Negative-emissions technologyWhat they don’t tell you about climate change
TWO years ago the world pledged to keep global warming “well below” 2°C hotter than pre- industrial times. Climate scientists and campaigners purred. Politicians patted themselves on the back. Despite the Paris agreement’s ambiguities and some setbacks, including President Donald Trump’s decision to yank America out of the deal, the air of self-congratulation was still on show among those who gathered in Bonn this month for a follow-up summit.
Yet the most damaging thing about America’s renewed spasm of climate-change rejection may not be the effect on its own emissions, which could turn out to be negligible. It is the cover America has given other countries to avoid acknowledging the problems of the agreement America is abandoning.
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The Paris agreement assumes, in effect, that the world will find ways to suck CO out of the air. That is because, in any realistic scenario, emissions cannot be cut fast enough to keep the total stock of greenhouse gases sufficiently small to limit the rise in temperature successfully. But there is barely any public discussion of how to bring about the extra “negative emissions” needed to reduce the stock of CO (and even less about the more radical idea of lowering the temperature by blocking out sunlight). Unless that changes, the promise of limiting the harm of climate change is almost certain to be broken.
Don’t be so positive Fully 101 of the 116 models the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change uses to chart what lies ahead assume that carbon will be taken out of the air in order for the world to have a good chance of meeting the 2°C target. The total amount of CO to be soaked up by 2100 could be a staggering 810bn tonnes, as much as the world’s economy produces in 20 years at today’s rate (see article). Putting in place carbon-removal schemes of this magnitude would be an epic endeavour even if tried-and-tested techniques existed.
They do not. A few power stations and industrial facilities capture CO that would otherwise end up in the air and store it away underground, a practice known as carbon capture and storage. But this long-touted approach to cutting emissions still operates on only a very small scale, dealing with just a few tens of millions of tonnes of CO a year. And such schemes merely lower emissions; they do not reverse them.
What might? One option is to plant more forests (which act as a carbon sink) or to replace the deep-ploughing of fields with shallow tillage (which helps soils absorb and retain more CO ). Another is to apply carbon capture and storage to biomass-burning power plants, stashing the carbon sucked up by crops or trees burnt as fuel. Fancier ideas exist. Carbon could be seized directly from the air, using chemical filters, and stored. Or minerals could be ground up and sowed over land or sea, accelerating from aeons to years the natural weathering process that binds them to CO to form carbonate rocks.