Climate Scientists Explain Why Net-Zero is a ‘Dangerous Trap’: Part 2
As its general secretary brought the 21st United Nations conference on climate change to an end, a great roar issued from the crowd. People leaped to their feet, strangers embraced, tears welled up in eyes bloodshot from lack of sleep.
The emotions on display on December 13, 2015 were not just for the cameras. After weeks of gruelling, high-level negotiations in Paris, a breakthrough had finally been achieved. Against all expectations, after decades of false starts and failures, the international community had finally agreed to do what it took to limit global warming to well below 2°C, preferably to 1.5°C, compared to pre-industrial levels.
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The Paris Agreement was a stunning victory for those most at risk from climate change. Rich industrialized nations will be increasingly impacted as global temperatures rise. But it’s the low-lying island states such as the Maldives and the Marshall Islands that are at imminent existential risk. As a later UN special report made clear, if the Paris Agreement was unable to limit global warming to 1.5°C, the number of lives lost to more intense storms, fires, heat waves, famines, and floods would significantly increase.
But dig a little deeper and you could find another emotion lurking within delegates on December 13. Doubt. We struggle to name any climate scientist who at that time thought the Paris Agreement was feasible. We have since been told by some scientists that the Paris Agreement was “of course important for climate justice but unworkable” and “a complete shock, no one thought limiting to 1.5°C was possible”. Rather than being able to limit warming to 1.5°C, a senior academic involved in the IPCC concluded we were heading beyond 3°C by the end of this century.
Instead of confronting our doubts, we scientists decided to construct ever more elaborate fantasy worlds in which we would be safe. The price to pay for our cowardice: having to keep our mouths shut about the ever-growing absurdity of the required planetary-scale carbon dioxide removal.
“Relying on untested carbon dioxide removal mechanisms to achieve the Paris targets when we have the technologies to transition away from fossil fuels today is plain wrong and foolhardy,” writes Watson, an emeritus professor in environmental sciences at the University of East Anglia and former chair of both the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). “Why are we willing to gamble the lives and livelihoods of millions of people, the beautiful life all around us, and the futures of our children?”
Taking centre stage was BECCS because at the time this was the only way climate-economic models could find scenarios that would be consistent with the Paris Agreement. Rather than stabilize, global emissions of carbon dioxide had increased some 60% since 1992.
BECCS: Too Good to Be True
Alas, BECCS, just like all the previous solutions, was too good to be true.
Across the scenarios produced by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) with a 66% or better chance of limiting temperature increase to 1.5°C, BECCS would need to remove 12 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide each year. BECCS at this scale would require massive planting schemes for trees and bioenergy crops.
The Earth certainly needs more trees. Humanity has cut down some three trillion since we first started farming some 13,000 years ago. But rather than allow ecosystems to recover from human impacts and forests to regrow, BECCS generally refers to dedicated industrial-scale plantations regularly harvested for bioenergy rather than carbon stored away in forest trunks, roots, and soils.
Currently, the two most efficient biofuels are sugarcane for bioethanol and palm oil for biodiesel—both grown in the tropics. Endless rows of such fast-growing, monoculture trees or other bioenergy crops harvested at frequent intervals devastate biodiversity.
It has been estimated that BECCS would demand between 0.4 and 1.2 billion hectares of land. That’s 25% to 80% of all the land currently under cultivation. How will that be achieved at the same time as feeding eight to 10 billion people around the middle of the century or without destroying native vegetation and biodiversity?
Growing billions of trees would consume vast amounts of water—in some places where people are already thirsty. Increasing forest cover in higher latitudes can have an overall warming effect because replacing grassland or fields with forests means the land surface becomes darker. This darker land absorbs more energy from the sun, and so temperatures rise. Focusing on developing vast plantations in poorer tropical nations comes with real risks of people being driven off their lands.
And it is often forgotten that trees and the land in general already soak up and store away vast amounts of carbon through what is called the natural terrestrial carbon sink. Interfering with it could both disrupt the sink and lead to double accounting.
As these impacts become better understood, the sense of optimism around BECCS has diminished.
“The predecessor to net-zero was and still is called ‘offsetting’. Once I was full of hope that carbon offsetting schemes could do the trick and save intact forest ecosystems from almost certain destruction by economic development. Now I know this was just a dream,” Knorr states.
But “the massive amount of offsetting needed for staying within safe climate limits cannot be met by leaving nature alone. It demands fast-growing, mostly alien species that are cut down often and regularly, with devastating consequences for biodiversity. We are already seeing the beginning of it in European forests. I am scared almost more by the consequences of net-zero, than by those of climate warming.”
Given the dawning realization of how difficult Paris would be in the light of ever rising emissions and limited potential of BECCS, a new buzzword emerged in policy circles: the “overshoot scenario”. Temperatures would be allowed to go beyond 1.5°C in the near term, but then be brought down with a range of carbon dioxide removal by the end of the century. This means that net-zero actually means carbon negative. Within a few decades, we will need to transform our civilization from one that currently pumps out 40 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year, to one that produces a net removal of tens of billions.
Mass tree planting, for bioenergy or as an attempt at offsetting, had been the latest attempt to stall cuts in fossil fuel use. But the ever-increasing need for carbon removal was calling for more. This is why the idea of direct air capture, now being touted by some as the most promising technology out there, has taken hold. It is generally more benign to ecosystems because it requires significantly less land to operate than BECCS, including the land needed to power them using wind or solar panels.
Unfortunately, it is widely believed that direct air capture, because of its exorbitant costs and energy demand, if it ever becomes feasible to be deployed at scale, will not be able to compete with BECCS with its voracious appetite for prime agricultural land.
It should now be getting clear where the journey is heading. As the mirage of each magical technical solution disappears, another equally unworkable alternative pops up to take its place. The next is already on the horizon—and it’s even more ghastly. Once we realize net-zero will not happen in time or even at all, geoengineering—the deliberate and large-scale intervention in the Earth’s climate system—will probably be invoked as the solution to limit temperature increases.
One of the most researched geoengineering ideas is solar radiation management—the injection of millions of tons of sulphuric acid into the stratosphere that will reflect some of the sun’s energy away from the Earth. It is a wild idea, but some academics and politicians are deadly serious, despite significant risks. The U.S. National Academies of Sciences, for example, has recommended allocating up to US$200 million over the next five years to explore how geoengineering could be deployed and regulated. Funding and research in this area is sure to significantly increase.
“It’s astonishing how the continual absence of any credible carbon removal technology seems to never affect net-zero policies,” Dyke observes. “Whatever is thrown at it, net-zero carries on without a dent in the fender.”
At first, “I assumed I was merely ill-informed over over-cautious. I’ve now realized that we have all been subject to a form of gaslighting,” he says. “Whether it’s BECCS, afforestation, direct air capture, or carbon-absorbing unicorns, the assumption is that net-zero will work because it has to work. But beyond fine words and glossy brochures, there is nothing there. The emperor has no clothes.”
In principle there is nothing wrong or dangerous about carbon dioxide removal proposals. In fact, developing ways of reducing concentrations of carbon dioxide can feel tremendously exciting. You are using science and engineering to save humanity from disaster. What you are doing is important. There is also the realization that carbon removal will be needed to mop up some of the emissions from sectors such as aviation and cement production. So there will be some small role for a number of different carbon dioxide removal approaches.
The problems come when it is assumed that these can be deployed at vast scale. This effectively serves as a blank cheque for the continued burning of fossil fuels and the acceleration of habitat destruction.
Carbon reduction technologies and geoengineering should be seen as a sort of ejector seat that could propel humanity away from rapid and catastrophic environmental change. Just like an ejector seat in a jet aircraft, it should only be used as the very last resort. However, policy-makers and businesses appear to be entirely serious about deploying highly speculative technologies as a way to land our civilization at a sustainable destination. In fact, these are no more than fairy tales.
The only way to keep humanity safe is the immediate and sustained radical cuts to greenhouse gas emissions in a socially just way.
Academics typically see themselves as servants to society. Indeed, many are employed as civil servants. Those working at the climate science and policy interface desperately wrestle with an increasingly difficult problem. Similarly, those that champion net-zero as a way of breaking through barriers holding back effective action on the climate also work with the very best of intentions.
The tragedy is that their collective efforts were never able to mount an effective challenge to a climate policy process that would only allow a narrow range of scenarios to be explored.
Most academics feel distinctly uncomfortable stepping over the invisible line that separates their day job from wider social and political concerns. There are genuine fears that being seen as advocates for or against particular issues could threaten their perceived independence. Scientists are one of the most trusted professions. Trust is very hard to build and easy to destroy.
But there is another invisible line, the one that separates maintaining academic integrity and self-censorship. As scientists, we are taught to be skeptical, to subject hypotheses to rigorous tests and interrogation. But when it comes to perhaps the greatest challenge humanity faces, we often show a dangerous lack of critical analysis.
In private, scientists express significant skepticism about the Paris Agreement, BECCS, offsetting, geoengineering, and net-zero. Apart from some notable exceptions, in public we quietly go about our work, apply for funding, publish papers, and teach. The path to disastrous climate change is paved with feasibility studies and impact assessments.
Rather than acknowledge the seriousness of our situation, we instead continue to participate in the fantasy of net-zero. What will we do when reality bites? What will we say to our friends and loved ones about our failure to speak out now?
“The youth of today and future generations will look back in horror that our generation gambled with catastrophic changes in climate and biodiversity for the sake of cheap fossil fuel energy when cost-effective and socially acceptable alternatives were available,” Watson says.
“We have the knowledge needed to act,” he adds. “The IPCC and IPBES assessments, which I have co-chaired, demonstrate that these issues are interconnected and must be addressed together and now. The most recent assessments clearly show we are failing to meet any of the agreed targets for limiting climate change or loss of biodiversity. I’m ashamed of our repeated failures.”
The time has come to voice our fears and be honest with wider society. Current net-zero policies will not keep warming to within 1.5°C because they were never intended to. They were and still are driven by a need to protect business as usual, not the climate. If we want to keep people safe, then large and sustained cuts to carbon emissions need to happen now. That is the very simple acid test that must be applied to all climate policies. The time for wishful thinking is over.
James Dyke is Senior Lecturer in Global Systems, University of Exeter. Robert Watson is Emeritus Professor in Environmental Sciences, University of East Anglia. Wolfgang Knorr is Senior Research Scientist, Physical Geography and Ecosystem Science, Lund University. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons licence. Read the original article in full.