Wishful thinking about carbon removal is slowing down climate action
What if the mere possibility of future greenhouse gas removal technologies (GGRs) could be influencing the perception of climate risk and policy decisions being made today?
This is the premise behind a new body of work by Nils Markusson, Rebecca Willis and Duncan McLaren looking at the possibility of ‘mitigation deterrence’, a concept whereby decarbonisation is put off due to optimism about future possibility of CO2 removal.
Sadly, this kind of problem has form. For years new coal power plants were approved on the proviso that they were ‘carbon capture and storage ready’, meaning future emissions would be zero. To meet this standard, the new plant had to have some space to tack on a new process once the technology became available. What this meant in practice was the power plant had a car park which could be repurposed, hardly the green vision we had hoped for.
The promise of future technologies is factored into climate models
These future promises of reductions have been readily incorporated into climate models, providing the negative emissions to resolve a CO2 overshoot and, thus, providing the cover for business as usual and slow emissions reductions. As the models, GGRs and policy have developed they have all influenced each other and some assumptions, such as heavily discounting future costs, tend to favour reductions in the future rather than action now. This has been further exacerbated by the need for the start-ups developing GGRs to attract investment finance, meaning they must create hype around their potential.
The problem comes about if, twenty years down the line, we realise they can’t deliver as much carbon reduction as hoped, or that we’d have been better off decarbonising sooner, rather than leaving ourselves with an awful lot carbon to remove.
A team of researchers, based at Lancaster University, have developed the first quantitative estimate of the potential scale of mitigation deterrence effects. They are large. A potential extra 1.4 degrees of warming.
Government and business are using estimates as certainties
Although their estimates carry a large degree of uncertainty, it is not hard to see them playing out right now. We’ve seen a government minister declare that the aviation sector has decarbonised because it’s going to buy offsets, oil companies advertising ‘carbon neutral’ petrol and a new ‘carbon neutral’ coal mine given the green light in Cumbria. All of these only make sense if you make the assumption that, in the future, we’ll able to remove carbon from the atmosphere easily and cheaply.
The final point, the assumption that GGRs will be cheap, also further adds to the problem of mitigation deterrence. Why pay for new green infrastructure or electric aeroplanes when some optimistic assessments suggest nature-based GGRs could remove carbon at just $0.40 a tonne? Although no one is arguing against afforestation, there is a great potential to come unstuck if this is used to justify continued slow rates of decarbonisation, particularly if the forests planted are lost to wildfire, mismanaged or simply don’t sequester as much carbon as hoped.
How then to solve this issue? We know that we will likely need some form of GGRs to help remove remaining emissions arising from hard to decarbonise sectors and this will require investment in research, development and deployment to get going. What we need, therefore, is a set of policy options which allow the rapid development of GGRs at the same time as rapid decarbonisation of the economy, with as little interaction between the two goals as possible.
Avoiding greenwash with two targets
To do this, the Lancaster researchers propose the simple idea of separation. Instead of a net zero target, where emissions don’t matter as long as we have counterbalancing removals, we instead have two separate targets. One for gross emissions to encourage rapid decarbonisation of all sectors and another for GGRs, to ensure we’re still funnelling adequate investment into both nature-based and technological ways of removing carbon from the atmosphere.
This idea could help avoid the greenwash of businesses delaying action on carbon emissions by simply paying for offsets and planning on the carbon removal tech of the future. It also has the potential to help us support a GGR industry which, at present, is unclear about which technologies will prove to be the most effective. By separating the targets, we could have increased oversight and accountability of both decarbonisation and GGRs, decreasing the risk of an overshoot in emissions and, thus, the potential for catastrophic levels of heating.
A full list of project contributors is available here.