Insights into Editorial: It’s time to make deep emission cuts
In 2016, the earth’s temperature was 1.3°C warmer than in pre-industrial times. More dishearteningly, even if countries take the action they promised at the Paris climate change conference in 2015, the world would be about 3°C warmer by 2100, well above the 2°C temperature guardrail to avoid dangerous climate change.
Human activities like excessive use of fossil fuels and changed land uses are responsible for the release of greenhouse gases (GHGs) and associated global warming.
Why is there a consensus amongst the scientific community to rely on ‘negative emissions’?
The current pattern of increasing emissions needs a rapid phase down. The reason why bringing down emissions – even to zero – will not be enough to stabilize the climate is because the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is already particularly unsafe.
NASA scientists can tell that these levels are higher than they have been at any time in the past 400,000 years. Today’s concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere is above 400ppm which is comparable to this during the Eemian period, a time much warmer than what Homo Sapiens ever experimented and when sea levels were between 20 and 30 feet higher than currently observed.
Facing this reality, there is a consensus amongst the scientific community to develop revolutionary technologies like ‘negative emissions’ to remove existing and accumulating carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
Closer examination reveals that many of the integrated assessment models used to study future emissions assume that the world would somehow make use of significant amounts of ‘negative emissions’. These negative emissions in the models are used in addition to increasing use of renewables and improving the efficiency of energy services.
What are negative emissions?
‘Negative emissions’ are nothing but the removal of carbon from the atmosphere. These are ways to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, or even change the earth’s radiation balance through geo-engineering.
- This can be done naturally, such as by protecting and restoring degraded forests so they become carbon sinks and better agricultural practices that leave carbon in the ground.
- Some also claim that the earth’s radiation balance can be changed through geo-engineering, for instance by burning bioenergy, capturing the carbon released, and pumping it into underground geological reservoirs. This is known as Bioenergy, Carbon, Capture and Storage(BECCS).
Why does relying on geo-engineering models risky? / Why does the prospect of limiting global warming through ‘negative emissions’ bleak?
Some scientists have been discussing the possibility of injecting cooling aerosols at a large scale in the atmosphere, but these geo-engineering technologies pose huge risks and are also not long-term solutions.
Few Environmentalists believe that
- Geo-engineering projects are used as an excuse to keep burning fossil fuels despite unproven benefits.
- They will have unacceptable ecological and social impacts if used at an industrial scale.
- They cannot ensure stored carbon is not released through human or natural forces, including climate change.
- Due to competition for land for food and other purposes, and due to technological limitations, this approach is believed to be inappropriate for extensive use.
- Other methods to suck carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and increase carbon dioxide absorption by the oceans are also being explored, but their long-term implications are not clear
- These models can pose a severe risk to society, especially to the poorest countries, which will experience the worst impacts of climate change. The irony is that these poor countries have emitted the least amount of GHGs.
- Negative emissions also create a moral hazard problem, where we expect (future) others to bail us out while we continue to lead profligate lives.
If negative emissions become feasible in future, they could help the world stay on course in reducing warming, but this cannot be assumed while we are running short of the carbon space available to escape dangerous climate change.
Climate change has already been experienced in many parts of the world with several seasons of intense storms, droughts, floods, fires. Any further delay in reducing emissions would put at risk many more lives, livelihoods and investments for decades to come. Hence,
- Economic growth as usual cannot be reconciled with climate impacts, especially as Earth continues to warm.
- Scientists need to speak openly and freely about the dangers of climate change without leaning on euphemisms.
- Policies therefore need to support practices that successfully keep carbon in the ground, prevent deforestation, support agricultural practice that sequesters carbon and promote sustainable land use practices that reduce emissions.
- Needed one carbon tax.
- ‘Lifestyle’ and other consumption activities that may have hitherto been outside the radar of climate policy because they disturb the status quo would have to be considered.
- Policies should push especially the more prosperous communities towards less carbon intensive lifestyles, either through taxes or incentives or both.
In addition, the path to zero-emissions must be progressive and in line with the progress of carbon-neutral fuels such as hydro, solar and wind.