The geoengineering fallacy

By Barbara Unmüssig. Source: Project Syndicate

Photo: Eric Kayne

BERLIN – As the world struggles to rein in emissions of climate-changing gases and limit planetary warming, a new technological silver bullet is gaining supporters. Geoengineering –the large-scale manipulation of the Earth’s natural systems – has been popularized as a means of counteracting the negative effects of climate change.

Proponents of this science feed the illusion that there is a way to engineer an exit from the climate crisis, meet the goals of the 2015 Paris climate agreement, and maintain a consumption-heavy lifestyle.

But this solution is not as simple as proponents would have us believe. Betting on climate engineering – either as a planetary insurance policy or as a last-ditch measure to combat rising temperatures – is not only risky; it also directs attention away from the only solution we know will work: reducing carbon emissions.

Each of the engineered technologies being discussed carries dangers and uncertainties. For example, the only way to test the effectiveness of solar radiation management (SRM) on a global scale would be to carry out experiments in the environment – either by spraying particles into the stratosphere, or by artificially modifying clouds. While such tests would be designed to determine whether SRM could reflect enough sunlight to cool the planet, experimentation itself could cause irreversible damage. Current models predict that SRM deployment would alter global precipitation patterns, damage the ozone layer, and undermine the livelihoods of millions of people.

Beyond the ecological risks, critics warn that, once deployed globally, SRM could spawn powerful weapons, giving states, corporations, or individuals the ability to manipulate climate for strategic gain (an idea that not even Hollywood can resist). But perhaps the most important criticism is a political one: in a world of challenged multilateralism, how would global ecological interventions be governed?

Similar questions surround the other major group of climate engineering technologies under debate – so-called carbon dioxide removal (CDR). Proponents of these technologies propose removing CO2 from the atmosphere and storing it underground or in the oceans. Some CDR approaches are already prohibited, owing to concerns about possible environmental consequences. For example, fertilization of oceans with carbon-sequestering plankton was banned by the London Protocol on marine pollution in 2008. Parties to that decision worried about the potential damage to marine life.

But other CDR approaches are gaining support. One of the most discussed ideas aims to integrate biomass with carbon capture and storage (CCS) techniques. Called “bioenergy with CCS,” or BECCS, this method seeks to pair the CO2-absorption capabilities of fast-growing plants with underground CO2 storage methods. Proponents argue that BECCS would actually yield “negative” emissions.

Yet, as with other engineered solutions, the promises are simply too good to be true. For example, huge amounts of energy, water, and fertilizer would be required to operate BECCS systems successfully. The effects on land use would likely lead to terrestrial species losses, and increase land competition and displacement of local populations. Some forecasts even suggest that the land clearing and construction activities associated with these projects could lead to a net increase in greenhouse gas emissions, at least in the short term.

Then there is the issue of scale. In order for BECCS to achieve emissions limits set by the Paris agreement, between 430 million and 580 million hectares (1.1 billion to 1.4 billion acres) of land would be needed to grow the required vegetation. That is a staggering one third of the world’s arable land.

Simply put, there are safer – and proven – ways to withdraw CO2 from the atmosphere. Rather than creating artificial CO2-binding “farms,” governments should focus on protecting already-existing natural ecosystems and allowing degraded ones to recover. Rainforests, oceans, and peatlands (such as bogs) have immense CO2 storage capacities and do not require untested technological manipulation.

By pushing unproven technologies as a cure for all climate-changing ills, proponents are suggesting that the world faces an unavoidable choice: geoengineering or disaster. But this is disingenuous. Political preferences, not scientific or ecological necessity, explain the appeal of geoengineering.

Unfortunately, current debates about climate engineering are undemocratic and dominated by technocratic worldviews, natural science and engineering perspectives, and vested interests in the fossil-fuel industries. Developing countries, indigenous peoples, and local communities must be given a prominent voice, so that all risks can be fully considered before any geoengineering technology is tested or implemented.

So what conversation should we be having about geoengineering?

For starters, we need to rethink the existing governance landscape. In 2010, parties to the United Nations’ Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) agreed to a de facto international moratorium on climate-related geoengineering. But today, with powerful advocates generating so much pressure to bring geoengineering technologies out of the lab, informal bans are no longer sufficient. The world urgently needs an honest debate on the research, deployment, and governance of these technologies; the CBD and the London Protocol are essential starting points for these governance discussions.

Among the technologies that require the most scrutiny are CDR projects that threaten indigenous lands, food security, and water availability. Such large-scale technological schemes must be regulated diligently, to ensure that climate-change solutions do not adversely affect sustainable development or human rights.

In addition, the outdoor testing and deployment of SRM technologies, because of their potential to weaken human rights, democracy, and international peace, should be banned outright. This ban should be overseen by a robust and accountable multilateral global governance mechanism.

No silver bullet for climate change has yet been found. And while geoengineering technologies remain mostly aspirational, there are proven mitigation options that can and should be implemented vigorously. These include scaling up renewable energy, phasing out fossil fuels (including an early retirement of existing fossil infrastructure), wider diffusion of sustainable agroecological agriculture, and increased energy and resource input into our economy.

We cannot afford to gamble with the future of our planet. If we engage in a serious discussion about ecologically sustainable and socially just measures to protect the Earth’s climate, there will be no need to roll the dice on geoengineering.

New report highlights risks of large-scale biosequestration as a form of CO2 removal

 

Source: Global Forest Coalition

Click here to view the report.

At the start of a major Climate Engineering Conference [1] in Berlin, the Global Forest Coalition [2] has launched a Working Paper that highlights the risks of different proposals for large-scale Carbon Dioxide Removal. The report finds that while the most prominent CDR approach, Bioenergy and Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS) technology is still in a state of “infancy” and is unlikely to be rolled out on a global scale, biosequestration in the form of afforestation through monoculture tree plantations is already rapidly expanding and causing significant negative social and environmental impacts..

The Paris Agreement’s target of limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees is largely dependent on CDR approaches and climate finance institutions are already supporting such afforestation schemes, largely due to the strong emphasis on private-sector involvement in climate finance mechanisms such as the World Bank’s Forest Investment Program.

“Large-scale biosequestration almost always involves the establishment of monoculture tree plantations on land that was formerly used for other purposes like agriculture or pasture” says Oliver Munnion, one of the authors of the report. “The transformation of land to monocultures causes adverse ecological and social impacts such as the loss of biodiversity, land degradation, changes in hydrological cycles, elite resource capture, conflict and violence against mostly poor and vulnerable communities.”

The report describes existing trends in the field of large-scale biosequestration. It examines the social and ecological impacts of such projects and discusses whether or not these are viable climate solutions. It also showcases successful community led biosequestration alternatives which could prove to be more effective in reversing climate change and in providing long term sustainable livelihoods. “It would be a smarter and more cost effective choice for policy makers to support community-based forest restoration initiatives, but sadly the strong influence of corporate interests in climate policy has caused governments to prioritize subsidies for commercial tree plantations over these community-led projects” says Dr. Simone Lovera, director of the Global Forest Coalition.

Failure of Kemper County “clean coal” plant casts more doubts on BECCS

Kemper County plant under construction. Photo: Wikipedia Commons

After years of embarrassing delays and $5.3 billion in cost overruns, Southern Company has finally pulled the plug on its pioneering “clean coal” plant in Kemper County, Mississippi.

The $7.5 billion Kemper County project would have been the world’s first Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle (IGCC) power plant with Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS). Instead, it will now run on natural gas, without carbon capture – an ironic end, given that Southern Co. could likely have built such a power plant from the outset for under $500 million.

The project’s failure should cast serious doubts on the prospects of both “clean coal” as well as Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS) – the current star child of techno-fix solutions to climate change.

BECCS would involve capturing CO2 from biofuel refineries or biomass-burning power stations and pumping it into geological formations, or – more likely due to economics – pumping it into oil wells in order to extract more oil. Despite lack of evidence as to the technological and economic viability of BECCS, the models underpinning the Paris Agreement’s 2°C target overwhelmingly rely upon BECCS as a “negative emissions technology” capable of being deployed at a scale large enough to balance out emissions by mid-century.

In theory, an IGCC power station like Kemper County should be the cleanest and most efficient way of generating electricity from burning coal or biomass. Furthermore, an IGCC plant with CCS should be less energy-intensive than a conventional power plant with CCS, because the CO2 is removed from the syngas pre-combustion – when the CO2 concentration is higher – instead of stripping it from the flue gas post-combustion when CO2 is diluted, as it is at facilities like the retrofitted Petra Nova coal plant in Texas, which was officially opened earlier this year.  

The failure of the Kemper County project, which featured the cleanest and most efficient CCS power plant technology, should therefore be seen as a warning for policy-makers expecting CCS – including BECCS – technologies to magically close the emissions gap by mid-century.

It’s important to note that exchanging biomass for coal would add even more challenges to an IGCC with CCS plant. Biomass gasification results in a syngas which is chemically quite different from that generated through coal gasification, and therefore requires different treatment in order to produce a gas clean enough for burning to power a gas turbine.

While CCS advocates will undoubtedly seek to frame it as a marginal example, the reality is that the Kemper County project is a prime example of what CCS stands for – an enormous waste of public attention and resources, at a time when society should be focused on transforming our energy systems to address the root causes of climate change.

New briefing: Climate change, smoke and mirrors

For the past decade, a small but growing group of governments and scientists, the majority from the most powerful and most climate-polluting countries in the world, has been pushing for political consideration of geoengineering, the deliberate large-scale technological manipulation of the climate.

Geoengineering is inherently high-risk and its negative effects will likely be unequally distributed. Because of this, geoengineering has often been presented as a “Plan B” to confront the climate crisis. But after the Paris Agreement, which set the ambitious goal of keeping the temperature to well below 2°C and possibly even 1.5°C, the discourse has changed. Now, geoengineering is increasingly being advanced as an “essential” means to reach this goal, through a mix of risky technologies that would take carbon out of the atmosphere to create so-called “negative emissions” or take control of the global thermostat to directly lower the climate’s temperature.

A new briefing paper by ETC Group and Heinrich Böll Foundation in advance of the UNFCCC intersessional meetings in Bonn, May 2017, gives an overview of what geoengineering is and why it is dangerous, as well as up-to-date information on proposed geoengineering technologies and governance.

A crucial read for anyone engaged in the fight against climate change.
Read the briefing paper here.

Pioneering coal plant with CCS isn’t viable, admits CEO

The Kemper County project. Credit: Wikipedia

A new report by Greenpeace Energy Desk reveals that one of the US’s premier coal with carbon capture and storage (CCS) demonstration plants, the Kemper County Energy Facility, is not economically viable.

The project, located in Kemper County, Mississippi, received hundreds of millions in public subsidies, promising to produce syngas through a new gasification technique in addition to utilizing waste CO2 for enhanced oil recovery (EOR) in nearby oil fields.

However, after spending $7.1 billion on the project, Kemper’s parent company is throwing in the towel on generating electricity from coal, switching instead to cheap natural gas without any carbon capture.

The Kemper County project would have been the world’s first Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle (IGCC) power plant with CCS, and was touted by industry as a pioneer for burning coal or biomass with carbon capture.

Instead, it’s become a massive, expensive failure, and an emblem of injustice – with Mississippi ratepayers potentially on the hook for up to $7 billion in cost overruns from the project.

This is big news, given that IGCC with CCS has long been promoted as the state of the art concept for CCS, including BECCS. It would have a much better energy balance than post-combustion CCS, and be the cleanest form of coal or biomass combustion possible, if it worked.

Which, of course, it doesn’t. Our takeaway is that for anyone interested in the future of CCS, the failure of Kemper County should be much bigger news than whatever may or may not happen with the Texas-based Petra Nova coal CCS plant in the future.

 

Pulling carbon out of the air: NETS, BECCS, and CDR

ADM’s Agricultural Processing and Biofuels Plant, Decatur, IL. Credit: National Energy Technology Laboratory

Geoengineering Monitor has long reported on the speculative concept of “negative emissions”, together with certain favored approaches such as bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) – a geoengineering technique which recent studies show would have significant negative impacts on biodiversity, food security, and livelihoods.

To get a better sense of the technologies under discussion, we sent a correspondent to a “Carbon Dioxide Removal / Negative Emissions Technologies (NETs)” workshop earlier this month, co-sponsored by fora associated with American University, University of California – Berkeley, and Arizona State University.

A primary theme of the workshop was understanding NETs in the context of the Paris Agreement. Katharine Mach, senior research scientist at Stanford University and director of the Stanford Environment Assessment Facility, opened the day by describing the “pledge, review, and revise” approach of the agreement, and singled out the key role envisioned for BECCS in the models that underpin its target to stay below 2 degrees C average global temperature rise.

Wil Burns, co-director of the Forum for Climate Engineering Assessment at American University, made the case that the agreement provides authorization for countries to use artificial carbon sinks (CDR and NETs) as part of their Paris pledges. Burns built his case off of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)’s broad definition of mitigation, which includes not only emissions reductions, but also the enhancement of sinks.

However, insofar as they aim to deliberately increase carbon sequestration on a large scale that may affect biodiversity, all proposed artificial carbon sinks are geoengineering proposals – and therefore subject to a de facto moratorium under the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), most recently reaffirmed at the end of 2016. The CBD’s moratorium derives from the application of the precautionary principle, noting that the potential impacts of geoengineering on biodiversity and traditional livelihoods have been scarcely studied.

Ongoing discussions within the multilateral institutions will likely provide more clarity on the boundary between climate mitigation and geoengineering. But for the meantime, it appears clear that attempts to push CDR techniques through the mitigation loophole will run up against the CBD moratorium. And judging by the other panels at the Berkeley CDR / NETs workshop, that’s probably a good thing.

Outside of the lively debate on BECCS – the star child of CDR advocates – the other approaches on offer ranged from relatively mundane reflections about enhancing rocks and protecting forests, to more fantastical proposals for offshore kelp-platforms riding ocean thermals. The general feel was that of an oddball trade show, with subsequent presenters arising to pitch their particular techno-fix, all seemingly underlaid by a dark acknowledgement of the social and political realities preventing meaningful climate action.

Daniel Sanchez, a postdoc at Stanford University’s Carnegie Institution for Science, kicked off the BECCS panel with a detailed technical and economic assessment of deployment possibilities, making the case that BECCS could enable a carbon-negative power system in western North America by mid-century, given a stringent emissions cap. Interestingly, Sanchez noted that the primary value of BECCS lies in its capacity to function as an offset, and less so as a source of electricity.

This point was addressed indirectly by Daniel Babson, technology manager at the Bioenergy Technologies Office within the Department of Energy (DOE). Babson asked attendees to “imagine BECCS in a world with cheap CO2 and cheap energy,” noting that the Trump administration has upended assumptions about an inevitable national carbon price or cap leading to a more competitive position for future bioenergy deployment. Babson’s prognosis on whether BECCS could flourish without a price on carbon wasn’t particularly sunny, and he noted that the DOE was reorienting towards near-term carbon sequestration via value-added products, such as wood for use in buildings or infrastructure.

Babson also referenced another way in which the new administration is a setback for BECCS. US government funding for carbon-negative bioenergy R&D falls squarely between the Office of Fossil Energy and the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy – both of which are reportedly on the chopping block in the Trump administration’s proposed budget. If the Trump administration is successful in dismantling these offices, Babson will not only be out of a job (as he wryly joked), but BECCS proponents will have lost a critical source of funding and research.

Tim Searchinger, a research scholar at Princeton University and senior fellow at World Resource Institute, functioned as the black sheep of the panel discussion, making the case that studies showing large bioenergy emissions reductions potential are based on double-counting emissions reductions due to plant growth, and that replacing fossil fuels with bioenergy could actually increase GHG emissions, in addition to having major impacts on biodiversity and food security.

Searchinger asserted that so-called marginal or abandoned lands proposed for bioenergy feedstocks are largely already in use by local communities, or required by ecosystems to stay healthy. Margaret Torn, co-director of the Climate and Carbon Sciences Program at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, also raised questions about the ecological limits to bioenergy expansion, focusing on land and resource requirements such as nitrogen and phosphorus. Searchinger made the case that using all of the world’s current harvested biomass would only meet one fifth of the world’s energy needs in 2050, in the process displacing communities and undermining biodiversity.

The final speaker of the day was Janos Pasztor, former senior advisor on climate to the UN secretary general, and recently appointed as director of the new Carnegie Climate Geoengineering Governance Project.

Pazstor, fresh off a meeting with California governor Jerry Brown, introduced the new “C2G2” project as a response to the need for systematic governance frameworks to guide geoengineering research and potential deployment. The aim of the project, according to Pazstor, is to engage with non-governmental organizations, governments, and other groups to build a network of people who could feed into future governance mechanisms.

While building out a coherent governance framework to approach ethical, social-ecological, and technical aspects of geoengineering appears to be a promising step, Geoengineering Monitor believes that it will only be successful if the voices of women, peasant farmers, Indigenous peoples, trade unionists, and the poor have a firm seat at the technology assessment table. Otherwise, C2G2 and similar initiatives could easily end up as just a normalization exercise for geoengineering, dominated by those with a material interest in promoting technofix distractions at the expense of solutions that address the root causes of climate change and biodiversity loss.

Climate Change Policy and The Super-Hero Syndrome

Jeremy Thompson/Wikimedia Commons CC BY 2.0
Jeremy Thompson/Wikimedia Commons CC BY 2.0

by Roger Boyd (Resilience)

There is a genre of Hollywood “feel-good” disaster movie, where everything seems nearly hopeless until the end, and then suddenly, many times against all hope, the super-hero (or super-heroes) saves the day. Whether it be human heroes that blow up the Earth-killing asteroid just in the nick of time; good mutants that defeat the bad mutants just in time; bad mutants turned good mutants that destroy the stayed-bad mutants just in time; future humans and non-human allies that save the Galaxy from the Empire. Anyway, you get the general storyline. The bad people/organisms /things win for the first 95% of the movie then the good people/organisms/things win against all the odds in the last 5%.

The United Nations Climate Change bureaucracy, which tends to be full of economists, engineers and enviro-managers rather than actual climate scientists and ecologists, seems to have been watching too many of these feel-good disaster movies. Seems we need to make them watch the “feel bad” disaster movies instead, like the one where the Sun eats up the Earth, or perhaps a steady diet of the unlimited supply of zombie apocalypse movies. They need something a lot darker, where super-heroes don’t save the day. Then again, maybe they should just grow up and accept that super-heroes only exist in movies. Or maybe they should just listen to the scientists and ecologists a lot more.

The United Nation’s main super-hero is called BECCS (Bio-Energy Carbon Capture & Storage). I know, not exactly as catchy as Superman, Thor, Cat Woman, or Wolverine, but what would you expect from a bunch of climate bureaucrats? BECCS is a true super-hero. The Bad Carbon will continue spewing itself into our atmosphere for decades to come, threatening to remove the ecological basis for modern human civilization. BECCS’s friends, Energy Efficiency and Clean Power, will have held back Bad Carbon a bit, but could not stop BC in time! Then at the last minute, just before human civilization melts down, BECCS sucks up BC and deposits it deep in the Earth never to return (well at least for a few thousand years hopefully).

The problem is that BECCS is not real; it’s a bunch of hopes and a religious belief in technology wrapped together. It assumes that we can set aside about a third of the current arable land on the planet to grow energy crops, instead of food. Then we can burn all those energy crops to help power our modern civilization, and can store all of the resulting carbon dioxide (billions of tons of the stuff) underground safely for thousands of years. That’s a lot of carbon dioxide per year, needing an infrastructure equivalent to the current oil & gas industry to transport it and pump it into the ground. What tiny-scale testing of the CCS (Carbon Capture and Storage) part of BECCS that has been carried out so far could most politely be described as “deeply disappointing”.  Ignoring this, the U.N. people assume that BECCS will start riding to the rescue on a major scale within 20 years or less.

What if BECCS isn’t up to the task? Other eco-technocrats have an army of super-heroes ready to help. These eco-techies seem to be into super-hero ensemble movies – maybe we should call them “The C-Men”. If EE, CP and BECCS cant beat the deadly BC, there is always – wait for it, drum roll please… DAC!!!! (Direct Air Capture) will save the day! BECCS couldn’t suck up enough of the highly concentrated carbon dioxide at the power plant exhaust, but DAC can get enough of it after it has become highly diffuse in the air! If that doesn’t work there is EW (Enhanced Weathering: dig up truly colossal amounts of a certain type of rock, turn it into powder and spread it over the Earth), OF (Ocean Fertilization: fertilize carbon capturing organisms in the ocean), and SRaM (Solar Radiation Management: block/reflect the Sun’s energy to cool the planet).

Why do we need all these super-heroes? Because without these super-heroes we would have to accept that large-scale government intervention will be required to fundamentally change our societies to use a lot less energy. A lot like a war-style economy. A lot less belief in “free markets”, perhaps no economic growth for a while, a ton of pressure for a more equitable sharing of income and wealth, and a lot less use of fossil fuels. Not a reality that the powers-that-be want to deal with. So we get the mythical super-heroes instead.

Those that consider a Trump presidency to be a disaster do not understand that we are already in the disaster. Trump may speed up the disaster a little and is certainly more “in your face”, but he is just a symptom of a larger problem. In a way, you could say he is being a bit more truthful about his version of reality-denial. The problem is the inability of even the “progressives” among the powerful to accept the reality that the time for small measures is gone, and that drastic action is required now. In the early 1990’s, those actions may have been relatively mild. Now, they are much bigger and the longer we wait, the bigger and riskier they get. Only denial, facilitated by mythical technocratic future super-heroes, can keep us from this truth.

Responses to: The Trouble with Negative Emissions

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joiseyshowaa/Flickr CC

Last month we reported on Kevin Anderson and Glen Peters’ piece in Science describing how a reliance on negative emissions to draw carbon out of the atmosphere – rather than making necessary and drastic emissions cuts now – will only lock in carbon addiction and make reaching the 2 degree target set out in the Paris Agreement impossible. Below is further exchange on this topic, with a letter in response to the article, and a response to the letter.

Authors of the pro-negative emissions letter use the analogy of throwing a life-preserver to a drowning victim, where negative emissions technologies are the life-saver, and the drowning victim the planet. The life-saver may not ultimately result in a successful rescue, but offering the life-preserver is better than not doing so. The implication being that if negative emissions technologies could help, they should be tried. Anderson and Peters counter by saying that, to use the same analogy, relying on negative emissions is the equivalent of knowingly letting someone jump into a raging torrent, and telling them that we may be able to save them with a technology that we have not yet developed.

The promise of negative emissions

Edited by Jennifer Sills (Science)

In their Perspective “The trouble with negative emissions” (14 October, p. 182), K. Anderson and G. Peters assert that negative-emissions technologies are an “unjust and high-stakes gamble.” This characterization would sideline negative-emissions technologies and remove potentially important options from the portfolio for mitigating and ameliorating climate change.

As Anderson and Peters acknowledge, the remaining carbon budget is pitifully small; at the current rate, the world will blow through 600 Gt of CO2 in 15 years. Dumping this much CO2 in the atmosphere will almost certainly result in more than 1.5°C warming. Indeed, as advocates of a 350-ppm target point out, the remaining CO2 budget could be negative.

Anderson and Peters provide no evidence that faith in negative-emissions technologies is to blame for a delay in implementing other mitigation plans or for the failure of countries to cut emissions. This failure is easily explained by the free-riding behavior of some countries (1), and taking negative-emissions technologies off the table would not make collective action any easier. Indeed, given that negative-emission technologies require financial contributions, not changes in behavior, their development and deployment may well be less vulnerable to free riding. Furthermore, we need a lot of arrows in the quiver to stand a chance of meeting the Paris targets. This was a key finding from the integrated assessment modelers (2).

Rather than dividing mitigation into competing strategies, an inclusive approach would focus on stopping climate change as fast as possible while minimizing risk to vulnerable populations and to societal stability. Negative-emission technologies are not unique in facing challenges, risks, and uncertainties. It is true that negative emissions may fall short of closing the gap, but to characterize them as a high-stakes gamble is not consistent with the facts and the plausibility of meeting the Paris goals without them.

Throwing a life-preserver to a drowning victim may not assure a successful rescue, but it is not a high-stakes gamble. Offering the life-preserver is preferable.

Response

by Kevin Anderson and Glen Peters

As we wrote in our Perspective, we agree with Lackner et al. that negative-emissions technologies should “be the subject of research, development, and potentially deployment.” We support research on the technical, environmental, social, and economic viability of negative-emissions technologies. However, we stand by our conclusion that given the breadth and depth of fundamental uncertainties associated with negative-emissions technologies (1–6), a program of timely and deep mitigation in line with 2°C budgets should assume that they will not be deployed at a large scale.

A mitigation agenda that does not rely on future large-scale application of negative-emissions technologies will require a legislative environment that delivers profound social and behavioral change by high-emitters, rapid deployment of existing low-carbon energy technologies, and urgent research and development of new promising energy technologies, including negative-emissions technologies. If negative-emissions technologies do indeed prove to be successful, then a lower temperature rise can be subsequently pursued.

Lackner et al. claim that including negative-emissions technologies in assessments does not delay other mitigation tactics. On the contrary, evidence indicates that an assumption of negative-emissions success does delay conventional mitigation. Without negative-emissions technologies, much more ambitious and far reaching mitigation is required (2).

The 2°C scenarios assessed by the IPCC that do not include negative emissions but do allow afforestation have considerably lower fossil-fuel consumption than scenarios that include negative emissions [e.g., Fig. S4 in (7)]. The “emissions gap” (8, 9) between the necessary level of mitigation to deliver on the Paris goals and the collective proposition of governments (i.e., the sum of the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions) would be much larger if negative emissions were excluded.

We stand by our claim that postulating large-scale negative emissions in the future leads to much less mitigation today. Negative emissions facilitate the appealing option (10) of exceeding tight carbon budgets and assuming that the debt will be paid back later. If we cannot pay back our carbon debt because the negative-emissions technologies do not deliver as planned, then we have saddled the vulnerable and future generations with the temperatures we seek to avoid in the Paris Agreement. To use the analogy of Lackner et al., we knowingly let someone jump into a raging torrent, telling them we may
be able to save them with a technology we have yet to develop.

References

1. M. Tavoni, R. Socolow, Clim. Change 118, 1 (2013).
2. L. Clarke et al., in Climate Change 2014: Mitigation of Climate Change. Contribution of Working Group III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, O. Edenhofer et al., Eds. (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2014), pp. 413–510.
3. S. Fuss et al., Nat. Clim. Change 4, 850 (2014).
4. P. Smith et al., Nat. Clim. Change 6, 42 (2015).
5. P. Smith, Global Change Biol. 22, 1315 .(2016).
6. P. Williamson, Nature 530, 153 (2016).
7. G. P. Peters, Nat. Clim. Change 6, 646 (2016).
8. UNEP, “The Emissions Gap Report 2015” (United Nations Environment Programme, Nairobi, 2015).
9. J. Rogelj et al., Nature 534, 631 (2016).
10. O. Geden, Nature 521, 27 (2015).

Using forests to curb climate change threatens human rights

rainforest
Kim Seng/Flickr CC

by Fred Pearce (Thomson Reuters Foundation News)

Trees offer ways to help achieve “negative emissions”, but what does that mean for forest communities?

The 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change was a landmark the world rightly applauded. Its pledge to limit global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius – and preferably 1.5 degrees – lays down one of humanity’s greatest challenge for the 21st century. But how to achieve it?

Climate scientists say it is almost an impossible task if we only rely on reducing emissions from our power stations, transport systems and factories.  Even ending deforestation will be insufficient. They say we will have to find ways of removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere: “negative emissions” in the climate-change jargon.

There are many schemes for how do this using chemistry and geology, but some are wildly expensive and others are not yet feasible. The most likely current option though, is giving terrestrial plants such as trees or bioenergy crops a helping hand in photosynthesising more CO2 from the air.

Here are the four main proposals for how this could be done, and their implications – which until now have barely been considered:

1. Sink forests: The most straightforward method of removing CO2 from the atmosphere is to boost nature’s primary terrestrial carbon store, by creating giant “carbon sink” forests to permanently hold carbon in timber and soil.

To assure these forests did their job, there would have to be a programme to maintain their carbon-holding power as they age and trees die. A critical question is how permanent these carbon sinks could be in the face of inevitable climate change. They could succumb to droughts or migrating pests – potentially releasing their carbon stores into the atmosphere and turbo-charging climate change.

One huge potential drawback is that calculations to date suggest that planting enough trees to soak up and store 500 billion tonnes of CO2 before the end of the century would likely require around 10 million square kilometres of land. That is an area the size of the Sahara or the US.

2. Bioenergy forests: Rather than trying to create carbon-sink forests that hold carbon forever, an alternative is to make productive use of them, by harvesting the timber and burning it in power stations as a substitute for fossil fuels. Provided the burned trees are replaced by new ones, the CO2 emissions from burning would be neutralised by the regrowth. That’s the theory, anyhow.

Would it work in practice? The best place to look is where bioenergy is already used as a strategy for reducing CO2 emissions. The European Union already incentivises biomass burning in power plants and heating systems. Almost half of harvested timber in the EU is now used for the generation of electricity or heating.

It has led to a boom in industrial forestry. Yet, worryingly, countries that rely most on biomass for energy, such as Slovakia and Romania, have the least credible systems for ensuring that harvested trees are replaced. Without that obligation, the idea that the fuel is renewable or carbon-neutral is a sham.

“You could cut down the Amazon, turn it into a parking lot, ship the trees to Europe to replace coal, and Europe would claim a reduction in emissions,” argues Tim Searchinger of Princeton University.

The presumed carbon-neutrality of biomass forests ignores the time lag involved.  Burning trees in a power station results in the immediate mass release of their carbon in the form of CO2. But the replacement trees only soak up the equivalent amount of CO2 gradually, as they grow.

There are therefore serious questions about the sustainability and carbon credentials of bioenergy in its current form.

3. BECCS: The third proposal for turning forests into a way of generating negative emissions is, for many climate scientists the Holy Grail. It involves combining bioenergy forests with technology being developed for capturing CO2 going up the power station stack and then burying it out of harm’s way – for instance in old salt mines or abandoned oil wells. This is known as Carbon Capture and Storage.

In the complete system, known as Biomass with Carbon Capture and Storage Carbon (BECCS), carbon is captured from the air by growing trees, burned to generate energy and then buried. In theory, the more energy is generated, the more CO2 is sucked out of the air.

BECCS is a better use of land than permanent carbon-sink forests, say its advocates, because harvested trees can be replaced with new trees. And it is better than normal bioenergy because it avoids emissions from power stations. So every time the land set aside for trees is replanted, more carbon can be captured, doubling up on the negative emissions. If two growing cycles could be accomplished by the end of the century, then the amount of land needed to capture 500 billion tonnes by 2100 could be halved to maybe 5 million square kilometres.

No BECCS project is yet in operation. And while the basic technology is used on a small scale in the oil industry, the idea of doing it on a huge scale, as a continuous process that remove emissions from major power plants across the world, raises huge questions about its practicability and sustainability.

Whatever the carbon gains from negative-emissions technologies, they have to exist in a world of competing demand for – and rights to – land. And converting land into carbon-sink forests would involve a land grab on a scale never seen before: a human rights calamity, with major implications for food security and biodiversity.

Looked at from the forests, this appears neither green nor renewable. It seems like a recipe for the industrialisation of environmentalism, with vast swathes of the world’s most diverse forest ecosystems turned into barren carbon factories – and their inhabitants into, at best, factory hands.

A new approach is required. One based not on creating a vast new industry for sucking carbon from the air, but on reinstating nature’s ability to store carbon in a landscape also occupied by humans – which leads us to the last of the four current options for creating carbon sinks:

4. Natural regeneration: Properly conceived, many argue, reinstating natural ecosystems could play a huge role in negative emissions, without riding roughshod over other global priorities. The Stockholm Environment Institute recently concluded that simply allowing former natural forests and degraded forest areas to regrow could lock up some 330 billion tonnes of CO2.

There are plenty of examples already of what this could mean. Twenty-five years ago, Guatemala created the Maya Biosphere Reserve. The aim was to protect the largest remaining tropical rainforest in Central America. At the time, conservationists were angry that government officials set up a dozen zones inside the reserve where local communities could do small-scale logging.

Today that seems like a stroke of genius. The forests in the core protected areas of the reserve are rapidly being lost, as cattle ranchers invade. But the community forests, jealously guarded by locals, thrive. Their deforestation rates are only 5 percent of those in the supposedly “protected” areas. On current trends, 40 percent of the reserve will be stripped of forests by 2050, and most of what survives will be in the community-run areas.

There is a lesson here for those who seek to commandeer the world’s forests as carbon sinks. Community consent is not just vital; it is the touchstone for success.

Fred Pearce’s new report for Fern on negative emissions technologies is called Going Negative – How carbon sinks could cost the Earth.

Radical Realism About Climate Change

UniversityBlogSpot/Flickr CC by Lili Fuhr (Project Syndicate)

BERLIN – Mainstream politics, by definition, is ill equipped to imagine fundamental change. But last December in Paris, 196 governments agreed on the need to limit global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels – an objective that holds the promise of delivering precisely such a transformation. Achieving it will require overcoming serious political challenges, reflected in the fact that some are advocating solutions that will end up doing more harm than good.

One strategy that has gained a lot of momentum focuses on the need to develop large-scale technological interventions to control the global thermostat. Proponents of geo-engineering technologies argue that conventional adaptation and mitigation measures are simply not reducing emissions fast enough to prevent dangerous warming. Technologies such as “carbon capture and storage” (CCS), they argue, are necessary to limit damage and human suffering.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change seems to agree. In its fifth assessment report, it builds its scenarios for meeting the Paris climate goals around the concept of “negative emissions” – that is, the ability to suck excess carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.

But this approach ignores serious problems with the development and deployment of geo-engineering technologies. Consider CCS, which is the process of capturing waste CO2 from large sources like fossil-fuel power plants and depositing it in, say, an underground geological formation, thereby preventing it from entering the atmosphere.

It sounds good. But what makes it economical is that it enables enhanced oil recovery. In other words, the only way to make CCS cost-effective is to use it to exacerbate the problem it is supposed to address.

The supposed savior technology – bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) – is not much better. BECCS begins by producing large amounts of biomass from, say, fast-growing trees which naturally capture CO2; those plants are then converted into fuel via burning or refining, with the resulting carbon emissions being captured and sequestered.

But bioenergy is not carbon neutral, and the surge in European demand for biomass has led to rising food commodity prices and land grabs in developing countries. These realities helped persuade the scientists Kevin Anderson and Glen Peters recently to call carbon removal an “unjust and high-stakes gamble.”

What about other geo-engineering proposals? Solar Radiation Management (SRM) aims to control the amount of sunlight that reaches the Earth, essentially mimicking the effect of a volcano eruption. This may be achieved by pumping sulphates into the stratosphere or through “marine cloud brightening,” which would cause clouds to reflect more sunlight back into space.

But blasting sulphates into the stratosphere does not reduce CO2 concentrations; it merely delays the impact for as long as the spraying continues. Moreover, sulphate injections in the northern hemisphere could cause serious drought in the Africa’s Sahel region, owing to dramatic reductions in precipitation, while some African countries would experience more precipitation. The effect on the Asian monsoon system could be even more pronounced. In short, SRM could severely damage the livelihoods of millions of people.

If geo-engineering can’t save us, what can? In fact, there are a number of steps that can be taken right now. They would be messier and more politically challenging than geo-engineering. But they would work.

The first step would be a moratorium on new coal mines. If all currently planned coal-fired power plants are built and operated over their normal service life of 40 years, they alone would emit 240 billion tons of CO2 – more than the remaining carbon budget. If that investment were re-allocated to decentralized renewable-energy production, the benefits would be enormous.

Moreover, with only 10% of the global population responsible for almost 50% of global CO2 emissions, there is a strong case to be made for implementing strategies that target the biggest emitters. For example, it makes little sense that airlines – which actually serve just 7% of the global population – are exempt from paying fuel taxes, especially at a time when ticket prices are at an historic low.

Changes to land use are also needed. The 2009 International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development charts the way to a transformed agricultural system – with benefits that extend far beyond climate policy. We must apply this knowledge around the world.

In Europe, the waste sector could make a significant contribution to a low-carbon economy. Recent research, commissioned by Zero Waste Europe, found that optimal implementation of the European Commission’s “circular economy package” waste targets could save the European Union 190 million tons of CO2 per year. That is the equivalent of the annual emissions of the Netherlands!

Available measures in the transport sector include strengthening public transportation, encouraging the use of railways for freight traffic, building bike paths, and subsidizing delivery bicycles. In Germany, intelligent action on transport could reduce the sector’s emissions by up to 95% by 2050.

Another powerful measure would be to protect and restore natural ecosystems, which could result in the storage of 220-330 gigatons of CO2 worldwide .

None of these solutions is a silver bullet; but, together, they could change the world for the better. Geo-engineering solutions are not the only alternatives. They are a response to the inability of mainstream economics and politics to address the climate challenge. Instead of trying to devise ways to maintain business as usual – an impossible and destructive goal – we must prove our ability to imagine and achieve radical change.

If we fail, we should not be surprised if, just a few years from now, the planetary thermostat is under the control of a handful of states or military and scientific interests. As world leaders convene for the 22nd United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change to bring the Paris agreement into force, they should repudiate geo-engineering quick fixes – and demonstrate a commitment to real solutions.