Climate Science Voyage of Discovery: Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage- From Pulpmill to IAMS to Saving the Planet

A Kraft pulp mill in Sweden.

I’ve always been curious as to how forests are handled in climate modeling (to predict the future they have to assume many things, including land use). I wonder who is the “they” who decides what goes in, and what groups are consulted on these numbers. Here’s a history of the idea of BECCS from Carbon Brief that touches on one aspect of this- where BECCS came from and how it got included into the IAMS (integrated assessment models). The article also has sidebars for some of the technical terms which is handy.

Bioenergy with carbon capture and storage – better known by the acronym “BECCS” – has come to be seen as one of the most viable and cost-effective negative emissions technologies.

Even though they have yet to be demonstrated at a commercial scale, negative emissions technologies – typically BECCS – are now included by climate scientists in the majority of modelled “pathways” showing how the world can avoid the internationally agreed limit of staying “well below” 2C of global warming since the pre-industrial era.

Put simply, without deploying BECCS at a global scale from mid-century onwards, most modellers think we will likely breach this limit by the end of this century.

But where did the idea for this “saviour” technology come from? Who came up with it? Who then developed and promoted the concept?

Möllersten says the first spark for the idea of BECCS came to him in 2000 when he was preparing to give a presentation at the 5th biannual Greenhouse Gas Control Technologies (GHGT) conference in Cairns, Australia. Working the idea through with Jinyue Yan, his PhD supervisor, Möllersten claims today that he “cannot remember the exact moment when we thought about this”, but he can recall the background:

“The way it started for me was when I started doing the work for my PhD. My focus was on looking at the pulp and paper industry as a very important industrial branch in the Swedish energy system. What measures could be taken to achieve cost effective emission reductions or CO2 emission reductions? Having worked on this topic for a while, looking at the most conventional measures, my professor and I noticed that there was a lot of work going on in this rather new and exciting area that was called “carbon capture and storage”. We also noticed that, as far as we could see, all that work was focused on emissions from fossil use. We simply decided to investigate what CCS could mean in the context of pulp and paper mills. When we did this work, we were looking at energy systems with a negative CO2 balance. For me, personally, it felt exciting to see that.”

And from the pulp mill study we get to..

But a key tipping point in the story of BECCS came when climate scientists started to increasingly include it in their modelling for sub-2C emissions pathway scenarios, often to the point that they grew reliant on it.


In little more than a decade, BECCS had gone from being a highly theoretical proposal for Sweden’s paper mills to earn carbon credits to being a key negative emissions technology underpinning the modelling, promoted by the IPCC, showing how the world could avoid dangerous climate change this century.

It’s interesting to me that an idea could become so important among modelers (whom we look to as experts on climate change) without ever having a stop for a reality check with folks who would have to carry it off.

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