Climate scientists are now relying on a terrifying assumption

Mrs. Gemstone via Flickr by Ryan Cooper (THE WEEK)

How can we solve climate change? One option is obvious, if a bit strange: If dumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere is the problem, then we could always suck it back out.

If you think that sounds tricky, congratulations, you’re correct. However, scientists are increasingly relying on just this idea to construct workable future scenarios where global warming does not spin out of control. And the reason is that governments around the world have not been remotely equal to the task of keeping overall warming below 2 degrees Celsius, the level at which climate change becomes unacceptably risky according to the international Paris climate accords.

 As a result, scientists crunching the numbers on how humanity might achieve this goal are increasingly leaning on outlandish assumptions about pulling billions of tons of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. The math checks out — but the science is not guaranteed to work, and it would be a lot easier to just implement proper climate policy right now.

Here’s the basic shape of climate change. In order to stay below 2 degrees, humanity can emit a sum total of roughly 1 trillion tonnes of carbon dioxide for all time. Emissions in 2014 were about 32 billion tonnes. We’re headed towards that limit at high speed — so to stay below it (without pulling anything out of the air) humanity must cut its emissions very fast, very soon.

Now, world emissions may have actually declined slightly in 2015 — an encouraging sign, but a temporary one. Renewable energy has been advancing fast, but it’s massive structural change and economic chaos in China alone that is responsible for the decline, not any sort of worldwide systematic attack on use of fossil fuels. What’s more, developing countries — particularly India — are projected to emit a lot more as their economies grow. As I noted two years ago, even if 2014 were to be a permanent emissions peak, staying under 2 degrees would require a crash course of decarbonization never seen in history outside of economic collapse.

So the only escape hatch is to pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. In a new paper in Geophysical Research Letters, Benjamin M. Sanderson, Brian O’Neill, and Claudia Tibaldi examined what it would take to achieve the targets contained in the Paris climate accords — and most of their plausible future scenarios involve a years-long period of immense carbon dioxide removal. One plausible scenario for this involves biofuels (which would grow by pulling carbon out of the air, like any plant), and then sequestering the emissions far underground after the fuel is burned.

Staying under 2 degrees can happen if we get to net zero emissions on a fairly moderate course by 2085, for example — but it would require a long-term effort taking some 26 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere every year.

This sort of thinking is becoming more and more common as climate policy remains woefully insufficient. A pseudonymous scientist notes:

What I think is interesting is that negative emissions and temperature overshoots seem to now [be] becoming part of the narrative. One obvious reason for this is that we’re on the verge of leaving it too late to achieve these targets without them. We could still do so, but it would probably require drastic emissions reductions starting now… [And Then There’s Physics]

If we procrastinate much longer, it’s going to be nearly impossible to stay under that 2 degree limit. Meanwhile, climate change itself marches on. The last year has shattered temperature records across the globe, and seen multiple disasters of the sort predicted by climate models. The most powerful El Niño ever recorded has caused the worst recorded instance of coral bleaching, particularly hammering Australia’s Great Barrier Reef and the Maldives. Roads are buckling across Alaska as permafrost melts. Record heat in Siberia led to an anthrax outbreak among humans and reindeer.

 The politics of climate change always seem tough. But it should be noted that it will be vastly easier to head the problem off now than it will be to fix it after we’ve let it fester for another couple decades. Carbon dioxide emissions are the product of several gigantic industries today. Creating a brand new industry to reverse the damage of other massive industries will be a terrifically expensive logistical nightmare.

And there’s also no guarantee that it will work on the scale required! Technologies to scrub carbon from the atmosphere are still in the early development stage. Historically, human ingenuity has solved such problems — but there’s no guarantee it will happen, especially if it needs to be done very fast. It’s completely possible we’ll run into unsolvable technical bottlenecks, and be forced to rely on hugely risky Hail Mary geoengineering efforts like partially blotting out the sun with sulfur dioxide.

Don’t think of technology predictions 70 years out as a promise. Acting to prevent climate change as soon as possible is always going to be the smart move.

Vultures are circling after Paris agreement: the carbon dioxide removal sector wants more funding

BECCS-negative-imageAn article in BizGreen called “How to build a billion dollar industry to fight climate change” features insights from two mmbers of the University of Berkley’s Centre for Carbon Removal, describing how increased funding from philanthropic sources can play a key role in meeting the targets set out in last year’s Paris agreement.

“…with just a little help from philanthropists, large-scale carbon removal (negative emissions) businesses stand poised to prosper in the not-too-distant future — in turn helping to make our long-term climate goals a reality…Carbon removal is critical to make the climate math add up, but often is missing in action.”

The article tells us how the IPCC’s 4th Assessment Report shows that Paris agreement’s climate goals present a large market opportunity, owing to the fact that the vast majority of scenarios that see the world hitting the 2 degree target will involve carbon dioxide removal, or negative emissions technologies.

It concludes with the statement: “The bottom line is that philanthropies stand at the door of a large opportunity around carbon removal. By opening the carbon removal conversation today, philanthropies can begin to unlock the economic, environmental and social value of the carbon removal industry of the future.”

The content for the article comes from a new report from the Center for Carbon Removal “PHILANTHROPY BEYOND CARBON NEUTRALITY” in which it sets out the case for an increased flow of funding towards projects considered to be Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR), as a way of stimulating the growth of the sector, and building towards commercially viable markets for the products of the industry.

The report, armed with the belief that first the IPCC and now the Paris Agreement have turned CDR and negative emissions technologies into an international imperative, aims to make it clearer to philanthropies what CRD proposals are available to be funded, and where future funding could be aimed to make an impact.

The report is revealing – though not necessarily for the reasons that its authors claim.

Interspersed with pearls of wisdom copied from various twitter feeds (including: “Removing CO2 from the atmosphere is and can be valuable”), a decent analysis of the various CDR proposals, their value to climate mitigation, and scalability, is decidedly lacking. Amongst the supposedly viable CDR options are biochar, Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage, direct air capture technologies, and mineral storage by extracting and spreading minerals such as silicates over large areas.

Ecosystem restoration and enhancement is also considered, which is potentially a powerful tool for effective climate action, though its relatively low level of current funding is not criticised.

Biochar and BECCS are the stand-out options for CDR funding though: biochar accounts for almost half of annual funding that is considered CDR or at least contributing to it, and BECCS takes the biggest slice of funding that could “help pave the way for carbon removal”, at more than a third.

Biochar has been roundly criticised for not living up to its hype, and has been shown to have very little potential as a positive climate solution (for more on this please see here).

BECCS similarly, under any degree of scrutiny, fails all of the key tests for being a genuine solution to climate change. The report wrongly states that bioenergy itself is low to carbon neutral, and that BECCS therefore results in carbon negative fuels. It also gives an example of funding for BECCS in action, citing the ADM Decatur ethanol fermentation plant in the USA, as an functioning example of the technology. But not even the plant’s operators, ADM, say that negative emissions are being achieved, due to the fact that fossil emissions involved in the ethanol fermentation process exceed the amounts of CO2 currently being captured.

The report does knowledge that the likely impacts of CRD technologies on ecosystems and communities are largely unknown, and that many face significant barriers to scalability, such as land requirements competing with food production, or simply on a technological level where working examples just don’t exist. It does also state that CRD shouldn’t get in the way of efforts to reduce emissions in the first place, or be seen as a substitute for drastic emissions reductions. Despite this though, it still touts fairytale technologies to potential funders as if they were proven solutions to climate change, which is deeply irresponsible.

The report tries to mask pro-industry opportunism for a genuine commitment to solving the climate crisis:

“The opportunities created by carbon removal — which span industries including forestry, agriculture, energy, manufacturing, and mining — hold the potential to foster new political coalitions that can increase pressure on politicians to pick up the pace on comprehensive climate action.”

In doing so, it only reinforces the “business-as-usual” scenario, keeping us firmly on the path to catastrophic climate change.