Reflections on the Negative Emissions Conference, Sweden by Caspar Donnison

Caspar Donnison is a second year PhD student in our lab, working on the ADVENT and MAGLUE projects researching the natural capital implications of bioenergy policy, specifically with regards to bioenergy with carbon capture and sequestration (BECCS) technology. He has recently attended a conference in Gothenburg on negative emissions.


Reflections on the Negative Emissions Conference, Sweden

The first international ‘Negative Emissions’ conference was held in Gothenburg, Sweden on 22-24 May 2018.

Panel Discussion at the conference

Researchers and representatives of governments and industry from across the world met in Gothenburg last week to discuss the pressing need for climate change action and determine the role that Negative Emission Technologies (NETs) should play. The first keynote address from James Hansen immediately set the tone:

“Science hasn’t communicated the urgency of the situation.”

This urgency extended beyond the need for immediate and significant climate change mitigation required to meet the Paris Agreement targets, to the necessity of delivering important research on NETs: their potential, deployment opportunities, risks, and costs. The reliance of significant contributions from NETs in Integrated Assessment Model (IAM) scenarios used by the IPCC has prompted critical questioning of the feasibility of these scenarios; there felt a need within the conference community to regain control of the agenda, explain the limitations of the IAM models, and explore the implications of NET deployment on the scale suggested. To this end, the conference featured a number of excellent contributions exploring the important questions surrounding NET policies, but it was clear that the hard work on NETs research is beginning only now.

Despite broad consensus across the conference that NETs would almost certainly be required for meeting the Paris Agreement, there remained scepticism regarding the size of the role they could play as well as the risks of this role appearing as a ‘Get out of Jail Free’ card for countries currently overshooting their carbon budgets. Anders Lyngfelt (Chalmers University, Sweden) summed it up well in his address:

“Are NETs a dangerous game? Yes. Are they necessary for climate change action? Yes.”

Pete Smith (University of Aberdeen, UK) spoke for many when he said that in order to meet the Paris targets immediate and aggressive carbon mitigation would be needed, as well as NETs. He added: “we may need some of the more ugly NETs soon” and on BECCS:

“not many people like [BECCS], even the people who like it don’t like it very much. But we probably need it.”

Tram in Gothenberg

However, there currently remains a gulf between policymakers and NETs deployment, as highlighted by a mid-conference press release from the UK’s BEIS department. BEIS stated that although the UK government expected NETs to play a role in climate change policy it currently has no specific NET policies (excepting ‘natural climate solutions’ such as tree planting) and that this would remain the case until key research questions had been answered.

EU climate policy expert Oliver Geden provided astute analysis of EU political leaders and NET policies in his conference address. He suggested that there is not much appetite for deeper carbon reduction policies right now, and that an EU Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR) strategy would perhaps be a tacit admission of failure for the current strategy, which the EU pushed hard for and claimed as its own success.

Naomi Vaughan (UEA, UK) urged attendees to think beyond NETs when looking at the problem of climate change, arguing that societal and behavioural change can be overlooked in modelling scenarios, despite the importance that they may have in successfully meeting the Paris targets.

My Research Area – BECCS

Using a reusable ethico coffee cup at the conference

Regarding Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS) – my own research area – I was at first surprised at the number of talks focussing on BECCS at the conference. BECCS presentations covered research relating to engineering, policy, macro-level modelling, as well as regional studies. Whilst there were relatively few regional BECCS studies presented I felt that this session was important for helping to add context and practicalities to the macro-based BECCS modelling. My BECCS presentation (a case study of the UK) and two others (looking at Sweden and the US) all explored interesting geographical and policy-based contexts to the near-term deployment of BECCS in these countries.

Ejeong Baik’s analysis of near-term deployment opportunities for BECCS in the US was simple and logical, matching areas of biomass yield potential (using the US Billion Tonnes study) with areas of CO2 injection and storage potential. Henrik Karlsson of Swedish company Biorecro presented research in collaboration with Chalmers University on deployment opportunities for BECCS in Sweden, introducing a CCS network to existing biomass plants near the coast. We had an interesting discussion on which region is the one to watch for BECCS deployment, following the announcement of a project testing CCS at the large-scale bio-electricity company Drax Power (UK).

There were many other interesting pieces of BECCS research, such as modelling exercises suggesting that bioenergy would be needed in the same volume in non-BECCS scenarios as in BECCS scenarios. The reasoning being that if BECCS is not offsetting emissions in difficult to decarbonise sectors such as aviation, then biofuels would be needed instead. This emphasises the need, either way, of understanding the benefits and risks of bioenergy expansion across the world. Other topics covered in the BECCS talks included the optimal combustion and CCS technologies to use in BECCS plants, as well as scale, logistics, feedstock and water demands, energy systems, and implications of sourcing feedstocks from regions with poor land tenure rights.

Caspar Donnison joining the Local park run after the conference

In summary, there was some excellent NETs research at the conference, but clearly much more needs to be done, and in not much time. The inter-disciplinary nature of climate change research adds a further challenge, as researchers from different backgrounds try to grapple with a problem that cuts across disciplines. Despite this strong sense of urgency at the conference, the mood at the conference was generally upbeat (Prof Lyngfelt even treating us to a climate change themed song with his band on the final evening); there remains a path to success for the Paris Agreement, and whilst this remains everything that can be done to support it must be done.