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.

New briefing: Why are Solar Radiation Management Experiments a Bad Idea?

by ETC Group.

A new briefing from ETC Group outlines the ethical, political and environmental arguments against solar radiation management (SRM), and explains why even SRM experiments are a bad idea. The backgrounder was released in late March 2017 after Harvard University announced they are planning open-air SRM experiments  in Arizona in 2018. Read the briefing and related materials at: http://www.etcgroup.org/content/why-srm-experiments-are-bad-idea

ETC Group also issued a news release and supporting materials explaining how the new US administration could “inflate geoengineers’ balloon” and create favourable circumstances for geoengineering experiments now and 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.

On eve of Trump inauguration, White House report calls for geoengineering research

Photo: Wikipedia

The White House has released a report which for the first time recommends U.S. government-funded research into geoengineering. The report, which was submitted to Congress last week by the Office of Science and Technology Policy, falls short of calling for real-world experiments, laying out a case for research into the science behind large-scale climate intervention and the “possible consequences of any such measures.”

The White House report comes one week before businessman Donald Trump is set to be inaugurated as the 45th president of the United States. Trump has repeatedly denied the scientific consensus on climate change, and has nominated a collection of climate deniers to head key agencies related to energy, environment, and public lands in the U.S.

The report’s release raises the question of whether a Trump administration would support further research or even deployment of geoengineering technologies. There are a number of reasons to believe that he would.

First, Trump and his nominees are heavily linked to the fossil fuel industry, which has an enormous material interest – to the tune of trillions of dollars in booked assets – in promoting the notion that society can extract known carbon reserves and overshoot carbon budgets today, while relying upon future techno-fix solutions to clean up the mess later on.

The president-elect himself, as recently as 2015, was invested in Chevron, Statoil, Shell, Transcanada, and Energy Transfer Partners, the company behind the contested Dakota Access Pipeline. The list of Trump’s department nominees reads like a dystopian novel. If confirmed, the U.S. Energy Department, Environmental Protection Agency, and Department of the Interior would all be led by people with close ties to fossil fuel interests who deny anthropogenic climate change, while the State Department would be led by Rex Tillerson – longtime CEO of ExxonMobil.

The second point is that simultaneous support for climate change denial and geoengineering, or rapid shifts from one position to the other, are not logically incoherent when viewed through a political lens. This is particularly true among political actors on the far right, associated with groups ranging from the American Enterprise Institute, the Cato Institute, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and the Heartland Institute.

Trump ally and former House speaker Newt Gingrich – who famously flipped from climate change skepticism, to geoengineering supporter, back to climate denial – offers just one prominent example of this maneuver. And it’s not difficult to imagine a similar shift from the president-to-be himself. Trump’s interview with the New York Times in November offers a window into his opportunist mode of thinking; where in response to a question about climate change, he notes that, “I have an open mind to it…we’re going to look very carefully,” followed immediately by, “it also depends on how much it’s going to cost our companies.”

The third point is that geoengineering is a technology particularly well-suited for those who fashion themselves as would-be autocrats. In a testament to the effectiveness of the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity’s de-facto moratorium on geoengineering, the U.S. has so far restrained from proposing any real-world experiments. However, the U.S. is not a party to the convention – and it’s troublingly easy to imagine a Trump administration taking unilateral action on testing, or where feasible, deploying geoengineering technologies.

Much has been written about the possibility of a Trump administration utilizing large-scale disruption – such as a terrorist attack – as a pretense for suspending civil liberties, undermining democratic institutions, and going after political rivals. This age-old strategy, most recently on display in Erdogan’s Turkey following the attempted coup, provides a model for an authoritarian response to a cataclysmic natural disaster.

In fact, Trump’s practice of denigrating all sources of information outside of himself – ranging from the press, to political opposition, to the intelligence agencies – would prove particularly useful in declaring and sustaining activities under the banner of a climate state of emergency. Trump may not have to go it alone – with Rex Tillerson at the helm of the vast State Department apparatus, it’s likely Trump could find an ally in Putin’s Russia, which has at least on one occasion quietly pushed the IPCC to include geoengineering in its reports.

The antidote to all of this is to build and support organizations and movements united by a common vision of a fundamentally different type of economy – one that revolves around zero waste, ecosystem restoration, regional food systems, durable public housing and public transit, and community-scale renewable energy. An authoritarian approach to geoengineering will draw its power from fear and a recycled notion of “There Is No Alternative” type thinking – therefore our response must be based as much on hope and vision as it is on building organizations and movements with the power to win.

UN Convention still says “No” to manipulating the climate

Kevin Gill/Flickr CCby ETC Group

UN Convention on Biological Diversity reaffirms its moratorium on climate-related geoengineering

CANCUN, MEXICO – The UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), which gathered at its 13th Conference of the Parties (COP 13) in Mexico from December 4-17, decided to reaffirm its landmark moratorium on climate-related geoengineering that it first agreed to in 2010.

Geoengineering refers to a set of proposed techniques that would intervene in and alter earth systems on a large scale – recently, these proposals have been gaining traction as a “technofix” solution to climate change. Examples include solar radiation management techniques such as blasting sulphate particles into the atmosphere as well as other earth systems interventions grouped under a second broad umbrella of ‘carbon dioxide removal.’

The reaffirmation of the CBD moratorium is even more relevant in the light of the Paris Agreement on climate change, in which governments agreed to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees. Geoengineers quickly interpreted the Paris Agreement as allowing or encouraging geoengineering to meet that ambitious goal.

“The decision to reaffirm the global moratorium on geoengineering is an important message for those who are now promoting it as shortcut to achieve the Paris Agreement goals. Geoengineering schemes will impact the global commons and will have transboundary impacts that could be worse than climate change,” said Silvia Ribeiro, Latin America Director of ETC Group. “The CBD made a landmark decision on 2010 to halt the deployment of geoengineering because of its potential widespread negative impacts on people and biodiversity, and that decision holds firm.”

“Climate change and biodiversity erosion are both acute interrelated global problems that demand urgent attention and action,” said Neth Daño, Asia Director of ETC Group. “However, climate geoengineering proposals are a set of unproven techno-fixes that do not address the root causes of either climate change or biodiversity loss, and could deviate attention and resources from real, affordable, safe, and globally much more fair alternatives.”

The CBD decision noted also that the potential impacts of geoengineering on biodiversity and ecosystem functions, as well as on socio-economic and cultural/ethical issues have not been studied. This is one of the main conclusions in the updated report on the impacts on geoengineering on biodiversity that was organized by the CBD. “Taking the precautionary approach is the least the UN can do,” said Silvia Ribeiro.

In a 2016 article in Nature, Phil Williamson, the coordinator of that report, highlighted that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which released the largest climate change report to date in 2014, “[…] leaves out one crucial consideration: the environmental impacts of large-scale CO2 removal. This omission is striking because the set of IPCC emissions scenarios that are likely to limit the increase in global surface temperature to 2C by 2100 […] mostly relies on large-scale CO2 removal.”[i]

Specifically, the IPCC did not look at the environmental or biodiversity impacts of their favoured technique: BECCS (bioenergy with carbon capture and storage) or of other so called “negative emissions” technologies. Furthermore, recent scientific studies also show that these proposals are not technically or economically viable, but would imply large impacts on biodiversity and traditional livelihoods.[ii]

“The reaffirmation of the CBD moratorium on geoengineering, taken by consensus of 196 governments, is a wake-up call for the governments considering these dangerous proposals” said Jim Thomas, Programme Director at ETC Group. “It was a mature decision not only to protect biodiversity, but also to prevent the few and powerful actors that want geoengineering from taking control of the global thermostat.”

The decision also emphasised that indigenous peoples and local communities’ knowledge must be taken into account. “There are plenty of proven viable, sustainable, culturally and economically viable solutions to stop both the erosion of biodiversity and climate change, such as peasant agriculture, that need attention and support instead of high-tech, high-risk false solutions such as geoengineering” said Silvia Ribeiro.

Geoengineering has been a topic of discussion in the CBD for almost a decade and in 2008, the CBD issued a moratorium on ocean fertilization. Therefore, the geoengineering decision in COP 13 was preceded by longer debates in the CBD’s subsidiary scientific body (SBSTTA) and previous COPs creating high level of agreement, and as such was not a hotly debated topic in Cancun.

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Note to editors:

The full decision of the CBD can be found here: https://www.cbd.int/doc/meetings/cop/cop-13/in-session/cop-13-l-04-en.pdf

An eight-page briefing on geoengineering and the CBD can be found here: http://www.etcgroup.org/sites/www.etcgroup.org/files/files/final_geoengineering_brief_cop_13_web.pdf

Expert Contacts:

Silvia Ribeiro: +52 1 55 2653 3330, silvia@etcgroup.org

Neth Dano: +63 917 532 9369, neth@etcgroup.org

Jim Thomas: +1 (514) 516-5759, jim@etcgroup.org

Communications Contact:
Trudi Zundel: +1 (226) 979-0993, trudi@etcgroup.org

[i] Williamson, Phil. “Emissions reduction: Scrutinize CO2 removal methods.” Nature. 530, no. 7589 (2016): 153. http://www.nature.com/news/emissions-reduction-scrutinize-co2-removal-methods-1.19318

[ii] Kevin Anderson and Glen Peters, “The trouble with negative emissions.” Science, October 2016.

Almuth Ernsting and Oliver Munnion, “Last Ditch Climate Option or Wishful Thinking? Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage.” Biofuelwatch report, November 2015. http://www.wri.org/publication/avoiding-bioenergy-competition-food-crops-and-land

Tim Searchinger and Ralph Heimlich, “Avoiding Bioenergy Competition for Food Crops and Land.” January 2015. Creating a Sustainable Food Future, Installment Nine. http://www.nature.com/news/emissions-reduction-scrutinize-co2-removal-methods-1.19318

 

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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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).

A reliance on negative emissions technologies is locking in carbon addiction

The Paris Agreement on climate change and the carbon-reduction plans of many governments (including the UK) are unwittingly reliant on unproven technologies to suck hundreds of billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide directly from the atmosphere.

The journal Science has published a Perspective which reveals the scale and widespread reliance on ‘negative emissions technologies’, which remain at best experimental. Nevertheless the models being used to advise governments on what action to take are dominated by such highly speculative technologies – with many assuming their mass roll-out beginning within the decade.

“The beguiling appeal of relying on future negative emission technologies (NETs) is that they delay the need for stringent and politically challenging polices today – they pass the buck for reducing carbon on to future generations” said Kevin Anderson, co-author of the paper and Professor at the Universities of Manchester and Uppsala. “But if these Dr. Strangelove technologies fail to deliver at the planetary scale envisaged, our own children will be forced to endure the consequences of rapidly rising temperatures and a highly unstable climate.”

The scale of carbon removal emerging from the models underpinning governments’ thinking on climate change is breathtaking. By the middle of the century many of the models assume as much removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by negative emission technologies as is absorbed naturally today by all of the world’s oceans and plants combined.

Despite the modelling community’s reliance on negative emission technologies, there are no proven means by which we can remove carbon dioxide at such unprecedented scales” says Dr Glen Peters, a Senior Researcher at the Center for International Climate and Environmental Research – Oslo (CICERO) and co-author of the paper.

“Yet almost all of the scenarios with a likely chance of not exceeding 2°C and considered by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (the IPCC) assume that the large scale roll out of negative emission technologies is technically and economically viable.”

Dr Peters points to how “Carbon dioxide removal is an extremely attractive technology for fossil fuel companies, as they can continue production whilst shifting the burden of mitigation on to future generations.”

It is not well understood by many decision makers, NGOs and even academics working on climate change, that the climate models informing governments are so dependent on such a massive deployment of speculative and unproven technologies.

“The inclusion of the still more ambitious 1.5°C goal in Paris, relies on a belief in even greater levels of carbon removal. Without negative emissions, holding to a 1.5°C rise demands that the global economy fully decarbonises within a decade,” says Professor Anderson.

Negative emission technologies are not an insurance policy. They are a high risk gamble with tomorrow’s generations, particularly those living in poor and climatically vulnerable communities, set to pay the price if our high stakes bet fails to deliver as promised.

Professor Kevin Anderson

The trouble with negative emissions

By Kevin Anderson and Glen Peters (Science)

Reliance on negative-emission concepts locks in humankind’s carbon addiction

In December 2015, member states of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) adopted the Paris Agreement, which aims to hold the increase in the global average temperature to below 2°C and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C.

The Paris Agreement requires that anthropogenic greenhouse gas emission sources and sinks are balanced by the second half of this century. Because some nonzero sources are unavoidable, this leads to the abstract concept of “negative emissions”, the removal of carbon dioxide (CO2 ) from the atmosphere through technical means. The Integrated Assessment Models (IAMs) informing policy-makers assume the large-scale use of negative-emission technologies. If we rely on these and they are not deployed or are unsuccessful at removing CO2 from the atmosphere at the levels assumed, society will be locked into a high-temperature pathway.

CARBON BUDGETS

To understand the implications of the Paris Agreement for mitigation policy, we must translate its qualitative temperature limits into quantitative carbon budgets, specifying how much CO2 can be emitted across the remainder of the century to keep warming below a given temperature level (1). Uncertainties in the climate system mean that such budgets are specified with quantitative likelihoods.

Borrowing from the taxonomy of likelihoods used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the most generous interpretation of the Paris Agreement’s requirement to keep the temperature rise well below 2°C is, at least, a likely (66 to 100%) chance of not exceeding 2°C.

The IPCC has assessed 900 mitigation scenarios from about 30 IAMs (2). Of these, 76 scenarios from five IAMs had sufficient data to estimate the carbon budget for a likely chance of not exceeding 2°C. These scenarios give a carbon budget of between 600 and 1200 billion metric tons (Gt) CO 2 (10 to 90% range) for the period from 2016 until the peak in temperature [updated from (1)]. Increasing the likelihood of keeping temperatures below 2°C (or shifting the ceiling to 1.5°C) will reduce still further the available carbon budget (3). The budget is also subject to a reduction each year, currently around 40 Gt CO 2 , due to continued fossil fuel, industry, and land-use change emissions.

It is important to keep in mind that despite their intuitive appeal, the complexity of carbon budgets make it impossible to assign a specific budget to a given temperature rise.

anderson-graphFROM BUDGETS TO EMISSION PATHWAYS

Because the carbon budgets represent cumulative emissions, different emission pathways can be consistent with a given budget. Using the 76 scenarios consistent with a likely chance of not exceeding 2°C (see the figure), two key features are immediately striking. First, the scenarios assume that the large-scale rollout of negative-emission technologies is technically, economically, and socially viable (2, 4). In many scenarios, the level of negative emissions is comparable in size with the remaining carbon budget (see the figure) and is sufficient to bring global emissions to at least net zero in the second half of the century.

Second, there is a large and growing deviation between actual emission trends and emission scenarios. The sum of the national emission pledges submitted to the Paris negotiations (COP21) lead to an increase in emissions, at least until 2030. They thus broaden the division between pathways consistent with the temperature goals of the Paris Agreement (5) and require either much more severe near-term mitigation (6) or additional future negative emissions.

It is not well understood by policy-makers, or indeed many academics, that IAMs assume such a massive deployment of negative-emission technologies. Yet when it comes to the more stringent Paris obligations, studies suggest that it is impossible to reach 1.5°C with a 50% chance without significant negative emissions (3). Even for 2°C, very few scenarios have explored mitigation without negative emissions (2).

Negative emissions are also prevalent in scenarios for higher stabilization targets (7). Given such a pervasive and pivotal role of negative emissions in mitigation scenarios, their almost complete absence from climate policy discussions is disturbing and needs to be addressed urgently.

NEGATIVE-EMISSION TECHNOLOGIES

Negative-emission technologies exist at various levels of development (8–11). Afforestation and reforestation, although not strictly technologies, are already claimed by countries as mitigation measures. Bioenergy, combined with carbon capture and storage (BECCS), is the most prolific negative-emission technology included in IAMs and is used widely in emission scenarios. It has the distinct feature of providing energy while also, in principle (12), removing CO2 from the atmosphere. Assuming that carbon is valued, BECCS can thus provide an economic benefit that may offset, at least in part, the additional costs of using the technology (13). Generally, carbon is assumed to be fully absorbed during biomass growth, captured before or after combustion, and then stored underground indefinitely. Despite the prevalence of BECCS in emission scenarios at a level much higher than afforestation, only one large-scale demonstration plant exists today.

Other negative-emission technologies have not moved beyond theoretical studies or small-scale demonstrations. Alternative and adjusted agricultural practices, including biochar, may increase carbon uptake in soils (9). It may also be possible to use direct air capture to remove CO2 from the atmosphere via chemical reactions, with underground storage similar to CCS. Enhancing the natural weathering of minerals (rocks) may increase the amount of carbon stored in soils, land, or oceans. Introduction of biological or chemical catalysts may increase carbon uptake by the ocean. New technologies, designs, and refinements may emerge over time.

BECCS: A POLITICAL PANACEA

The allure of BECCS and other negative-emission technologies stems from their promise of much-reduced political and economic challenges today, compensated by anticipated technological advances tomorrow. Yet there are huge opportunities for near-term, rapid, and deep reductions today at little to modest costs, such as improving energy efficiency, encouraging low-carbon behaviors, and continued deployment of renewable energy technologies. Why, then, is BECCS used so prolifically in emission scenarios?

The answer is simple. Integrated assessment models often assume perfect knowledge of future technologies and give less weight to future costs. In effect, they assume that the discounted cost of BECCS in future decades is less than the cost of deep mitigation today. In postponing the need for rapid and immediate mitigation, BECCS licenses the ongoing combustion of fossil fuels while ostensibly fulfilling the Paris commitments.

The idea behind BECCS is to combine bioenergy production with CCS, but both face major and perhaps insurmountable obstacles. Two decades of research and pilot plants have struggled to demonstrate the technical and economic viability of power generation with CCS, even when combusting relatively homogeneous fossil fuels (14). Substituting for heterogeneous biomass feedstock adds to the already considerable challenges.

Moreover, the scale of biomass assumed in IAMs—typically, one to two times the area of India—raises profound questions (10) about carbon neutrality, land availability, competition with food production, and competing demands for bioenergy from the transport, heating, and industrial sectors. The logistics of collating and transporting vast quantities of bioenergy—equivalent to up to half of the total global primary energy consumption—is seldom addressed. Some studies suggest that BECCS pathways are feasible, at least locally (15), but globally there are substantial limitations (10). BECCS thus remains a highly speculative technology.

Although BECCS, like all negative-emission technologies, is subject to scientific and political uncertainties, it dominates the scenario landscape. Yet, as recognition of the ubiquitous role of BECCS in mitigation scenarios has grown, so have concerns about its deployment (10, 11). Its land-use impacts could include terrestrial species losses equivalent to, at least, a 2.8°C temperature rise (11), leading to difficult trade-offs between biodiversity loss and temperature rise. There is also little robust analysis of the trade-offs between large-scale deployment of BECCS (and all negative-emission technologies) and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). But such a level of caution is far removed from the technical utopia informing IAMs. Despite BECCS continuing to stumble through its infancy, many scenarios assessed by the IPCC propose its mature and large-scale rollout as soon as 2030 (see the figure).

MORAL HAZARD AND INEQUITY

The appropriateness or otherwise of relying, in significant part, on negative-emission technologies to realize the Paris commitments is an issue of risk (7). However, the distribution of this risk is highly inequitable. If negative-emission technologies fail to deliver at the scale enshrined in many IAMs, their failure will be felt most by low-emitting communities that are geographically and financially vulnerable to a rapidly changing climate.

The promise of future and cost-optimal negative-emission technologies is more politically appealing than the prospect of developing policies to deliver rapid and deep mitigation now. If negative-emission technologies do indeed follow the idealized, rapid, and successful deployment assumed in the models, then any reduction in near-term mitigation caused by the appeal of negative emissions will likely lead to only a small and temporary overshoot of the Paris temperature goals (3). In stark contrast, if the many reservations increasingly voiced about negative-emission technologies (particularly BECCS) turn out to be valid, the weakening of near-term mitigation and the failure of future negative-emission technologies will be a prelude to rapid temperature rises reminiscent of the 4°C “business as usual” pathway feared before the Paris Agreement (5).

Negative-emission technologies are not an insurance policy, but rather an unjust and high-stakes gamble. There is a real risk they will be unable to deliver on the scale of their promise. If the emphasis on equity and risk aversion embodied in the Paris Agreement are to have traction, negative-emission technologies should not form the basis of the mitigation agenda. This is not to say that they should be abandoned (14, 15). They could very reasonably be the subject of research, development, and potentially deployment, but the mitigation agenda should proceed on the premise that they will not work at scale.

The implications of failing to do otherwise are a moral hazard par excellence.

REFERENCES AND NOTES

1. J. Rogelj et al., Nat. Clim. Change 6, 245 (2016).
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, Cambridge/New York, 2014), pp. 413–510.
3. J. Rogelj et al., Nat. Clim. Change 5, 519 (2015).
4. H. J. Buck, Clim. Change 10.1007/s10484-016-1770-6 (2016).
5. J. Rogelj et al., Nature 534, 631 (2016).
6. K. Anderson, Nat. Geosci. 8, 898 (2015).
7. S. Fuss et al., Nat. Clim. Change 4, 850 (2014).
8. M. Tavoni, R. Socolow, Clim. Change 118, 1 (2013).
9. P. Smith, Glob. Change Biol. 22, 1315 (2016).
10. P. Smith et al., Nat. Clim. Change 6, 42 (2015).
11. P. Williamson, Nature 530, 153 (2016).
12. A. Gilbert, B. K. Sovacool, Nat. Clim. Change 5, 495 (2015).
13. D. L. Sanchez et al., Nat. Clim. Change 5, 230 (2015).
14. D. M. Reiner, Nat. Energy 1, 15011 (2016).
15. D. L. Sanchez, D. M. Kammen, Nat. Energy 1, 15002 (2016).
16. The figure shows the median of the 76 IPCC scenarios that limit the global temperature rise to 2°C with 66% likelihood (2). Realized negative emissions are estimated by converting the BECCS energy consumption [exajoules (EJ) per year], assuming an average biomass emission factor of 100 metric tons of CO 2 per terajoule (TJ) and assuming that 90% of the CO 2 is captured. The emission pledges (INDCs) in 2030 are estimated based on cumulative emissions from 2011 to 2030 (5).

James Hansen on Negative Emissions: Desperately needed, but not the technofixes

farming
Negative emissions technology that works: peasant agriculture cools the planet! Nicole McConvery/Flickr CC

James Hansen and 11 other climate scientists have just released a new report “Young People’s Burden: Requirement of Negative CO2 Emissions“. In it they outline how the only way to have any hope of stabilising greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere is to drastically reduce carbon emissions now, as well as drawing CO2 that’s already in the atmosphere out of it, and storing it safely. This conclusion should not be misinterpreted as a call for negative emissions technologies and by implication a focus on carbon capture, and false climate solutions like bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS).

The paper actually comes out strongly against these technofix solutions. It says that negative emissions are desperately needed, but should focus on increasing the capacity of forests and soils to store carbon, instead of relying on unproven and hugely expensive technological solutions like BECCS. This makes total sense: draw carbon out of the atmosphere by making existing carbon sinks more effective. This would involve allowing natural ecosystems to regenerate, protecting forests, promoting agro-ecology and peasant farming.

Conversely, BECCS, CCS, and direct air capture of CO2 aim to create a new carbon sink below the Earth’s crust, at the expense of existing forests and soils. This makes no sense, is doomed to technological failure, and only lets polluters off the hook.

One small issue with the paper is it’s hesitant support for biochar as a means of increasing soil carbon. Biochar as a climate mitigation strategy has been widely discredited, and it really is time respected climate scientists stopped taking it seriously.