The intense public discourse surrounding a contentious energy technology, BECCS, is the focus of a recent study. Advocates label this technology as a pivotal tool in the fight against climate change. On the other side, detractors argue it could be even more harmful than coal.
Bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, or BECCS, is a significant part of the UK government’s strategy to achieve a net-zero economy by 2050.
The technology functions by burning plant matter for energy. It then stores the carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions underground.
However, it has generated a dichotomy of opinions among scientists, politicians, and media outlets. This is due to its potential environmental implications and low public awareness.
In an effort to better understand how BECCS is perceived, the University of Southampton has conducted a comprehensive study of 166 newspaper articles discussing the technology.
“With public understanding of BECCS so limited, the media has a crucial role in shaping debate and opinion on the technology,” Caspar Donnison, Research Fellow in Biological Sciences at the University of Southampton and lead author of the research, remarks.
Donnison mentions the relevance of this process by drawing parallels to the discourse surrounding fracking. In that debate, “competing storylines are used to influence social acceptance of a new technology.”
Published in Energy Research & Social Science, the study identified eight main storylines in the media about BECCS. These narratives were divided into two categories: Pro-BECCS and Anti-BECCS.
Pro-BECCS narratives include: Necessary mitigation tool, Keeping the lights on, Anchor for transition, and Revolutionary technology.
Anti-BECCS narratives, on the other hand, consist of Worse than coal, Environmental disaster, No silver bullet, and Distraction.
Over half of the analyzed articles mentioned the Necessary mitigation tool narrative. This emphasizes the perceived importance of BECCS in combating climate change.
Among its proponents is the Drax Group. They plan to operate the world’s largest BECCS facility at its power station in Yorkshire. Drax CEO Will Gardiner is a notable advocate of this storyline, along with government spokespeople, the UK Committee on Climate Change (CCC), and Microsoft.
Other narratives were tied to geopolitical or regional issues. For instance, the Keeping the lights on narrative gained ground after Russia invaded Ukraine. Yorkshire’s local media, in particular, focused on the Anchor for transition and Revolutionary technology narratives.
Rishi Sunak MP, before becoming Prime Minister, referred to the Drax project as “transformative for the region’s economy.” He associated BECCS with economic development and bridging regional disparities.
Professor Gail Taylor, co-author of the study, commented, “Drax’s proposals in Yorkshire have had a major influence on the UK debate, driving more articles from three regional newspapers than all the national coverage combined. The pro-BECCS coalition enjoyed greater dominance in local news media, where the necessity framing was complemented with the promise of socioeconomic benefits to the region.”
However, not all narratives about BECCS are positive. The Worse than coal narrative gained traction after a BBC Panorama documentary critiqued Drax’s supply chain.
Environmental non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and others alleged that biomass combustion could result in similar CO2 emissions to coal. Furthermore, these groups expressed concern that the carbon may not be re-absorbed by replanting trees. Also, the supply-chain emissions could increase the overall carbon cost.
The study also identified narratives framing BECCS as an Environmental disaster and a Distraction. The former suggests that the land required for biomass could threaten wildlife and food production. The latter suggests BECCS could serve as an excuse to continue emitting CO2.
Some articles also suggest BECCS is No silver bullet, questioning the feasibility of implementing the technology on a large scale.
In light of these varied perceptions, Donnison cautions, “The UK government is relying on BECCS to help deliver their net-zero strategy but the battle for public opinion is far from won.”
He suggests that to gain wider acceptance, BECCS should be sustainably sourced and deployed in a targeted, limited manner. “But if public concerns aren’t addressed, the government will have to look to a fast-diminishing list of alternative technological and policy options.”
Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS) is a greenhouse gas mitigation technology which produces negative carbon dioxide emissions by combining bioenergy (energy from biomass) use with geologic carbon capture and storage.
The concept of BECCS is drawn from the integration of trees and crops, which extract carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere as they grow, the use of this biomass in power plants or industrial facilities to generate electricity or produce other forms of energy, and the application of carbon capture and storage technologies to sequester the CO2 produced in these processes.
Here’s a more detailed breakdown of how it works:
Biomass (e.g., trees, crops) absorbs CO2 from the atmosphere during photosynthesis.
This biomass is harvested and converted into energy through processes such as combustion or gasification. These processes produce CO2.
The CO2 produced in step 2 is captured at the point of emission (e.g., at the power plant where the biomass is burned). The captured CO2 is typically compressed into a liquid-like state.
The captured and compressed CO2 is transported (usually through pipelines) and then injected deep underground into geologic formations where it is permanently stored. This storage process is often referred to as sequestration.
The concept of BECCS has been gaining attention because it’s one of the few climate change solutions that could result in negative emissions. This would effectively remove existing CO2 from the atmosphere.
BECCS could play a critical role in efforts to limit global warming to 1.5 or 2 degrees Celsius, targets outlined in the Paris Agreement.
However, there are significant challenges and controversies associated with BECCS:
BECCS requires large amounts of land to grow the biomass. This could lead to land-use changes, deforestation, and loss of biodiversity. It could also compete with agricultural land, potentially impacting food security.
Biomass crops require water, potentially increasing competition for water resources.
The process of capturing, compressing, transporting, and storing CO2 uses energy, which must be factored into calculations of the net energy and emissions produced by BECCS.
It’s uncertain whether BECCS can be scaled up quickly enough to meet emissions reduction targets.
BECCS is based on the premise that biomass is carbon-neutral because the CO2 released when it is burned was originally absorbed from the atmosphere.
However, this assumption doesn’t take into account that CO2 absorbed by trees and crops would have been absorbed by natural vegetation anyway. It also doesn’t account for the fact that CO2 is released immediately upon combustion, while it takes years for trees and crops to re-absorb it.
There are concerns about the safety and permanence of underground CO2 storage, including the potential for leaks.
Given these challenges, while BECCS is seen as a potentially powerful tool in the fight against climate change, it is not viewed as a silver bullet and must be pursued in combination with a broad array of other mitigation measures.