The Devil in the Climate Change Details: “Negative Emissions”

Sunday, October 23rd, 2016

Image of a fossil fuel facility emitting GHGs.

A small spate of articles over the past couple of weeks are finally giving some much-needed attention to a serious deficiency in the climate models produced by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC): “negative emissions,” a euphemism for literally sucking carbon out of the atmosphere using thus-far non-existent infrastructure and technology, is used as a shortcut to produce virtually every carbon dioxide emission scenario that avoids catastrophic climate change.

In other words, the IPCC cheated, and policymakers who use the IPCC projections as a cover for failing to force near-term emissions reductions are gambling with millions of lives.

When scientists say “negative emissions” or “carbon sequestration,” they don’t mean something like installing an air filter in an AC unit. The kind of negative emissions that appear most often in the IPCC reports, bioenergy combined with carbon capture and storage, or BECCS, requires dedicating land specifically to growing trees and other plants, which trap carbon dioxide inside them. You then strip those trees and plants from the land, burn them, and capture the carbon emitted from burning them. That CO2 is then (theoretically) piped down underground into airtight reservoirs.

Without extremely deep emissions cuts, the land area necessary to make this effective enough, quickly enough, is roughly equivalent to the size of India. We would have to dedicate land about equal to the area of Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wisconsin to *no other use* than growing trees and cutting them down to burn them. It would also cost hundreds of trillions of dollars.

This is lunacy. This is the planetary equivalent of frantically bailing water. It would be the last, completely desperate act of a species trying to save itself and its surrounding ecology. It would become the primary industrial activity of our species. To paraphrase Dr. Hugh Hunt, “We’d have to be extracting 10 billion tons per year of carbon from the air to keep up with our emissions. We don’t do anything on that scale as a species. We don’t mine that much iron ore. We don’t grow that much food.”

Worse, there is virtually no R&D happening for this technology, and no infrastructure being built of any scale worth mentioning, anywhere in the world. In fact, the budgets for negative emission projects globally have beendecreasing, not increasing.

Right now carbon sequestration is as realistic as a unicorn. Yet, virtually every scenario sketched out by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that claims to have a good chance of staying below 2°C has a significant amount of this negative emissions scenario baked into it.

From the latest piece by climate expert, Dr. James Hansen:

Quietly, with minimal objection from the scientific community (Anderson, 2015, is a courageous exception), the assumption that young people will somehow figure out a way to undo the deeds of their forebears, has crept into and spread like a cancer through UN climate scenarios. Proposed methods of extraction such as bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) or air capture of CO2 imply minimal estimated costs of 104–570 trillion dollars this century, with large risks and uncertain feasibility. Continued high fossil fuel emissions unarguably sentences young people to either a massive, possibly implausible cleanup or growing deleterious climate impacts or both, scenarios that should provide incentive and obligation for governments to alter energy policies without further delay.

The Anderson mentioned by Hansen in the above is Kevin Anderson of the Tyndall Centre at the University of Manchester. He deserves the highest accolades possible for ringing the alarm bells about the negative emissions cheat. He and Glen Peters of the Center for International Climate and Environmental Research in Oslo have a new piece out in Science, which you can read here. You should. It shows you that political leaders are relying on flawed, and conveniently comfortable, projections about future carbon emissions that play dice with the lives of millions.

You might ask, “Why did this happen? Why did the IPCC cheat in this way, and why has no one in power called them on it?”

The answer is simple: sneaking in this non-existent technology into their assumptions was a clever way of avoiding having an authoritative climate change panel tell governments that the era of fossil fuels had to be strangled to death immediately. By letting themselves bet on a miracle in the future, they could avoid the political pain of having to tell everyone that the party was over.

Anderson and Peters:

In postponing the need for rapid and immediate mitigation, BECCS licenses the ongoing combustion of fossil fuels while ostensibly fulfilling the Paris commitments.

Oh, and then there’s the fact that today, there’s basically one industrial application for the underground injection of carbon dioxide: forcing more oil out of under-producing wells.

I’m sure the friendliness of this “solution” to fossil fuel bank accounts hasnothing to do with why this solution hangs around otherwise serious science conferences.

The bottom line is, this cheat by the IPCC is obscuring a severe climate emergency. If we continue with the path we’re on today, we will blow any good chance at avoiding catastrophic temperature increases not in 50 years, not in ten, but in five. Five years. Here’s a handy chart created by Peters to help drive that point home, and to show how the IPCC and policymakers use negative emissions assumptions to hide the oncoming catastrophe:

If we let BECCS remain the default plan and it fails to deliver, we condemn people that are alive right now to a future of utter desperation with a slim chance of avoiding disaster.

We have to cram our net carbon emissions into the ground, literally down to zero, in years, not decades.

Don’t sit on the sidelines anymore.


If you see a fossil fuel project, get in the way and stay there.

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Copyright Derrick Crowe, 2015, y'all.