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Norway Backs Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS): Will others follow?

posted Aug 30, 2017, 9:00 AM by Paul Price   [ updated Aug 31, 2017, 2:48 AM ]

In discussing carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology deployment we ended our last blogpost by noting the uncertainties in scaling up to much larger flows than the roughly 1 MtCO2/yr level being achieved by the 15 industrial scale plants currently operating (two natural gas processing plants extract 7 and 8 MtCO2/yr for use in enhanced oil extraction). For companies, the business case for CCS is currently poor as it is expensive per tonne of CO₂ stored, relative to low carbon market prices, and the risks are not well understood, particularly in guaranteeing very long term CO₂ storage.  For governments, the political case is similarly difficult given public resistance to higher energy costs and civil society concerns over the use of CCS as an excuse for perpetuating fossil fuel use.


In Norway though, the government-owned CCS business Gassnova is currently pushing forward plans to capture CO₂ at industrial plants, transport it by ship to an onshore terminal and then pump it through undersea pipeline for injection into exhausted oil and gas reservoirs.  The reported planning and investment cost could be €780m to €1360m with an uncertainty of 40 percent above and below this range. Advertising and PR are part of the investment so stories have been appearing in media this week following a recent Gassnova funded tour of CCS and industrial facilities for reporters: see here, here and here.


Beyond helping its appearance as a leader of international climate action Norway has additional advantages and motivations that make developing CCS attractive. First, the depletion and exhaustion of its North Sea oil and gas reservoirs gives it available storage capacity to support a CCS industry that could profit from future decarbonisation of industry and processes in northern Europe.  If carbon prices rise through the EU-ETS or other carbon regulation then the business case will also improve. In 2016 Norway had 45% of Europe’s small CCS capacity but one financial projection is for a US$6 billion global CCS market by 2024.


Norway was to be a partner in the UK’s planned development of CCS that was twice cancelled for cost reasons, but now it is pushing ahead to a larger scale on its own with the ultimate aim of making money from the slowness of others, potentially charging profitably for taking their waste CO₂ and storing it.  If CCS it to play a part in decarbonisation pathways to zero emissions aligned with meeting the Paris Agreement temperature targets it is likely only national government that have the ability to underwrite CCS development costs, and the long-term capability to oversee long-term storage, a risk that commercial entities have been reluctant to take on.


A second motivation for pushing CCS investment may lie in the contrast between Norway’s ‘green’ image – it has abundant hydropower to keep its domestic electricity emissions low and has further lowered its domestic emissions by increasing its proportion of electric vehicles – and the major source of Norway’s recent wealth, its oil and gas extraction and export. Developing CCS boosts its international credentials as a climate leader in a way that is - arguably - compatible with, or even dictated by, its continuing oil and gas production.


A report by Oil Change International, commissioned by NGOs, points out that Norway’s current push into the Arctic for oil and gas exploration, appears greatly at odds with its strong advocacy for climate action. The report says annual ‘exported emissions’, 500 MtCO2, due to burning of the fossil oil and gas extracted by Norway, are about ten times its domestic emissions. The case is made that if Norway is to be a genuine climate leader it has the responsibility to ramp down its fossil fuel extraction in accord with Paris-aligned decarbonisation rates.  A different recent NGO report about Canada, another major fossil fuel producer makes the same argument. These arguments are strong unless Norway (and Canada) can credibly demonstrate that the vast majority of the generated CO2 will be re-captured and put in permanent storage via CCS.


Even with scientific uncertainties in mind, climate scientists are speaking out with similar clarity given the need to leave most fossil fuels in the ground. Nonetheless, unless radical reductions in whole-economy emissions are achieved, especially by high emitting richer nations, starting without delay and maintained over decades and at far faster rates than hitherto contemplated, then CCS for low carbon industry and possibly for negative emissions bioenergy with CCS (BECCS), and even direct air carbon capture and storage (DACCS), become necessary for any plausible hope of meeting the global carbon budget related to the Paris Agreement's "well below 2ºC" temperature target.


Getting serious about Paris: CCS and BECCS? Or not?

In a recent article in Nature Climate Change (discussed without a paywall here by David Roberts), Peters and Geden examined the output from four integrated assessment models used in the IPCC assessment to project energy use and CO₂ emissions. The ‘cost-optimal’ pathways show significant amounts of CCS in BECCS even before 2050 and much more afterward to 2100.  The median outcome for the EU is cumulative BECCS storage of 7.5 GtCO2 (where Gt = billion tonnes) by 2050, the equivalent of two years current emissions, and 50 GtCO2 stored by 2100. This would be in addition to substantial CCS applied to conventional fossil fuel usage. For Ireland, based simply on the current share of EU emissions, this scale of CCS development would be equivalent to storing a total of at least 80 MtCO2 from BECCS energy production by 2050. Enabling this storage would require serious policy proposals in the very near future and speeding up CCS progress to get to larger scale faster.


However, the EU’s “Nationally Determined Contribution”, its current pledge toward meeting the Paris Agreement, makes no mention of CCS or BECCS. In Ireland a further study into geological CO2 storage potential has been proposed in the recently released National Mitigation Plan; but there is no commitment to substantive CCS deployment, and BECCS is not mentioned explicitly at all.  The Climate Change Advisory Council’s recent periodic report mentions the need to consider “the potential use of negative emissions technologies such as Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS)” to enable CO₂ removals from the atmosphere and notes the IPCC as saying “large scale reliance on such approaches may entail significant risks”. The CCAC does not indicate any immediate climate action policy requirement to enable CCS or BECCS.


Without EU regulations and incentives to drive CCS or BECCS investment and development timelines to overcome uncertainties it seems unlikely that EU states or corporations will work to deliver CCS in the short-term despite its presumed ‘cost effectiveness’.


In this context of the risks, research and costs, Norway’s leadership on CCS seems timely and necessary, but the “well below 2ºC” global carbon budget could certainly also do without Norway’s planned extraction and export of additional fossil fuels, especially from the vulnerable and melting Arctic. For all developed nations, meeting the Paris targets now has to become a lot less abstract, concrete decisions are needed on mitigation pathway options that will actually deliver sustained whole-economy emission reductions.


Peters and Geden suggest three key policy areas to push political and national engagement with carbon dioxide removal if it is to be part of Paris-aligned climate policy:

  1. Update national and regional emission reduction pledges: countries already need to begin negotiating equitable sharing of negative emissions and outlining the amounts of CO2 removals that might be achieved.

  2. Enable an internationally coherent system of negative emissions accounting with dependable measurement, reporting and verification is needed to create trust in and incentives for carbon dioxide removal.

  3. Ensure national and regional policies push international policy forward in these first two areas and incentivise research aiming for rapid domestic delivery of negative emissions at scale including CCS.


For CCS to be part of low carbon transition planning policy needs to target very early CCS delivery at significant scale. If any substantive mitigation contribution is expected from negative emissions technologies, then CCS is likely to be an essential enabling technology. Nonetheless, mitigation policy still needs to reduce ongoing and substantial whole-economy emissions rapidly to hedge against the possibility that CCS, and negative emissions in general may not deliver at scale (see the recent paper in Climate Policy by Larkin et al.).


If the EU and its member states are not paying serious attention to these areas now then the logical interpretation is that radical ongoing cuts in fossil fuel use are required in the EU to align emission pathways with the Paris Agreement carbon budgets. Otherwise it might be concluded that the Paris targets are not being taken seriously.







Challenges to CCS deployment

posted Aug 15, 2017, 4:13 AM by Alwynne Hanna McGeever   [ updated Aug 15, 2017, 6:33 AM by IE Nets ]

Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) is the process of capturing carbon dioxide (CO₂) from flue gasses when burning fossil fuels or biomass/biofuel and compressing and transporting this CO and injecting it into an underground geological storage site. This technology is heavily relied upon in most scenarios to achieve a target global warming limit of “well below 2°C” over pre-industrial, recently agreed to by 141 parties in the Paris agreement. Examples of working CCS facilities can be seen in Canada, Iceland and Norway. Successful large scale deployment of CCS could increase energy security, significantly reduce negative impacts of climate change and support the economy. Further, if combined with BioEnergy (so called “BioEnergy with Carbon Capture and Storage” or BECCS) it could theoretically allow actual net removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere (“negative emissions”). However there are many technological, economic and social challenges to deploying CCS on a large enough scale to reduce CO levels enough to achieve the global warming limit of well below 2°C. 

Technology

One major limit is that CCS is not technologically mature and has not been tested on a large scale. This results in uncertainties and risks. Most of these risks are associated with selecting an appropriate storage site. Seismic activity or CO leakage from using the wrong type of storage site could have significant negative environmental or human health impacts. Each potential site will have its own unique geology that will need to be characterised in detail. Therefore careful selection and assessment of storage sites are a high priority for CCS.

Cost

There are two economic limitations to using CCS, one that the cost is too high and one that the cost estimates are too uncertain. Both of these hamper designing policies for CCS.

CCS is expensive due to the technical components required and the reduced efficiency of plants using CCS. The larger part of the cost has been estimated to be incurred at the separation and compression stage. CCS cost is uncertain because there are many different ways it can be done and the cost varies depending on multiple factors. Currently the only way CCS would be affordable would be if it was heavily government funded or the cost was offset by using injected CO to increase oil recovery (though, unless constrained to combustion in CCS-enabled plant, such additional oil extraction would exacerbate rather than mitigate the overall climate change challenge). In the EU there had been an expectation that carbon pricing, under the EU Emissions Trading System (ETS) could make CCS (more) cost competitive. However, to date, carbon pricing in the ETS has been too volatile, and recently too absolutely low, to significantly incentivise the long term investment needed for CCS deployment. Direct funding support has also been available through the EU: for example, the NER 300 programme made available an award of €300M to support the proposed White Rose CCS project in the UK. However, the UK government subsequently withdrew its own support and the project is now in abeyance.

Public Opinion

Political will tends to be driven by short-term priorities and public opinion. Public acceptance and support for CCS, particularly at a local project level, will be an important driver of political will to implement it. However, in order for public opinion to drive political action, the public needs to be aware of CCS. Currently public awareness of CCS is very low with a recent study finding only 28% of Europeans had heard of CCS. Careful, consistent communication about the costs, benefits and risks associated with CCS must be achieved to raise public awareness and support to drive political will and deploy CCS successfully.

Deploying CCS

Uncertainty around the risks and cost of CCS makes political action difficult. High cost and lower efficiency makes commercial deployment unattractive. New mechanisms need to be proposed to make CCS possible. These could include the use of subsidies, co-benefits (such as increased oil recovery) and market mechanisms to incentivise CCS research, development and deployment.

What Role for “Negative Emissions”? IE-NETs submission to the Irish Citizens’ Assembly

posted Aug 11, 2017, 4:47 AM by Paul Price

The following is the on-line, plain-text summary of the IE-NETs Project Team submission as submitted to the Irish Citizens’ Assembly for its upcoming consideration of the question: How the State can make Ireland a Leader in Tackling Climate Change?
The full submission is available to view here on our Documents page (and also from the IE-NETs resource page in  EPA SAFER-Data).


How the State can make Ireland a Leader in Tackling Climate Change: What Role for “Negative Emissions”?


Ireland and all nations agreed in Paris to act on “best available science” and “on the basis of equity” to urgently limit further emissions of greenhouse gases. The best available science tells us clearly that the climate change threat, due to human activities, is real and potentially overwhelming unless urgent and sustained emission cuts are made worldwide.


Failing to hold to the Paris temperature goals would risk climate change impacts on a scale that could overwhelm any possibility of effective adaptation. Climate change profoundly threatens the security and welfare of younger generations already living today, in Ireland and globally. Ireland’s per person emissions are currently among the highest in the world. Fairness and justice suggests that we have a particular obligation to reduce them earlier and more rapidly than others.


While the immediate focus of climate action is rightly on quickly reducing current sources of greenhouse gas emissions, the danger is now so severe that it is prudent to also start exploring the possibility of actively reversing the damage done to date: that is, removing greenhouse gases that are already accumulating to dangerous levels in the atmosphere, through some form of “negative emissions”.


Our project is looking at the prospects for early deployment of such negative emissions technologies in Ireland. Preliminary analysis suggests the following:

  • Increasing carbon storage in soils and standing trees is worthwhile and should be promoted. However, it  remains vulnerable to losses with continued global warming and if land use management changes.

  • Early deployment, at significant scale, of Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), including the development of a first national carbon dioxide (CO2) storage facility is an essential first step for several proposed negative emission technologies. In the short term, it might quickly deliver substantial reduction of emissions from conventional fossil fuel energy sources.

  • BioEnergy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS) might provide useful energy output while also achieving nett removal of CO2: however this potentially involves intense land use competition and remains highly speculative and uncertain. Nonetheless, Ireland’s immediate bioenergy development should not create barriers to future BECCS deployment (should focus on use in large, CCS compatible, combustion plants). There are clear advantages to indigenous, short rotation, energy crops (e.g., miscanthus, willow etc.).

  • Direct Air Capture of CO2 combined with CCS (DACCS) may also be feasible, without the intrinsic land use challenges of BECCS; but it requires large scale supply of very low carbon energy. If configured to support flexible demand management, this might be complementary to overall decarbonisation of Ireland’s electricity system through the use of intermittent renewable sources (particularly wind).

  • Future negative emission policy options are likely strongly assisted by early low-carbon electrification, at large scale, of both heating and transport.


In conclusion, Ireland has opportunities to lead in early demonstration and deployment of a variety of negative emissions technologies. However, such uncertain and speculative technologies are no alternative to the hard choices of early, deep, and permanent reductions in gross emissions, beginning without delay.

Will there be forestry offsets toward ‘carbon neutrality’ for Irish agriculture?

posted Aug 4, 2017, 6:41 AM by Paul Price   [ updated Aug 4, 2017, 8:07 AM ]

Will there be forestry offsets toward ‘carbon neutrality’ for Irish agriculture?


Carbon neutrality has come to the forefront of climate mitigation policy in Ireland, particularly following the Paris Agreement's reference that states:


Article 4
In order to achieve the long-term temperature goal set out in Article 2, Parties aim to reach global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible, recognizing that peaking will take longer for developing country Parties, and to undertake rapid reductions thereafter in accordance with best available science, so as to achieve a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century, on the basis of equity, and in the context of sustainable development and efforts to eradicate poverty.
  (Emphasis added)


Carbon neutrality then is the idea of balancing sources and sinks, somehow neutralising the nett global warming effect of ongoing gross greenhouse gas emissions (including methane and nitrous oxide from agricultural sources) by achieving negative emissions, meaning verified carbon dioxide (CO2) removals from the atmosphere into carbon sinks that can store additional carbon (in forestry or soils) or captured carbon dioxide for a very long time.


The IE-NETs project is assessing the potential of technologically challenging ways of achieving negative emissions in Ireland, such as Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS), but also less technological methods such as greatly enhancing traditional land use practices such as forestry and farmland management to store more carbon absorbed from the atmosphere through plant photosynthesis.  Land use carbon sources and removals are already counted, or at least accounted, in climate policy. Such carbon removals can potentially earn carbon credits to set against ongoing gross emissions of greenhouse gases from human activities. Later in this project we’ll be analysing the mitigation potential of forestry and short-rotation grasses and coppiced wood, so this post is an exploratory look at the topic and inviting input from other researchers.


Based on the recently released National Mitigation Plan, Irish government policy targeting 2030 and 2050 is currently set on ring-fencing forestry carbon dioxide removals as carbon credits to partially offset agriculture’s sectoral emissions through “an approach to carbon neutrality in the agriculture and land-use sector, including forestry, which does not compromise capacity for sustainable food production” (p.186-187). An interesting statement, but what does it mean?  How much of an "approach" is actually possible.


Here we explore some weighty questions that arise for Ireland’s agriculture and land-use climate mitigation plan: What amount of gross greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions is the agricultural sector likely to generate annually up to 2050? And, what amount of forestry carbon removals might be available as offsets against those gross emissions? In a future post we’ll look at how scientifically justified such so-called ‘offsets’ of carbon dioxide removals to forestry might be in balancing gross emissions of mostly non-CO₂ from Irish agriculture or CO₂ from fossil fuel burning. For now though we’ll look at the amount of carbon that could be stored, particularly in Irish forestry, up to 2050.


Usefully, Ireland’s agricultural research agency Teagasc has already carried out a substantial report, Carbon-Neutrality as a horizon point for Irish Agriculture (2013), describing five alternative scenarios for these goals (spoiler: the “horizon point” looks to be unachievable, given projected, continued high emissions). Figure 3.2, shown below, indicates that future agricultural GHG emissions could rise steadily from about 18.5 MtCO2eq/yr in 2010 to a higher level of about 22 MtCO2eq/yr from 2030 to 2050 (“MtCO2eq” means millions of tonnes of CO₂ equivalent, here using a metric called the 100 year Global Warming Potential, GWP100, to equate the climate impact of methane and nitrous oxide from agriculture with tonnes of CO₂).




In Section 3.2 the report then discusses offsetting gross emissions from agricultural production (especially from beef and dairy) through the accounting of negative emissions achieved through carbon sequestration in land use carbon sinks in soils and forestry. Grassland soils and forestry are expected to act as carbon sinks whereas peatlands and wetlands are sources of gross emissions. Even without counting peat extraction – for electricity, horticulture and home heating – peatland emissions are roughly estimated in the report as 2.2 MtCO2eq/yr (quoting the EPA as the source for this figure).


[It's worth noting here that, confusingly, the term ‘carbon sequestration’ is often used in policy documents to mean either the annual flow rate of CO₂ into a sink, or the stock of carbon in a sink, or both. Typically the term is being used to describe annual flow rate. Scientifically though, it is the total stock amount of reliably stored carbon that represents the long-term carbon sequestration relevant to climate change mitigation.]

Using soil carbon modelling results, the Teagasc report estimates that grassland sequestration rates between 2030 and 2050 could be 6.5 to 6.8 MtCO2eq/yr. However, soil carbon values are subject to very large uncertainties due to high variability in grassland productivity from year to year due to weather factors and (not mentioned in the report) there are saturation limits to soil carbon uptake. Recent research also suggests that rising atmospheric CO₂ (due to human-caused emissions) appears to result in greater nett leakage from soils to the atmosphere rather than increasing soil carbon. Moreover, with time, soil carbon can easily be lost if management to sequester carbon is not maintained. As Teagasc’s report notes, p. 37, ”there are concerns as to the permanence of these sinks under future climate change”.


Forestry is subject to scientifically and politically contested carbon accounting rules, again resulting in significant uncertainties in estimating sequestration rates and forest carbon stock change over time. Nonetheless, using modelling based on continuing replanting of managed forestland and continued afforestation (additional forest) a rate of about 8,000 hectares per year, the Teagasc report gives the following chart for projected nett GHG emissions (gross emissions less gross removals) from forest land. Note in the chart that the carbon dioxide removals are the negative values.



As this chart shows, current fairly high sequestration rates in growing forest decline after 2020 with the national forest stock then maturing on average, reflecting a past decline in afforestation rates, taking in less CO₂ as it grows more slowly. The projections appear to indicate that mature forest will be harvested shortly after 2030 and replanted, but as shown CO₂ removals are reduced to near zero on average from 2035 to 2050.


Depending on accounting, and on future forest management and afforestation, this looks concerning because it seems possible that the forestry offsets available for agriculture will be very low or even non-existent after 2035.  Overall, counting soils and forestry, Teagasc estimate a total offsetting potential of -5.5 MtCO2eq/yr in 2050 (-0.8 forestry, -6.8 soils, +2.2 wetlands) but as noted there are big uncertainties making these removal estimates unreliable. In terms of climate risk assessment, more uncertainty adds to cost and adds to the pressure to act sooner – even before, and while trying to resolve uncertainty.


A similar projection and interpretation, showing alternative afforestation rates is shown below, redrawn (to match the Teagasc figure’s presentation) from Figure 5.3 in RDS/IIEA (2016), again apparently showing a significant forest harvest and consequent loss of annual sequestration flow around 2035, levelling off until after 2050. Looking at the Figure below, from 2017 (the first year of the NMP) onwards to 2050, at the projected NMP afforestation rate of 8,000 hectares per year average carbon removal rate by forests might be of the order of -4 MtCO2eq/yr, adding up to about 132 MtCO2eq removed in total from 2017 to 2050.


So 4 MtCO2eq/yr in CO₂ removals due to forestry falls very far short of offsetting the 22 MtCO2eq/yr gross emissions from agriculture. This estimate is in line with the expectation of offsetting only about a fifth of the sector’s emissions as stated in the National Mitigation Plan:


the forest sector, through afforestation and the use of forest-based biomass (FBB) and wood products, offers considerable scope for climate change mitigation, equivalent to 20-22% of agricultural emissions on an annual basis.  National Mitigation Plan p. 125


However, you may have spotted a mystery in this carbon accounting story. What happens to the carbon in the large area of trees that appear to get felled after 2030?  Some but not all of it may well go into wood products that have some sequestration value, but, concerningly, the Teagasc report says:                 


Fuelwood use is assumed to increase in the projected harvest from 7% of total roundwood production in 2011, to 21% by 2030 and a constant rate of 21 % to 2050. This is consistent with bioenergy targets and timber demand projections. Teagasc p. 39


If an increased proportion of the harvested carbon is simply going to end up being burned and adding to CO₂ in the atmosphere then that loss will need to be looked at carefully. Furthermore, the UK Department of Energy and Climate Change biomass carbon calculator shows that using roundwood for bioenergy can be worse than burning coal in emissions per unit energy produced, when assessed on a full lifecycle basis for timescales relevant to pathways aligned with the Paris Agreement. Very strong, well monitored and carefully enforced sustainability criteria are therefore needed to ensure that waste wood and not roundwood is used for bioenergy. However, financially, increased demand for waste potentially increases the economic value of harvesting forest relative to leaving it uncut as sequestered carbon, possibly creating incentives opposed to climate change mitigation.


A further serious question for climate mitigation and carbon neutrality in agriculture and land use is whether the net carbon stock in Irish forests will be increasing to 2050, enabling mitigation, or whether there is a danger that the planned harvesting, possibly boosted by bioenergy demand, could actually decrease carbon stocks, thereby reducing the carbon sequestration value of standing forest. The chart below, giving a look at Ireland’s forestry history since 1925 and projections to 2035 for annual hectares of afforestation and clearfell gives a few (inconclusive) clues.

               

The projected clearfell rate seem to match the likely afforestation rate. Mature forest, resulting from the 1985 to 2000 afforestation, will be progressively harvested after 2030, as indicated in the emissions/removals charts above, removing carbon from the forest stock that will then only be slowly compensated in atmospheric removals through replanting and further afforestation.


So, given forest management projections, there may be two potential problems.  First, to carbon stock decreases the harvest rate may well need to drop quickly after 2020 to reflect the past fall-off in afforestation around the year 2000. Second, there should be a concern that the nett remaining carbon stock in Irish forests could actually go down even in the short term with such high clearfell rates. This would be a big problem because the mitigation value of forest carbon is primarily in its actual level of stored carbon, not in the sequestration flow rates (see Mackey et al, 2013).


Another danger inherent in these projections is that Ireland might potentially be accused, as New Zealand has been, of creative emissions accounting towards its climate targets, for example by accumulating offsetting credits for annual sequestration up to 2030 but only in anticipation of emitting this carbon due to harvesting the trees shortly after the EU 2030 period expires.


The potential for problems in emission accounting is further exacerbated by the EU’s scientifically incorrect policy assumption that bioenergy can be accounted as carbon neutral even though the extraction emissions from land use (such as clearfelling) are not limited by EU targets, while sequestration removals are uncertain, particularly in soils. So far it does not appear that these concerns will be substantively addressed in the upcoming EU Emissions Sharing Regulation (ESR) for the 2021 to 2030 targets.


The high uncertainty in carbon sequestration flows to and from soils and forestry appear to fall very far short of reliably enabling carbon neutrality in Ireland’s agriculture and land use sector. This means that any policy reliant on sequestration would require significant funding to ensure site specific monitoring and verification of land use stocks and flows, adding to mitigation costs in the sector. Subject to further research, including by IE-NETS, it seems possible that carbon stocks in Irish forest could even reduce if increased bioenergy demand leads to unsustainable harvesting. This outcome would not only reduce the mitigation value of Irish forestry it would add to sectoral emissions.  Committing to increasing carbon sequestration in Ireland's forestry will careful management and monitoring of forest growth and, likely, enforced limits to future timber harvesting.


Given that the NMP only claims forestry will fill only about 20-22% of the necessary "gap" to neutrality and soils perhaps a highly questionable 30%, the claim of any "approach" to achieving carbon neutrality for Irish agriculture by 2050, under current projections of cattle numbers, seems to be lacking substance in reality. Even if the potential sequestration was to be achieved and even if the offsetting makes scientific sense then it is still likely to fall very far short of enabling carbon neutrality in the sector. This is why the Teagasc report gives a “Pathway E” that is described as being “based on a societal acceptance that food production is associated with GHG emissions”, which opens a very different (political) line of argument subject to other scientific objections, including the different amounts of GHGs relating to different methods of food production.  Given the projections of sources and sinks for the sector, if achieving carbon neutrality is not possible then actually stating it as policy – as though it is achievable – is remarkable.


Unfortunately, given the urgency required to align mitigation action with the climate stabilisation targets in the Paris Agreement, there is now little time to delay action by waiting for research into optimal emission pathways, even though the ongoing research is critical to providing information to support better decision-making. Instead, climate reality may mean cutting emissions first and looking for offsets later. In the near term, leaving forest trees standing, and growing more of them, as carbon stores may be preferable to releasing the carbon for bioenergy (unless the CO₂ can be immediately captured and safely stored, via so-called carbon capture and sequestration technology, CCS). To increase understanding of these issues, our IE-NETs research is looking at Ireland’s land carbon storage and bioenergy potential within possible national decarbonisation pathways aligned with meeting the Paris Agreement.


In a future blogpost we will come back to the question of whether the idea of offsetting land use sequestration against continued fossil fuel and/or agricultural emissions is scientifically justified. Hopefully though, this post has given some sense of the limits to forestry carbon sequestration and the improbability of achieving carbon neutrality in the agriculture and land use sector through carbon sequestration in forestry and soils.


Does Ireland need NETs?

posted May 5, 2017, 7:13 AM by Barry McMullin   [ updated May 5, 2017, 8:04 AM ]

A centrepiece of Irish action on climate change is the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Act, 2015. Under the terms of the Act, the Government is now required to prepare (and regularly update) a "National Mitigation Plan" which lays out the short, medium and long term pathway and policy actions for Ireland to "mitigate" its contribution to global climate change. In effect, this means a plan to reduce (or, better, eliminate completely) our collective emissions of greenhouse gases: especially carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O). CO2 arises mainly from energy use (in electricity, transport and heating). Emissions of CH4 and N2O are primarily associated with our agricultural system (especially beef and dairy production). 

Of course, climate change is a global problem and needs a global response: but some of us contribute much more than others to the problem, and also have a much greater capacity (material wealth, infrastructure etc.) to act. Accordingly, some will need to play a much bigger role in the response than others. Given that, on a per capita basis, Ireland's total annual emissions are currently among the highest in the world, fairness and justice suggests that we have a particular obligation to work harder (and earlier!) at reducing them. We are also, of course, exposed to the looming impacts of climate disruption (both direct and indirect): if mitigation action is inadequate over the next immediate, relatively small, number of years, these impacts may prove overwhelming (beyond human or technological capacity to "adapt to" in any managed, equitable, way, either locally or globally).

Earlier this year (March 2017) the Government published a draft version of the first National Mitigation Plan, and opened it for public consultation. In response to that, the ie-nets project team submitted a response which considered the potential role in Irish mitigation policy for Negative Emissions Technologies or NETs. You can read the full submission, but here we just summarise some of the key ideas more briefly.
  • There is no doubt that deep reductions in greenhouse gas reductions are now unavoidable if we are to have an effective, managed, response to global climate change over the next small number of decades. But this is very challenging precisely because our current "developed world" patterns of production and consumption are so deeply entwined with processes that intrinsically generate these emissions. For that reason, it seems that even if we reduce ongoing emissions very rapidly (which we must do), this may not be sufficient on its own. In that case, we will also have to try to proactively remove some, or a lot, of the greenhouse gases that are already accumulating to dangerous levels in the atmosphere: that is, through achieving some level of "negative emissions". This is true on a global basis, but is especially true for countries like Ireland that have very high current (per capita) emissions. It is well understood that the draft Irish mitigation plan does not (yet) lay out nearly a sufficient level of reductions of (positive) emissions to balance our "fair share emissions budget" over the immediate years (and decades) ahead: in fact, there is a very big gap between our current policies and our (well-intentioned) ambitions and aspirations. Accordingly, while the draft Irish mitigation plan does not currently mention this issue of negative emissions technologies, we recommend that, before the plan is finalised, it should be revised to make clear whether, or how much, negative emissions the Government is assuming can be achieved (to balance its emissions budget) in the short, medium and long terms.
  • One of the most commonly proposed approaches to negative emissions is based on the use of so-called "bioenergy" crops, at large scale. Because all plants naturally absorb CO2 as they grow, they automatically remove it from the atmosphere - at least temporarily. The problem is that usually the plants then die naturally (and decay), or are harvested and eaten (by people or as animal feed), or are otherwise "consumed" (e.g. burned for heating or cooking). In all cases, that means that their embodied carbon is quickly released back to the atmosphere as CO2 again. However, if we intervene in this cycle, and instead process the plant material (the "biomass") in a controlled way, we can still exploit the energy embodied in it, but, at the same time, (re-)capture the CO2 that is released, and put it into some kind of stable, long term, storage. Such an arrangement is called "BioEnergy with Carbon Capture and Storage" or BECCS. While the various elements are certainly possible in principle, it is very unclear whether this arrangement can be effectively scaled up, or at what cost. In particular, it potentially involves a progressively larger allocation of land area for cultivation of bioenergy crops, and would therefore potentially conflict with other land uses, especially food production.
  • An issue with any proposed expansion of bioenergy is the choice of crop. This is obviously constrained significantly by local soil and climate conditions, and varies significantly even within Ireland. The crop choice is further complicated by the fact that CO2 removal from the atmosphere may be happening on a very different timescale from that at which the bioenergy is exploited: e.g., forests may take decades to grow, but timber might be harvested and burned in a matter of a few weeks. Certainly, in the case of "unabated" bioenergy use (without CCS), there is a clear advantage to focusing on short rotation energy crops (e.g., miscanthus, willow etc.).
  • Separately, consideration would have to be given to whether bioenergy cultivation can or should displace existing farming systems. However: current Irish agriculture is dominated by beef and dairy production, which are intrinsically greenhouse gas intensive (relative to nutritional output). Accordingly, a significant shift of land use from beef or dairy to bioenergy (or, more especially, to BECCS) might offer a "win-win" of both reducing emissions of methane and nitrous oxide while simultaneously achieving nett removal of CO2.
  • In any case, it is clear that the bioenergy resource (nationally and globally), will be finite and constrained. In order to get the maximum climate benefit from that resource, it would make sense to ensure that it is developed in a way that is compatible with BECCS. This is an important immediate policy consideration because BECCS is only feasible where the combustion (direct or indirect) of the biomass happens in large scale plants, where it is practical to install carbon capture and storage technology. Normally that means use in electricity generation or other large scale industrial settings - which would specifically argue against allocation to small scale or mobile combustion (small scale heating or transport use in the form of "biofuels"). This runs counter to certain assumptions in the draft National Mitigation Plan.
  • A second possible approach to negative emissions is to replace the role of plant photosynthesis in BECCS with machinery that is capable of filtering and concentrating CO2 from air directly. This is called "Direct Air Capture [of CO2]" or DAC. Of course, this must also be combined with long term storage, i.e., "Direct Air Carbon Capture and Storage" or DACCS. In principle, DACCS could operate without the use of large land areas (air might be drawn into a relatively small, fixed, area using large fans). However, unlike BECCS, instead of yielding usable energy output, DACCS would require very significant nett energy input: so unless this energy is available from extremely low carbon sources (renewables or, perhaps, nuclear) then it will not result in nett CO2 removal. Even if it can be supplied with suitable low carbon energy, the energy requirement alone will tend to make it relatively high cost: so a business model to support it would have to be created. Nonetheless, for a country like Ireland with a large renewable energy resource (particularly off-shore wind), DACCS might offer an excellent way of dynamically balancing the intermittency of such resources if it could be deployed as a large scale "dispatchable" load (where the energy being consumed can be quickly ramped up or down to compensate for variability in renewable generation, so that the marginal cost of the low-carbon energy used for DACCS could still be relatively low, with co-benefits in facilitating very high penetration of renewable energy sources into overall electricity generation). Ireland may thus have a particular, strategic, national interest in promoting and leading DACCS deployment. 
  • There are a variety of other candidate ideas for achieving negative emissions: increasing natural accumulation of carbon in soils, or using biomass to produce a form of charcoal called biochar that can then be added back into soils, or "enhanced weathering"  where crushed silicate minerals might be spread on land surface and would naturally absorb CO2. While all of these merit study for their potential in Ireland, they are generally either more speculative or have more limited capacity for scaling up compared to BECCS or DACCS.
It is clear that there is some potential for development and deployment of negative emissions technologies; nonetheless, it is also clear that they are currently at very early stages of investigation, with large uncertainty about scalability, costs, and potential interactions or conflicts with other critical activities (especially food production). While the National Mitigation Plan should make clear what the current assumptions and plans are for NETs in Irish policy, it would be extremely unwise to rely on early, large scale, deployment. The precautionary principle clearly applies, and, at this point, the working policy assumption should be that adequate mitigation (consistent with the Paris agreement temperature targets) must be achieved without significant contributions from NETs.


ie-nets full project proposal available online

posted Apr 27, 2017, 6:15 AM by Barry McMullin   [ updated Apr 27, 2017, 1:55 PM ]

The full ie-nets project proposal, as approved for funding by the EPA  (grant award ref 2016-CCRP-MS.36, 5 December 2016) is now available on the ie-nets website. Here is a short extract, summarising the project motivation and objectives (please refer to the full proposal for the detailed reference list):

Meinshausen et al. (2009) provides the key scientific foundation for inferring a fixed ["forever"] global carbon budget from a given target global temperature rise constraint. Under the Paris Agreement (UNFCCC 2015) the parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change have endorsed a collective global goal of keeping temperature rise “well below” +2°C over pre-industrial. However, almost all IPCC scenarios for achieving this goal currently assume that cumulative CO2 emissions will, in fact, overshoot the corresponding available atmospheric budget within 20-40 years; but that it will become physically and economically practical to deploy “negative emissions technologies” (NETs) on a sufficiently large scale to “recapture” this excess CO2, and store it securely enough, quickly enough, to still prevent the temperature limit being breached. Net negative emissions are achieved when more GHGs are sequestered or stored than are released to the atmosphere over a given time. Smith et al (2015) presents a review of current global scenario modelling for climate change mitigation. For cases meeting the ⪅+2°C temperature goal they find that current global mitigation scenarios almost all assume the achievement of global net negative emissions from approximately 2050 onward, with a sustained net negative emissions rate of the order of 3.3 GtC/yr (12 GtCO2/yr). However, there are very large uncertainties in the technical feasibility of such rates, in costs (even if technically feasible), in cumulative storage/sequestration capacity, and in impacts on other critical global human systems, particularly food production.

While the sources of rising CO2 and other greenhouse gases (GHGs) are many, primary energy supply is a major contributor. The grand challenge is to lower GHG emissions while providing energy to meet the continuing needs of human development (against a background of a still growing world population). Electricity generation alone accounts for approximately one third of global emissions. A sustainable energy future requires strategies to allow the use of energy while enabling the absolute reduction of GHG concentrations in the atmosphere.

Society needs to be informed of the potential risks and opportunities associated with the mitigation options in order to decide which are the best for dealing with climate change. Many NETs have been proposed but we need to be clear on their feasibility, cost and acceptability before recommendations can be made on their implementation. Probably the less well studied aspects of the application of these technologies have been the impacts that large-scale CO2 removal could have on ecosystems and biodiversity.

A key question when considering the application of NETs is whether deployment of any proposed mechanism can be effectively achieved and most importantly sustained. Most of the NETs require the use of land and water, some use fertilizer, and many impact on albedo (Smith et al. 2015). NETs vary significantly in terms of their requirement for land, GHG emissions removed or emitted, water and nutrient use, energy produced or demanded, biophysical climate impacts (effects on albedo), and cost. All of these are strongly dependent on their scale of deployment. To inform society of the potential risks and opportunities afforded by NETs, more research is clearly required.

The overarching objective [of the ie-nets project] is to provide a detailed and rigorous assessment of the scale and speed of negative emissions technology deployment that is required by currently envisaged decarbonisation pathways (globally and nationally), consistent with the Paris agreement goal of limiting global temperature rise to “well below +2°C” over pre-industrial; to evaluate the options and capacity for Ireland itself to directly contribute to such deployment; and to provide an evidence base for assessing the risks attaching to reliance on such presumptive future technology deployment in designing current (5-15 year) decarbonisation policy measures. In particular, the project will focus on identifying early research or policy actions that could significantly reduce the uncertainties attaching to the feasibility and costs of negative emissions technology, both globally and nationally.


Climate Action to meet the Paris Agreement: How fast is fast?

posted Apr 6, 2017, 6:31 AM by Paul Price   [ updated Aug 11, 2017, 5:14 AM ]

The definition of climate action has been vague until recently. Now though, the Paris Agreement, ratified by Ireland and the EU last year, together with ever-stronger climate science, are making the reality of the challenge much clearer. National and EU climate policy can now be updated to align actions with the science and equity research relating to the Paris temperature limits. Here we take a look at what that might mean with the help of a new article in the journal Science written by a team including some very well known climate scientists:


A roadmap for rapid decarbonization

By Johan Rockström, Owen Gaffney, Joeri Rogelj, Malte Meinshausen, Nebojsa Nakicenovic, Hans Joachim Schellnhuber

Science 24 Mar 2017 : 1269-1271  DOI: 10.1126/science.aah3443


The key Paris objectives are to limit global warming to "well below 2ºC" (while pursuing efforts toward 1.5ºC) "in accordance with best available science” and “on the basis of equity”. Knowing that CO2 emissions, in particular, must effectively be reduced to zero on a net basis to limit global warming, the world must aim “to reach global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible” and all nations – richer, developed nations first – are to "undertake rapid reductions" in emissions.


The question is, what does this mean practically? How fast do emissions need to fall to align Ireland’s and the EU’s climate action with the Paris goals? What management options are available? To what extent can continued fossil fuel and agriculture emissions be offset by methods that might take greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide back out of the atmosphere? What offsetting “negative emissions” methods, if practicable, might work best for the world in general, and here in Ireland, in particular? What are the risks involved if we design current climate action based on hypothesised future negative emissions technologies?


To assist with climate action policy decisions, these are questions that the EPA-funded research project, ie-nets, hopes to help answer.


In this new article, Rockström et al. define “a roadmap for rapid decarbonization” by spelling out what they describe as a "carbon law”, a pathway aiming to halve net global emissions in every decade.  The overarching aim of the roadmap is to stay within the ‘global carbon budget’, which is the maximum amount of total future carbon dioxide emissions possible to give a good chance of limiting climate change to well below 2ºC.  The authors say that this ‘carbon law’ guidance – cutting emissions by 50% every decade – can be applied as a climate action policy objective in all countries, most importantly in nations with high per capita emissions.


Take a look at the chart below to see the precipitous urgency of what such a path now requires. Getting high emissions down to a level where negative emissions can have some effect is clearly an important take-home message from this.  Rockström et al. do say that there is some leeway in their carbon budget to allow for more emissions if the negative emissions technologies prove unfeasible, but that still means that each nation's emissions need to decline as quickly as they outline to match action with Paris-level ambition.



This roadmap starkly demonstrates the extreme scale and speed of managed transformation now needed to slow and if possible stop future climate change – the task would have been a lot easier if we had started 10 or 20 years ago when global emissions were much lower and the remaining carbon budget was much larger. Fossil fuel and total energy use now needs to drop rapidly to give time to increase the amount of low-carbon energy production.


Intentional carbon dioxide removal from the atmosphere and at emission sources such as power stations and cement factories would be needed if any effective offsetting is to be possible. The carbon dioxide captured would need transporting by pipeline to a storage location and then permanently stored in deep geological storage– in the Irish case this might, for example, be in the exhausted Kinsale gas field. Afforestation also helps, though mainly by replacing past and ongoing deforestation.  


As the article makes very clear, it is early and deep actions across all sectors that makes the biggest difference between climate action success and failure. Even if they prove to be viable at scale, negative emissions technologies like bioenergy carbon capture and storage (BECCS) can only offset limited amounts of emissions. The 2ºC ‘carbon law’ roadmap would mean total emissions from fossil fuel use and land-use will need to continue to drop by about 50% in each decade, even if and when negative emissions begin to be available after 2030. Investing in research and development needs to happen now though if negative emissions are to be at all achievable toward decarbonisation aligned with Paris goals.


There is great danger, and large global costs of inaction, in not actually cutting total emissions enough (or at all) in the very short term. As shown in the chart below, if emissions continue at the current high level then the entire global carbon budget available, to give a 2 in 3 chance of remaining below the Paris 2ºC limit, will be exhausted within twenty years. By 2037 it would all be gone.  If humanity could collectively manage cutting emissions by about 5% per year, approximately halving total global emissions by 2030 and again by 2040, then this early action will effectively “save” carbon budget that could then be available to be managed for future use until up to 2100 or even beyond.


Below is an indicative chart of two possible emission pathways for Ireland with the same total future carbon budget. Saving carbon budget for later decades requires rapid, near-term, emission reductions across the whole economy.


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The good news is that global CO2 emissions appear to have stopped increasing for the time being, having levelled out over the past three years. If governments around the world could act now to ensure that this levelling off is indeed the necessary peak in global emissions then we can now get a head start on the rapid decarbonisation path to halving current emissions by 2030.


As Rockström et al. say, this will require “Herculean efforts”.  Unlike some commentators, they make no pretence that the task of limiting emissions will be easy.  Instead, their article gives a strong sense of the Olympian scale of collective effort required over the next decades, especially by the highest emitters, to limit dangerous climate change. Above all, the climate scientists’ article makes very clear that the urgent need now is for strong, near-term action to cut emissions quickly, including reductions in consumption, while also investing in low-carbon energy and researching the longer term potential for negative emissions technologies.


The climate policy message from Rockstr
öm et al.’s ‘carbon law’ decarbonisation roadmap is plain: there’s no time to waste!

Launch Event for the IE-NETS Project: Thursday 10am, 18th May 2017. Botany Building, Trinity College Dublin

posted Apr 5, 2017, 6:25 AM by Paul Price   [ updated Oct 24, 2017, 2:04 AM by IE Nets ]

Post Event Update: A full video recording of the launch event (in three parts) is available on the IE-NETs YouTube Channel. You can also download audio recordings (mp3 format) and PDF versions of the presentation slides from the website Documents area.

Original Event Announcement:

At 10.30 am on the 18th May 2017 in the Botany Building, Trinity College Dublin we are holding the launch event for the IE-NETS project "Investigating the potential for Negative Emissions Technologies (NETs) in Ireland" (registration, tea/coffee from 10.00am).  This 2-hour event discussing Paris Agreement decarbonisation pathways and negative emissions feasibility for Ireland will include a keynote presentation from Dr. Sabine Fuss, leader of the working group on Sustainable Resource Management and Global Change at the Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change, based in Berlin. There will also be a presentation of the full IE-NETs project plan, inviting inputs from all interested parties. 

In particular, we would welcome all who are working on the delivery of climate change policy for government or agencies, and all environmental and technology researchers working on climate science and emissions mitigation.  We would very much appreciate the interest and views of environmental and climate science researchers, government departmental officials, agency staff from the EPA, SEAI, and Teagasc, and others working in business, electricity generation, industry or agriculture.

Event time and place details are below:

Date:             Thursday 18th May
Location:       Botany Building, Trinity College Dublin 

Programme (subject to revision):

10.00-10.30 Registration (tea, coffee)
10.30-10.35 Welcome Barry McMullin
10.35-10.50 Context: EPA Climate Research Programme Dr. Frank McGovern, Gemma O'Reilly
10.50-11.00 Introduction to IE-NETs project and team Barry McMullin, Mike Jones
11.00-11.30 Keynote: Global view of climate challenge and role of NETs Dr. Sabine Fuss
11.30-11.45 Keynote Q&A
11.45-12.05 Outline of IE-NETs work packages Project team
12.05-12.30 Panel discussion/project Q&A Project team
12.30-13.30 Light lunch (vegetarian)


We look forward to seeing you at the event!  



EPA Research Programme 2014-2020

The EPA's current Research Programme 2014-2020 is built around
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