The myth of net-zero emis­sions

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE -

The emis­sions from burn­ing coal, oil, and gas are heat­ing up our planet at such a rapid rate that in­creas­ingly volatile and dan­ger­ous cli­mate con­di­tions seem almost in­evitable. Clearly, we have to re­duce emis­sions fast, while de­vel­op­ing al­ter­na­tive en­ergy sources that al­low us to leave fos­sil fu­els in the ground.

This im­per­a­tive is almost shock­ingly straight­for­ward. Yet cli­mate change has been sub­ject to so much po­lit­i­cal in­er­tia, false in­for­ma­tion, and wish­ful think­ing for the last few decades that we con­tinue to see in­ef­fec­tive or im­pos­si­ble so­lu­tions, rather than an ef­fort to ad­dress root causes. Of­ten th­ese “so­lu­tions” are based on non-ex­is­tent or risky new tech­nolo­gies.

This ap­proach is highly ex­pe­di­ent, for it threat­ens nei­ther business as usual nor so­cioe­co­nomic or­tho­doxy. But cli­mate mod­els that de­pend on elu­sive tech­nolo­gies weaken the im­per­a­tive to en­act the deep struc­tural changes that are needed to avoid cli­mate catas­tro­phe.

The lat­est such “so­lu­tion” to emerge is “net-zero emis­sions,” which de­pends on so-called “car­bon cap­ture and stor­age.” Though the tech­nol­ogy still faces more than a few short­com­ings, In­ter­gov­ern­men­tal Panel on Cli­mate Change (IPCC) Chair­man Ra­jen­dar Pachauri is­sued a deeply prob­lem­atic state­ment last month, say­ing that, “With CCS it is en­tirely pos­si­ble for fos­sil fu­els to con­tinue to be used on a large scale.”

To be fair, the IPCC’s lat­est as­sess­ment re­port high­lights the im­per­a­tive of cut­ting CO2 emis­sions dras­ti­cally to avoid ex­ceed­ing the world’s small – and still risky – car­bon bud­get. But to shift from clear-cut goals like “zero emis­sions,” “full de­car­bon­i­sa­tion,” and “100% re­new­able en­ergy” to the far hazier ob­jec­tive of net-zero emis­sions is to adopt a dan­ger­ous stance.

In­deed, the net-zero idea im­plies that the world can con­tinue to pro­duce emis­sions, as long as there is a way to “off­set” them. So, in­stead of em­bark­ing im­me­di­ately on a rad­i­cal emis­sions-re­duc­tion tra­jec­tory, we can con­tinue to emit mas­sive amounts of CO2 – and even es­tab­lish new coal plants – while claim­ing to be tak­ing cli­mate ac­tion by “sup­port­ing” the de­vel­op­ment of CCS tech­nol­ogy. It is ap­par­ently ir­rel­e­vant that such tech­nol­ogy might not work, is rid­dled with prac­ti­cal chal­lenges, and car­ries the risk of fu­ture leak­age, which would have ma­jor so­cial and en­vi­ron­men­tal con­se­quences.

Bioen­ergy with Car­bon Cap­ture and Stor­age is the poster child for the new “over­shoot ap­proach” of net-zero emis­sions. BECCS en­tails plant­ing a huge amount of grass and trees, burn­ing the biomass to gen­er­ate elec­tric­ity, cap­tur­ing the CO2 that is emit­ted, and pump­ing it into ge­o­log­i­cal reser­voirs un­der­ground.

BECCS would have enor­mous de­vel­op­ment im­pli­ca­tions, pro­vok­ing large-scale land grabs, most likely from rel­a­tively poor peo­ple. This is not some far­fetched sce­nario; ris­ing de­mand for bio­fu­els has spurred dev­as­tat­ing land grabs in de­vel­op­ing coun­tries for many years.

It would take a lot more land to off­set a sub­stan­tial share of CO2 emis­sions. In­deed, an es­ti­mated 218-990 mil­lion hectares would have to be con­verted to switch­grass to se­quester one bil­lion tons of car­bon us­ing BECCS. That is 14-65 times the amount of land the United States uses to grow corn for ethanol.

Ni­trous-ox­ide emis­sions from the vast amount of fer­tiliser that would be re­quired to grow the switch­grass could be enough to ex­ac­er­bate cli­mate change. Then there are the CO2 emis­sions from pro­duc­ing syn­thetic fer­tilis­ers; clear­ing trees, shrubs, and grass from hun­dreds of mil­lions of hectares of land; de­stroy­ing large reser­voirs of soil car­bon; and trans­port­ing and pro­cess­ing the switch­grass.

Even more prob­lem­atic is the rev­e­la­tion that CCS and BECCS would most likely be used for “en­hanced oil re­cov­ery,” with com­pressed CO2 pumped into old oil wells for stor­age, thereby cre­at­ing a fi­nan­cial in­cen­tive to re­cover more oil. The US Depart­ment of En­ergy es­ti­mates that such meth­ods could make 67 bil­lion bar­rels of oil – three times the vol­ume of proven US oil re­serves – eco­nom­i­cally re­cov­er­able. In­deed, given the money at stake, en­hanced oil re­cov­ery could ac­tu­ally be one of the mo­tives be­hind the push for CCS.

In any case, no form of CCS ad­vances the goal of a struc­tural shift to­ward full de­car­bon­i­sa­tion, which is what so­cial move­ments, aca­demics, or­di­nary cit­i­zens, and even some politi­cians are in­creas­ingly de­mand­ing. They are pre­pared to ac­cept the in­con­ve­niences and sac­ri­fices that will arise dur­ing the tran­si­tion; in­deed, they view the chal­lenge of cre­at­ing a zero-car­bon econ­omy as an op­por­tu­nity to re­new and im­prove their so­ci­eties and com­mu­ni­ties. Dan­ger­ous, elu­sive, and pie-in-the-sky tech­nolo­gies have no place in such an ef­fort. While such in­no­va­tive and prac­ti­cal so­lu­tions are pre­vented from be­ing scaled up, bil­lions of dol­lars are pumped into sub­si­dies that re­in­force the sta­tus quo. The only way to re­form the sys­tem and make real progress to­ward mit­i­gat­ing cli­mate change is to work to elim­i­nate fos­sil fu­els com­pletely. Vague goals based on neb­u­lous tech­nolo­gies sim­ply will not work.

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