A Bad Biomass Bet: Why the Leading Approach to Biomass Energy with Carbon Capture and Storage Isn't Carbon Negative

With every passing year, the dangers of climate change become more apparent. To help avert the worst impacts of climate change, there is growing interest in not just curtailing new emissions of heat-trapping greenhouse gases, but also finding ways to remove significant quantities of these gases already in the atmosphere. One such technology, which is increasingly popular in the United Kingdom, is Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS), which involves burning plant matter—most notably, trees and other wood from forests—as fuel to create electricity and capturing the resulting emissions from the power plant smokestack.

The biomass industry claims that bioenergy on its own is carbon neutral, and that BECCS is carbon negative. However, the math associated with the leading approach to BECCS doesn’t add up.

NRDC commissioned a model to examine the carbon emissions of the predominant biomass supply chain today, from logging, to processing, to transportation, and finally, the smokestack. Our analysis found that far from being carbon negative, the lifecycle of this approach to BECCS generates about 80 percent as much carbon as comes out of a coal plant smokestack per megawatt-hour. This is because a large fraction of the total emissions occur off-site rather than at the power station and are thus uncapturable by the addition of CCS at the smokestack.

Given this, policymakers around the globe should not waste money on this approach to BECCS and should look carefully before betting on BECCS more generally as a climate-friendly solution.

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