Given the overwhelming and seemingly almost uncontrollable amount of greenhouse gases pouring into the world’s atmosphere, it is starting to seem impossible to meet the 1.5C rise limit in temperatures by 2030.
Governments may have to turn to carbon capture – so-called “negative emissions” – in the effort to control temperatures, a solution that critics say has more problems than answers.
Last year, 165 countries that signed the Paris climate agreement agreed to be more ambitious in the pact’s targets. One of the victories of the 21st annual session of the United Nations Conference of Parties in Paris was the inclusion of the 1.5C target. The final agreement’s objective was to “hold the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels.”
In previous years, 1.5 was advocated largely by the small island countries most vulnerable to climate change but was barely talked about in the negotiations and was considered “unrealistic.” The goal, enshrined in the Copenhagen Accord, has always been 2C. Last year however, a 1.5 campaign was launched during the last Bonn intersessional talks in October, just before the Paris conference, and gained momentum during the December meeting.
“1.5 to stay alive!” was the rallying call of the vulnerable countries. They were heard by 106 countries which, to the surprise of most, agreed to including the 1.5 target in the agreement.
Climate pledges not in line with 1.5 target
Current pledges, also called the Nationally Determined Contribution, are currently not enough to hold global warming at 1.5 degrees. According to Climate Analytics, the current level of countries’ ambition is not compatible with a 1.5 or even a 2C pathway. Current commitments will lead to a 2.7 or sub-3C of warming.
Now the question is, how do we get to 1.5? Is it still possible? What are its implications?
Negative emissions take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. One example of this is Bioenergy Carbon and Capture Storage (BECCS). Negative emission technologies are included in many climate models of pathways on how to get to the below-2C target.
Climate Analytics, a non-profit climate science and policy institute based in Berlin and led by scientist Bill Hare, believes that reaching 1.5 degrees “will require negative emissions technology to compensate for the insufficient emissions reductions realized to date.”
“If we are going to get to 1.5 degrees, we are going to need to have negative emissions. Unfortunately, there’s no way out of it now. The fact that there had been so little action in the last 20 years means that to get to even 2 degrees, we have got to have negative emissions. It’s just a matter of how much. It’s not a matter you can discuss about, unfortunately,” said Bill Hare in an interview.
According to Hare, the problem is that in order to get to 1.5 or 2 degrees, there will still be a need for 500 gigatonnes of carbon storage underground even after governments have done a lot of ecological restoration.
Hare shares his concerns over arguments presented by organizations that do not believe in negative emissions due to its implications. His concern as a scientist, he said, is that people need to work with the fact, not with rhetoric or ideology, and discuss the real problems that arise.
“In that spirit, you need to look at how you deal with that, not say that you don’t believe it — that’s not rational or scientific and it’s about an ideological position rather than confronting the problems that we have to deal with,” he added.
The implication of BECCS on human rights
It is not without controversy. Teresa Anderson, policy officer for Action Aid, calls carbon capture and storage a “false solution,” saying current climate models are not taking into account these complexities or social impact.
“We’re concerned about BECCS because it has huge implications on land,” she said.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 5th assessment report looks at various scenarios to get to 2 degrees and most assume a large amount of carbon capture to get there. It is a technology that would require a lot of land. The IPCC outlines scenarios requiring between 500 million and 6 billion hectares of land in order to implement the offsetting approach.
Anderson believes that the implications of BECCS on land are something that hasn’t been thought through, even by governments that aren’t aware of implications of emissions pathways.
“We’re talking about finding land that will almost certainly compete with food production,” Anderson said.
“We’ve already experienced the consequences of shifting large amounts of land over to biofuels, for example. We saw rising food prices, intense hunger, displacement, land grabs, migration resulting from all of that,” she added.
Anderson also talks about the attachment of people to their land. “People are largely dependent on land not just for food but their culture, their history, their family, their community. When they lose their land, they lose everything,” she said.
Opening the discussions
Hare and Anderson had had heated exchanges over carbon capture and negative emissions in the Bonn intersessional climate negotiations taking place last week. Hare believes that the science is no longer open to discussion and calls Anderson’s arguments “unscientific” and “ideological.”
“If we reject that, and say it’s a false solution or that we don’t need it, we’re also not being honest in a scientific sense,” Hare said.
Climate justice groups, however, have been keen on opening the discussions. Accused of being unscientific, Anderson reminds that they are not disputing the science and that in fact, they are looking at the science and saying the implications of that science.
“It’s important that even though scientists may say that it’s necessary, even if they believe that, they should have space for this discussion and challenge us to find better ways,” Anderson said.
“We have to force this conversation. You cannot shut down a conversation about trying to find other options. Let’s do our homework and work harder to put more options on the table. We simply cannot accept a solution to get to 1.5 that sacrifices the people that the 1.5 target was supposed to protect,” she added.
The road to 1.5 will be difficult. Carbon Brief’s latest analysis says that we only have five years before the 1.5 degree carbon budget is blown. Will negative emissions play a big role in the road to ensuring a safe future? Or will it just cause further problems in the long run?
We all know that it is important we hold global warming well below 2 degrees to keep humanity safe. Technologies that can help turn this into reality should always be a welcome solution. Not, however, at the expense of human rights. So if there must be a compromise, the compromise must be that we use these technologies but at the same time, ensure that these technologies will not do more harm to the people. But the discussions must be open and both sides must be willing to listen.
Until then, we are in danger of only causing more harm and destruction than good.