Feature

The carbon harvest

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Science  16 Feb 2018:
Vol. 359, Issue 6377, pp. 733-737
DOI: 10.1126/science.359.6377.733

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Summary

In 2015, the Paris climate agreement established a goal of limiting global warming to "well below" 2°C. In the most recent report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, researchers surveyed possible road maps for reaching that goal and found something unsettling: In most model scenarios, simply cutting emissions isn't enough. To limit warming, humanity also needs negative emissions technologies that, by the end of the century, would remove more carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere than humans emit. The technologies would buy time for society to rein in carbon emissions, but they also give policymakers an excuse to drag their feet on climate action in the hopes that future inventions will clean up the mess. One particular technology has quietly risen to prominence, thanks to global models. The idea is to cultivate fast-growing grasses and trees to suck CO2 out of the atmosphere and then burn them at power plants to generate energy. But instead of being released back into the atmosphere in the exhaust, the crops' carbon would be captured and pumped underground. The technique is known as bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, or—among climate wonks—simply as BECCS. Although BECCS is relatively cheap and theoretically feasible, the sheer scale at which it operates in the models alarms many researchers.

  • * Julia Rosen is a journalist in Portland, Oregon.