Andrew Wood, Senior Engagement and Impact Officer with Yorkshire and Humber Climate Commission, reflects on the Commission's role around controversial topics such as bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS).
You have climbed a vertiginous flight of stone steps and reached a wooden door with a tarnished brass handle. You have no idea what’s beyond the door, but you must press on. You take a deep breath, turn the handle and swing open the door.
The scene that confronts you is uncanny: it’s broadly familiar but your instincts tell you something is out of kilter, and that you’re vulnerable. You can’t rely on old habits; you must figure things out in real time and every step is pregnant with risk. And, because you’re human, what you need now more than anything else is to find other humans so you can face the challenge together.
Our Climate Action Plan begins with the need to acknowledge that the climate and ecological emergency is real and we must accept the challenge of responding with urgency and ambition. The writer Rebecca Solnit defines ‘emergency’ as a coming out – ‘an exodus into the unknown’. In a month when the sea temperatures around the UK have passed all-time records, the phrase ‘uncharted waters’ was never more apposite. The world looks much the same as last week, but we sense a shift and we don’t know where it leads.
It’s in just these situations that we need what the journalist Anand Giridharadas calls a ‘brave space’ – somewhere we can come together, knowing we’re outside our comfort zones but trusting each other to help navigate the risks. The brave space is exactly what Yorkshire and Humber Climate Commission provides: it’s not safe because the danger is real, and it’s brave because it demands that we trust each other.
One of the bravest conversations we’ve yet convened took place at our June Commission meeting, on the contentious issue of carbon capture and storage (CCS) and, in particular, the plans to use it in combination with biomass combustion (BECCS) at Drax power station. Drax is unique: it is emblematic of the region’s high-carbon industrial heritage, and is also aiming to completely replace coal with ‘woody biomass’ from managed forests. By capturing the CO2 from combustion and piping it into deep storage, Drax’s strategy is to become a world leader in reversing the flow of CO2 back from the atmosphere into the ground.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the issue has become polarised and highly emotive. From Drax’s perspective it is aiming to own the problem and become the solution, whilst many environmentalists argue that the technology isn’t effective enough and the forestry needed to fuel the supply can’t be achieved without damaging ecosystems and exploiting communities. The challenge for Drax is huge enough, and if other power stations across the world sought to replicate the approach, the forestry needs are of a scale that’s hard to imagine.
YHCC has now published a viewpoint paper on CCS, BECCS and Drax, and on 21st June we invited to two experts to shine light on the topic for our Commissioners and our staff team. Jonathon Porritt, founder of Forum for the Future, recently chaired an independent panel – commissioned by Drax – to examine the question of whether BECCS can be ‘done well’ and, if so, what would it look like. Jonathon explained how science and attitudes have changes since Drax’s project began: on the one hand we are now more alert to the rapid and accelerating pace of climate change and the need to throw every possible solution at it; on the other hand there have been increasing concerns about whether the forestry supply chain for the biomass can be achieved ethically and sustainably.
The stakes are high. Jonathon described how the Drax project brings together two difficult processes that have yet to prove reliable at scale, and aims to achieve “a huge win for climate, energy security and their shareholders”. The need to sequester carbon makes the strategic case, he said: “The figures are staggering – we need to take 500 billion tonnes of CO2 out of the atmosphere over the next 80 years. It’s mad, but the prospect of maintaining a habitable planet is dependent on achieving it”.
We then heard from Professor Mohamed Pourkashanian, Head of the Energy Institute at the University of Sheffield, that “CCS will be made to work, because it has to work” – referring to the industrial processes that simply can’t be decarbonised in the necessary timescales without it. From the perspective of his institute’s research, the supply chain for biomass fuel is the biggest challenge, because several other major industries also want to switch from fossil fuels to biomass, including aviation and chemical sectors. The fuel itself, and the land to grow it on, may become relatively scarce and pose risks in terms of price and of competing land uses, not least for food.
The bravery here is in acknowledging that both the advocates and critics of BECCS essentially have the same top-level mission – bringing down the CO2 levels in the atmosphere over a timeframe that will exceed our own lifetimes. They also accept the same scientific starting point, that the only mechanism which exists to capture CO2 at scale is photosynthesis – in trees, grasses and marine vegetation. But they have arrived here by different staircases, opened separate doors, and found themselves surveying the same unknown territory ahead of them.
Some people have, understandably, asked YHCC to pick a side at this point. But that wouldn’t be the brave course of action, because no-one actually knows what happens next. ‘Doing BECCS well’ means achieving ethical, environmentally sustainable forestry on an unprecedented scale and getting the capture and storage technology to work more reliably than has ever been achieved. That makes for a very, very hard journey – not an impossible one. To pick a side now would be as futile as tossing a coin, and would shut out one group or another from the conversation. But keeping that ‘brave space’ open to everyone should hopefully enable us to build high standards of trust and transparency, and give that top-level mission a better prospect of turning out to be possible.
Andrew Wood, 6 July 2023