Exploring the Climate Science/Policy Jungle: I. Negative Emissions and Forests

Check out info here http://www.rffi.org/Biochar.html

I’m calling this “exploring the jungle” because I feel like I’m doing that, with a few shreds of maps that may or may not be connected.

Negative Emissions Used in Current IPCC Scenarios
Roger Pielke, Jr. does a nice job of laying out the fact that the IPCC has been using BECCS in its scenarios, the history and the policy implications in his recent paper in Issues in Science and Technology IST_33-39 Pielke.

In general, further research is necessary to characterize biomass’ long-term mitigation potential.” Yet by 2013, such caution had been left far behind, and negative emissions were central to nearly all scenarios of the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report that are compatible with a 2°C target. In less than a decade negative emissions went from an afterthought to being absolutely essential to international climate policy. No government had actually debated the merits of BECCS, there were no citizen consultations, and very little money was being devoted to research, development, or deployment of negative emissions technologies. Yet there it was at the center of international climate policy.


Because the proposed technologies were speculative and at best well off into the future, estimates of the costs and feasibility of their implementation could be tailored to the needs of sustaining the policy regime. Peter A. Turner and colleagues have observed that whereas “BECCS appears to be cost-effective in stylized models, its feasibility and cost at scale are not well known.” Of course not. If nothing else, full implementation of BECCS “at scale” would require the use of a global land area one and a half times the size of India (land that will therefore not be available for agriculture or other uses). In the absence of any justifiable method for predicting actual costs, why not just assume that BECCS will be affordable?

When I read this, I thought “uh-oh were we (forest people) supposed to be doing something to make this happen? Like using wood for biomass? Or planning great afforestation projects? No one told us, did they?” But I thought there had been/ is a big discussion about whether biomass was even carbon-neutral with the EPA Science Advisory Committee? Leaving that aside for now, I decided to find a list of what counted as negative emissions.

What Are Negative Emissions Technologies?

Activities commonly considered to create negative emissions include large-scale afforestation, bioenergy combined with carbon capture and storage (BECCS), direct removal of CO2 from the ambient air by means of chemical reaction, enhanced weathering, biochar formation, and soil carbon sequestration. It seems like we don’t talk much about afforestation, disagree about BECCS (with woody and non-woody plants, but either way don’t know how to scale up), with some work in biochar and soil carbon sequestration. If you’ve been watching research outputs as I have, you’ll find lots projecting what might happen under various climate change scenarios, and hardly anything about developing workable on-the-ground cost-efficient, economically viable and environmentally sensitive negative emissions technologies. But apparently others are noticing this. Fuss_2016_Research priorities for negative emissions.ERL is a paper by Fuss et al. that describes the current research gaps, and some ideas for filling them in. It even has a few paragraphs specific to forests.

How Do Negative Emissions Technologies Get Developed and Implemented?
When I asked about “how do these targets for negative emissions get implemented in the real world?” I was referred to Peters_2017_Catalysing a political shift from low to negative carbon.NCC commentary by Peters and Geden.

I’d like to thank the scientists who were kind enough to provide reprints of their papers and answer my questions. I’d like to close with three observations.
1. You don’t need to be an expert in climate to read and understand these papers and what they are saying.
2. There seems to be a disconnect between IPPC scenarios and the real world in terms of negative emissions technologies.
3. Maybe we should spend more research $ on trying to find and scale up negative emissions technologies in the real world, instead of modelling the details of unknown future events, even if some disciplines would be winners and others losers. If we looked across the broad range of government research funding, is there an optimal ratio of “trying to solve problems” versus “describing possible future problems to the fifth decimal place?” Does anyone even think about this?

4 thoughts on “Exploring the Climate Science/Policy Jungle: I. Negative Emissions and Forests”

  1. Note: It is important to distinguish between:
    A) biomass energy WITH carbon capture and storage (BECCS)
    B) biomass energy WITHOUT carbon capture and storage.

    Congress has been struggling with B, business-as-usual biomass energy development without capturing the carbon emissions. This kind of biomass energy technology is not carbon negative, and not even carbon neutral, in spite of Congress’ efforts to legislate new laws of physics.

    BECCS is at least theoretically carbon negative, but is totally unproven and very unlikely to be deployed at scale. It is shocking the extent to which international bodies are relying on BECCS to solve the world’s biggest problem without understanding the practical limitations imposed by land availability and the laws of thermodynamics.

    • Thanks for pointing this out, 2nd. Can you explain how exactly the “capture” is supposed to work with biomass? I couldn’t find that anywhere.

      I think “biomass for energy” is so broad that it can be carbon neutral in some cases and not in others.

  2. Well, we COULD pretend that everything will be fine if we just preserve our current forests, and their extreme carbon sources. Yep, do nothing about forests and hope for the best?!? We DO know that the current conditions in our forests result in massive carbon releases. Pretending that “letting nature take its course” will ‘fix’ these situations isn’t a rational idea. Choices need to be made before there are no choices left.

  3. To further our discussions of carbon neutrality, here is an excerpt from an interview from the January 2015 edition of The Forestry Source, in which I interviewed Michael T. Ter-Mikaelian, lead author of a January 2015 Journal of Forestry paper, “The Burning Question: Does Forest Bioenergy Reduce Carbon Emissions? A Review of Common Misconceptions about Forest Carbon Accounting,” by Michael T. Ter-Mikaelian, Stephen J. Colombo, and Jiaxin Chen. The JoF paper is available at tinyurl.com/od7s8tp and is “open access” — free. The full interview is here:


    Ter-Mikaelian is a researcher at the Ontario Forest Research Institute, an arm of the province’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, where he specializes in modeling tree and forest growth and has been studying carbon stocks in Ontario forests. My last question to him was:

    Q: What do you make of the argument that, if we are going to put more carbon into the atmosphere, it is better that it be biogenic carbon rather than fossil carbon?

    Ter-Mikaelian: I agree wholeheartedly. Toward the end of the paper we have a section in which we try to make this argument fairly emphatically. In the long run, there is no doubt that forest bioenergy is a better source of energy than fossil fuels. Whether it takes a few years or a few decades, eventually you are cycling that carbon back into the forest, assuming the use of sustainable forestry practices. We tried very hard to make sure that our article does not come across as an argument against using bioenergy. Rather, we are against claims that it is instantly carbon neutral. Using forest bioenergy is a good thing, in the long run, but people have to realize that sometimes the benefits are not instant. It may take a few years or few decades. In some slow-growing Scandinavian forests it may take a century or more than a century. But still in the long run it’s a better approach. No doubt about it.


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