Burning trees will not save us from the climate crisis - Richard Dixon

Around the world many governments are pinning their climate hopes on BECCS - Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage.

The technology has been described as a 'get out of jail free card'

A new report from our Friends of the Earth international network finds the idea to be a risky, costly and a dangerous distraction from the need to make rapid and deep cuts to emissions if we are to avoid catastrophic climate change.

BECCS involves growing crops which take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere then burning them and using carbon capture and storage (CCS) to remove the climate-wrecking carbon from the resulting exhaust gases. The result is a Negative Emissions Technology, allowing us to continue burning fossil fuels because the carbon is supposedly being taken back out of the atmosphere. In some parts of the world the crops might be coppiced willow or elephant grass. In Scotland it would be fast-growing trees like Sitka spruce.

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The new report shows how BECCS is being used as a get out of jail card by governments and companies to do little about climate change but tell us all it’s going to be alright. BECCS is popular because countries around the world looked at their expected emissions, saw the widening gap between the trajectory they are on and the targets they are supposed to meet, and simply plugged in the magic unicorn of BECCS to fill the gap.

Our own recent report on CCS showed that there is not a single active CCS plant anywhere in Europe and in other parts of the world rather than reducing climate emissions most CCS plants have been used to extract more oil. There is no also fully-functioning BECCS scheme operating anywhere in the world.

If CCS does take off it won’t be with us on any scale until the mid-2030s, so BECCS cannot be the answer to our desperate need to reduce emissions very rapidly.

Of course, planting trees can be a great thing to do but to make BECCS work at scale you need a huge amount of plant material or timber. This would only be possible by destroying natural forests and converting large areas of arable land into monoculture plantations, displacing people, trashing nature and competing with food production. One estimate is that we would need twice as much land as is currently cultivated on a global scale and, according to an assessment in 2019, BECCS at massive scale would threaten an additional 150 million people with hunger.

The Scottish Government is interested in BECCS and their expert advisors suggest that Scotland is the best part of the UK to try it out. BECCS is included for further study in the Climate Change Plan currently being scrutinised by the Scottish Parliament. At scale BECCS would involve turning over large areas to Sitka spruce plantations, recreating the mono-culture landscapes of the 1980s, and building new biomass power stations. Quite apart from the huge cost and technical challenges of making BECCS work it is a recipe for conflict between big business and local communities, and between mono-culture plantations and nature.

Even if BECCS was a sensible idea, even if you could avoid devastating social impacts overseas, even if you managed not to trash the Scottish countryside, it would still be too little much too late.

Dr Richard Dixon is Director of Friends of the Earth Scotland

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