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).

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.

The dubious promise of bioenergy plus carbon capture

by Richard Martin (MIT Technology Review)

While many scientists and climate change activists hailed December’s Paris agreement as a historic step forward for international efforts to limit global warming, the landmark accord rests on a highly dubious assumption: to achieve the goal of limiting the rise in global average temperature to less than 2 °C (much less the more ambitious goal of 1.5 °C), we don’t just need to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide to essentially zero by the end of this century. We also must remove from the atmosphere huge amounts of carbon dioxide that have already been emitted (see “Paris Climate Agreement Rests on Shaky Technological Foundations”).

Doing so will involve “negative emissions technologies”—systems that capture carbon dioxide and store it, usually deep underground. Such technologies are theoretical at best, but they are considered critical for achieving the Paris goals. Of the 116 scenarios reviewed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to achieve stabilization of carbon in the atmosphere at between 430 and 480 parts per million (the level considered necessary for a maximum 2 °C rise in temperature), 101 involve some form of negative emissions.

There are basically two ways to eliminate carbon from the atmosphere. One is to capture it from the air. Technologies to do so are still in their infancy and, even if they do prove practical, are likely decades away from deployment—far too late to achieve the goals of the Paris agreement (see “Materials Could Capture CO2 and Make It Useful”). The other is to rely on plants to capture the carbon dioxide, then burn the plants to generate power (or refine them into liquid fuels such as ethanol), and capture the resulting carbon emissions. Known as “bioenergy plus carbon capture and storage,” or BECCS, this cumbersome process is receiving renewed attention in the wake of Paris. But there is no guarantee that it will ever work.

Large amounts of biomass would be produced from fast-growing trees, switchgrass, agriculture waste, or other sources. The biomass would then be turned into pellets for burning in power plants—either on their own or as additives. The resulting emissions would be separated using carbon-capture technologies that have been proven at small scale but have never been applied economically at anything like commercial scale. Finally, the carbon dioxide would be stored in deep-underground aquifers, presumably permanently.

While each of these steps is technically feasible, neither has proven to be successful at a large scale. Although there are dozens of projects that use biomass, either alone or in combination with other fuels such as coal, for producing electricity, there are serious doubts about the economic viability of the sector, the availability of biomass supplies to support growth, and the life-cycle contribution of such facilities to greenhouse gas emissions. Ambitious projections for carbon capture and storage programs, meanwhile, have proven unrealistic, and there is little indication that such systems will become economically viable in the foreseeable future.

What’s more, although the full BECCS process is often touted as carbon-negative, there are several faulty assumptions in that characterization.

The first is that sufficient amounts of biomass could be produced to displace a significant percentage of fossil-fuel produced electricity, and that producing those amounts would be carbon-neutral. Advocates assert that because plants capture carbon from the atmosphere, burning the plants and releasing the carbon back into the atmosphere does not result in a net gain. That is nominally true, but it doesn’t account for the energy required for growing, harvesting, processing, and transporting the biomass, and it diverts land from other purposes, including food crops, that will become more urgent as the human population surges toward nine billion.

The most prominent BECCS project currently underway is Archer Daniels Midland’s project at Decatur, Illinois. The project has been years in development. “Permitting has been a long and complex process,” says Scott McDonald, the project manager. And it still awaits final approval from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Once it’s complete, the captured carbon will not be stored underground but used for enhanced oil recovery in nearby wells. Studies have estimated that about a billion barrels of residual oil could be recovered in the Illinois basin using carbon dioxide for enhanced oil recovery. In other words, a technology advertised as carbon-negative would result in the production of a billion new barrels of carbon-producing fossil fuels—oil that would not otherwise be produced. That is hardly a climate-friendly solution.

Already, some proposed BECCS projects have foundered on these obstacles. In September, Drax, one of the largest power companies in the U.K., pulled out of the White Rose Carbon Capture Project, which would capture 90 percent of the carbon emissions from a 428-megawatt plant that burns coal and biomass. Drax has converted three of the six coal-fired turbines at the site to burn biomass. The fate of the carbon-capture project in the wake of Drax’s departure is uncertain. The experience of “clean coal” projects using carbon capture and storage, without biomass, is similarly discouraging: FutureGen, a highly touted CCS project in Illinois, was finally canceled in February 2015 after multiple setbacks.

In short, BECCS represents the marriage of two technologies, neither of which has proven to be viable on its own. The technology’s “credibility as a climate change mitigation option is unproven,” concluded a September 2014 study in Nature Climate Change led by Sabine Fuss, a scientist at the Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change in Berlin, “and its widespread deployment in climate stabilization scenarios might become a dangerous distraction.”

Sign-on letter: No to 1.5°C with geoengineering!

contaminacionParis, 11 December 2015

Seemingly out of the blue (or rather, out of the black smog of the UNFCCC process), some of the largest historical culprits for climate change, countries including the United States, Canada and the European Union, have decided to back an “ambitious goal” of limiting global temperature rise to 1.5°C. To achieve this, radical emissions cuts would be needed from now, but in the case of these countries, that’s not their real intention.

Instead, behind the smokescreen of a more ambitious goal, there is a set of Trojan Horse technologies being proposed, collectively called “geoengineering”.

The new proponents of the 1.5°C goal include also the largest oil companies. (*) They tell us that they can continue to burn fossil carbon and protect their assets because they are inventing something called Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) that will eventually capture CO2 emissions and store them “safely” in deep geological formations.

And, further still, they say that they can develop bioenergy with CCS (BECCS), a so-called “negative emissions” technology that will burn carbon that is locked up in the soils and forests, and bury this underground too. These are false “solutions” proposed by the oil industry, that will allow it to keep polluting in the false hope that future technological innovation can bring down emissions at a later date.

These phantom technologies won’t function, but they will bring vast new subsidies to the industry, and allow it to access even more oil through Enhanced Oil Recovery, where CO2 is pumped into aging oil fields to squeeze even more out of them. Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) was called Enhanced Oil Recovery before, but it has been renamed as a “climate technology”.

The expansion of large scale plantations for bioenergy will be devastating for ecosystems, and displace forest and peasant communities from their territories. This will destroy many of the real alternatives to climate crisis, alternatives that really cool the planet.

In a few years, when efforts to reduce emissions and the technological quick-fixes have failed, with the temperature continuing to rise, industry and government will tell us that the only way out is “solar radiation management”, an even more dangerous geoengineering technology.

The terminology underpinning this cover-up is changing rapidly: from “net zero” to “climate neutrality”, to “net GHG contributions” and now in the latest COP21 draft to “greenhouse gas emissions neutrality”. They are all the same trap designed to open the door to false climate solutions and geoengineering.

 

No to 1.5°C with geoengineering!

No to the lie of “GHG neutrality”!

 

(*) See Shell’s position on 1.5°C and geoengineering at COP21: http://blogs.shell.com/climatechange/category/paris-cop21/

 

International Organizations

ETC Group

Biofuelwatch

Corporate Europe Observatory

Focus on the Global South

Food and Water Watch

GRAIN

Grasroots Global Justice Alliance

Heinrich Böll Foundation

Transnational Institute

Women in Europe for a Common Future (WECF)

Women’s earth and climate action network (WECAN)

World Rainforest Movement

 

National organizations
Acción Ecológica, Ecuador

ATTAC, France

Centro Ecológico, Brasil

Ecologistas en Acción, Spain

Fairwatch, Italy

Friends of the Siberian Forests, Russia

Fundación Solon, Bolivia

Health of Mother Earth Foundation, Nigeria

NoGeoingegneria, Italy

Plataforma Freskiemos el ambiente, Colombia

Polaris Institute, Canada

The Corner House, UK

 

To add your signature, please send a message to silvia@etcgroup.org

Net Zero is not Zero: Inside the G7’s dystopian decarbonization scheme

by Dru Oja Jay

boundary-dam-capture-plant-700x468
The world’s only CCS facility is a backdoor subsidy for oil extraction.

Last week in Germany the “Group of 7” countries (Canada, Japan, USA, Germany, United Kingdom, France, and Italy) declared that “deep cuts in global greenhouse gas emissions are required with a decarbonisation of the global economy over the course of this century.” Many interpreted this as a call to phase out fossil fuels by the end of the century.

This interpretation deserves a closer look.

In response to the announcement, Greenpeace warned that “G7 leaders have left the door open for high risk technologies, like nuclear energy and carbon capture and storage.” Carbon Capture and Storage, or CCS, is at the core of a push to achieve “net-zero” emissions. Net zero emissions is different from actual zero emissions because it allows burning fossil fuels and emitting carbon, as long as the carbon is eventually sucked out of the air.

The Carbon Brief explains:

The G7 language on decarbonisation this century is not specific, however, and does not promise an end to the use of coal or other fossil fuels. Instead, the language could imply reaching net-zero, where any remaining emissions are balanced by sequestration through afforestation or negative emissions technologies.

The most likely method of achieving negative emissions, biomass with carbon capture and storage (BECCS), is controversial because it might require very large areas of land to be set aside for fast-growing trees or other biomass crops.

The G7 “commit to” develop and deploy “innovative technologies striving for a transformation of the energy sectors by 2050”. The communique doesn’t explain which technologies would be considered “innovative”. However, the use of the plural term “energy sectors” perhaps points past electricity generation towards transport, heat and beyond.

[Emphasis added]

The G7 energy ministers’ meeting in Hamburg was more specific in its communiqué:

We recognize that fossil fuels will remain an important part in the energy mix for some time, as we progressively reduce greenhouse gas emissions in our energy systems. In this context, we encourage countries which opt to make use of carbon capture, use and storage to collaborate on large-scale demonstration projects and countries which opt to develop and use shale gas and other unconventional resources to collaborate on safe and responsible development.

It’s as close to an endorsement of CCS as they could get, and leaves little doubt about what the G7 considers “innovative”. Meanwhile, business leaders like Richard Branson have lined up behind “net zero,” conflating it with a decrease in the use of fossil fuels. They are joined by influential economist Jeffrey Sachs and the World Bank, among others.

Will Carbon Capture and Storage allow us keep burning fossil fuels?

The IPCC’s current scenarios rely heavily on Bio-Energy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS) and CCS, which have been called “unicorn technologies“. BECCS involves generating power by growing massive amounts of biomass, then burning it in power plants that capture the carbon at the smokestack and store it underground. Theoretically, this technique would remove CO2 from the atmosphere.

A few days earlier, ActionAid released a damning report about this version of “net zero,” declaring that:

Adding “net” to a goal of “zero emissions” may prove to be a trap that delays real climate action, and which could drive devastating land grabs and hunger through the large-scale use of land, biofuels and biomass to absorb rising carbon dioxide emissions. Instead of requiring real emissions cuts, “net” counting could allow for business-as-usual greenhouse gas emissions, offset by massive-scale mitigation through the land sector.

The IPCC’s own “net zero” scenarios, the report explains, would require between 500 million and 6 billion hectares of land to keep climate emissions from heating the earth by more than 2 degrees. For comparison purposes, the total area of India is 328 million hectares.

But even if the large-scale dispossession required to suck billions of tonnes of carbon out of the atmosphere went forward, BECCS strategies probably won’t work. As Rachel Smolker explains, BECCS will likely cause additional emissions through fertilizer use and land disturbances. And long-term storage of tens of billions of tonnes of CO2 creates major dangers:

[O]ur current understanding of earth history, plate tectonics and earthquakes tells us that assuming long term CO2 storage would be foolish. CO2 is not only a danger to climate, but in concentrated form, it is a lethal poison. Any abrupt release of concentrated CO2 could have serious impacts on those exposed, as well as contributing a sudden spike of CO2 to climate. Multiple small leaks also pose risks. They can occur at many points from capture process to compression to pipeline transport to injection, separation and reinjection and storage site leaks. […] Experience with the wrongful claims made by the nuclear industry (Chernobyl, Fukushima etc.) or by the oil industry (Deep Horizon) should serve as clear lessons: Relying on industry claims about safety and reliability is unwise. Precaution is very highly advised!

Even worse, the carbon that is captured will likely end up being used in “Enhanced Oil Recovery” techniques, which pump carbon into exhausted oil wells to extract even more oil.

Indeed, the only operational CCS plant in the world, in Saskatchewan, has been selling its carbon to an Alberta oil company. Because CCS is extremely expensive, the plant has been subsidized with $2 billion from the people of Saskatchewan. So effectively, the first and only example of CCS we have turns out to be a “backdoor subsidy to oil producers” for extraction that may not have been possible otherwise.

With critics like these, who needs supporters?

Canada’s public broadcaster, the CBC, published some sharp criticism of the G7’s pledge. The Canadian government’s attempts to water down the G7’s statement was “shameful,” said climate scientist David Keith. What the report didn’t mention is that Keith is a prominent geoengineering proponent and carbon capture entrepreneur.

No surprise then, that this critic of the G7 pushes in the same direction as the G7’s own statements. “If you want a stable climate, we have to get to net zero emissions. For a government to try and avoid such a statement, is really a shame.” [Emphasis added]

In the lead up to Paris, we’re likely to see more of this false conflict: foot-dragging governments vs. proponents of faster implementation of “net zero”. What’s left out is the need to phase out fossil fuels altogether, a task the G7 governments have shunned for the last two decades.

The portrayal of status quo vs. net zero as the main conflict plays into the hands of the big oil companies, which want to protect trillions of dollars of investments and subsidies and to keep extracting oil until it’s gone. Basic facts about net zero are missing: namely, that it is an epic land-grabbing disaster for the global south that would drive global hunger and almost certainly won’t work as advertised.

As Paris draws closer, it will become crucial to establish that despite many claims to the contrary, “net zero” is not zero, and actual reductions in fossil fuel extraction and use are required. “Net zero” is a well-packaged excuse to keep pumping oil out of the ground while relying on hypothetical, unproven or nonexistent technologies to save us.