’s forest loss was driven by commercial agriculture, almost half for oil palm plantations. A review by Indonesia’s Supreme Audit Agency concluded that 81% of oil palm concessions violated one or more laws or mandatory management standards.
The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) has found that these plantations are also sites of human rights abuses, including violations of Indigenous rights and labour rights. Forest Trends also cites reports by NGOs like the Anti Forest Mafia Coalition on the illegalities in the commercial agriculture sectors. Indigenous Adat communities have reported violations of legal requirements for compensation and benefits sharing, and free, prior, informed consent (FPIC).
In Malaysia, 3.3 Mha of forest was lost between 2013 and 2019, which is 4% of all forest loss across the tropics. Two-thirds of this forest loss was reportedly driven by commodities like oil palm. The phenomenon is similar across Peninsular and Bornean Malaysia. A review by the Sabah Forestry Department found only two-thirds of 37 Forest Management Units, allocated to more than 1.8 Mha, could meet even the minimum standards. Four had to be terminated altogether. In 2019, Malaysia exported at least US$6.5 billion in palm oil linked to deforestation, much of it potentially illegal.
All the Forest Trends case studies found abuse of indigenous and local communities’ land rights and land conflicts.
At the 2021 UN Climate Change Conference COP26, 141 countries signed the Glasgow Declaration on Forests and Land Use which includes a list of six commitments to conserve and restore forests, strengthen incentives and policies for more sustainable commodity production that does not drive forest loss, and increase available financing for sustainable agriculture and forest management. While voluntary and non-binding, the Glasgow Commitment is the first declaration to bring heads of state together on deforestation including those from countries with tropical forests, and the largest palm oil producers, Malaysia and Indonesia. An accountability framework, which is now being considered for COP28, could strengthen the Declaration and may give it some teeth, impacting both the palm oil sector in South East Asia and the increasing use of PKS in biomass and BECCS plants as inexpensive feedstock.
Despite what its advocates say, BECCS largely remains an implausible option to address the climate crisis. The massive amounts of land required for its implementation would lead to, among other things, land-grabbing, conflict with and displacement of communities, deforestation and biodiversity loss. Even in modelled pathways where warming is limited to 1.5°C with no or limited overshoot, BECCS is anticipated to remove 30 to 780 GtCO2 cumulatively until 2100. These figures correspond to around 199 to 482 million hectares of cropland that will be needed of biomass supply for bioenergy by 2050. The upper end of the range is one and a half times the land area of India. These unrealistic amounts of BECCS prove the critical importance of swiftly and completely phasing out fossil fuels to achieve the 1.5°C target. Instead, reliance on CDR can be a risky distraction, potentially delaying necessary actions and leading to dangerous, possibly irreversible temperature overshoot of 1.5°C. As we saw in the example from Japan and Brazil, biomass feedstock for BECCS will have to rely on establishment and further expansion of monoculture tree plantations which will compound all their negative impacts, including freshwater depletion, soil erosion and degradation, increased risks of fires and pests, emissions (that are usually not accounted for) from land clearance and disturbances, gender-differentiated impacts, and loss of food sovereignty and security since more land will be dedicated to crops for burning than food. It is important to remember that all this would be intensified by other CDR technologies.
Geoengineering is a dangerous distraction to real climate solutions. These climate geoengineering approaches are risky and could damage ecosystems including marine life, stall plant growth, damage the ozone layer, and reduce rainfall while increasing warming in other areas. These technological fixes will not solve the problem of human-made climate change. It is only a way to distract and delay the urgently needed reduction of CO2 emissions.