Concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere continue to rise reaching levels not seen for 800,000 years. Greenhouse gas concentrations reached 403.3 ppm in 2016 compared to 400.00 ppm in 2015 and 397.7 ppm in 2014.  This year’s numbers are likely to be surpassed next year and then the year after that and so on.

Credit: NASA Global Climate Change, Vital Signs of the Planet

In a recent statement, Corinne Le Quere who is the lead researcher for the Global Carbon Project said that “with global CO2 emissions from all human activities estimated at 41 billion tonnes for 2017, time is running out on our ability to keep warming well below 2° Celsius (C), let alone 1.5°C,” the Paris Agreement targets set in 2015.

The globe has already warmed by one degree Celsius. But there is more warming, (at least another half degree according to experts), already locked in from decades of burning fossil fuels. And we’re still pumping an extra billion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere every 10 days.

Negative Emissions

So the world must do a lot more to bend the curve of rising emissions in time to prevent catastrophic climate events. Not only do we need to halt the rise of emissions, we have to reverse it. We have to start removing carbon from the atmosphere. We need negative emissions, a term that will become part of the climate dialogue for decades to come, in fact, for the rest of our lives. Carbon removal and carbon retrieval technologies, the objective of which is the large-scale removal of CO2 from the atmosphere, are evolving rapidly as nations begin to struggle with mitigation strategies.

“Carbon-removal plants could be built anywhere, or everywhere. Construct enough of them and, in theory at least, CO2 emissions could continue unabated and still we could avert calamity,” writes Elizabeth Kolbert in The New Yorker.

IPCC Fifth Assessment Report (2014)

“The extent to which the world is counting on negative emissions is documented by the latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change”, writes Kolbert. IPCC modelling suggests that hundreds of billions of tons of carbon must be removed from the atmosphere and dealt with without producing secondary effects that are themselves harmful to life on the ground. For example, would storing extracted CO2 from the air underground affect water sources?

But still there’s “a compelling reason for putting carbon removal on the agenda,” says Kolbert. “We’re are already counting on it. Negative emissions are built into the I.P.C.C. scenarios and the climate agreements that rest on them.”

The Moral Dilemma

For many, the idea of negative emissions raises a moral dilemma. It may lead to putting off action needed to avoid catastrophic climate change. If removing carbon from the atmosphere becomes a substitute for reducing emissions or slows down the drive to replace fossil fuels with clean energy, then it will be an utter failure.

In its most recent Emissions Gap Report, the UNEP (United Nations Environment Programme) included a section on negative emissions. It notes that “In order to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement, carbon dioxide removal is likely a necessary step.”

As a technology of last resort, carbon removal is, almost by its nature, paradoxical. It has become vital without necessarily being viable. It may be impossible to manage and it may also be impossible to manage without. ~ Elizabeth Kolbert

Related Articles:
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Be Inconvenient. Our World Depends On It
A Climate Turning Point – Summer of 2017

6 COMMENTS

  1. Rollie, the other big challenge with negative emissions is to separate options that might be viable from proposals that are basically science fiction, some of which could do about as much damage as the climate crisis they set out to solve. (And yes, some of the worst possibilities are getting some of the highest-profile support.)
    YES, we’re going to exceed 1.5°C, so we’ll need a sound pathway to draw that down. But the next few years will be crucial for setting the direction of and limits on that work. The IPCC is coming out with a special report on the 1.5°C target next year, just ahead of COP 24 in Katowice, and there was some [useful] [interesting] [absolutely chilling] discussion on this topic at a side event at COP 23 earlier this month.
    If your readers don’t already know about Drawdown (http://drawdown.org), they should! No single publication is a silver bullet, on climate change in general or on negative emissions in particular, but this site and accompanying book are an excellent resource. Pro tip: With Project Drawdown’s permission, we plan to start serializing the 100 chapters of the book in The Energy Mix (http://theenergymix.com), probably starting in the next two to four weeks.

    • Mitchell – good to hear from you. Thanks for the feedback on negative emissions. I look forward to learning more about the Drawdown project. I’ve heard of it but haven’t delved into it yet. Hopefully I can feature some of the pieces you do on on The Energy Mix (the 100 chapters of the book) in Below2C as well.

      I think we need to have a coffee sometime in December to explore more ways we can work together. Also would like to begin the process of attending COPs in the coming years. I’ll email you.

  2. If there has ever been something frightening about climate change, it is the degree of betrayal and self betrayal about the feasibility of net negative emissions. It won’t happen for the simple reason that nobody will pay for it. That is so easy to predict, it is breathtaking. It is disturbing. The technological hurdles and the mere cost are a minor problem in comparison —albeit a big problem in absolute terms and certainly in combination. The real and determining problem is that the political economy (or the business case, the value chain,the public choice case; you name it) is not there and won’t be there anytime soon, unless there is a miracle such as the establishment (in little time!) of a world government with the authority to raise taxes to pay for it. (Certainly, “drawdown”-advice for a few self-centered guilt-feeling privates won’t do the job either. It’s just another crazy and self-serving delusion.)

    Everybody who assists with the hype on net negative emissions, except to denounce it as an outright and dangerous deception, is doing the world a great disservice —this post included, the devastating work of the IPCC in this field, too; the IPCC’s neglect as well. Even if its cost were a minor issue, no net negative emissions will take place. The fact that there is too little benefit for the one who is supposed to pay for it is a guaranteed deal killer, regardless of all the other possible issues (cost, technical feasibility, BECCS-eco-impact, land competition, economic competition for non-fossil carbon, etc.).

    There is a great ill-belief that net negative emissions will happen, because people (scientists, that is, and people like E. Kolbert) believe they MUST happen. This is a wrong belief. They don’t have to happen. Planet earth will go on without. Humankind will survive and it won’t take CO2 out or thin air in masses; netto, that is: perhaps not at all, not in the foreseeable future.

    To pretend we might do it is to pave the way to SRM, because soon, within a decade or two at most, the delusion will go away and by then the only way to mitigate warming will be SRM. That in turn means (to agree and proceed to) the destruction of life as we know it in the oceans and much of the life in the oceans we don’t yet even know about. We should accuse everybody who supports the false and phony net negative emissions hype —including with posts like this one— of supporting the destruction of life in the oceans. Sorry, but it needs to be said.

    • Peter – I appreciate your comments and thank you for presenting the counter argument of carbon recapture or negative emissions. But talking about it and writing about it are not inherently bad. There is no “hype on net negative emissions” to use your expression.

      I’m not presenting the removal of capture from the atmosphere as the solution to the global warming of the planet. It is not the silver bullet we need. We should never have dumped billions of tonnes into the atmosphere to begin with. We’ve known about the effects of burning fossil fuels for decades. We understood as far back as the late 1800s the warming effect of greenhouse gases on the planet’s global temperature.

  3. Thank you, Rolly, for this issue on negative emissions. It is gratifying to know that so much work is going on to implement this strategy, though it seems we are still a long way from seeing a significant impact. Given the gravity of the problem, it seems that the best hope is for widely distributed approaches so that concerned citizens can implement their own efforts to extract carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Waiting for huge plants to be built and searching for the investment required to do that, seems like a forlorn hope. Perhaps such plants could be built in poorer countries where there is no likelihood for a distributed system to work. It would be good to see citizens in a rich country like Canada taking their own action on removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Government incentives could certainly assist this process

    • Welcome to the Below2C website and thank you for your comments Desmond.

      The challenge the world faces with respect to carbon emissions is immense. We are still dumping more carbon year after year after year. And there’s enough carbon already locked in to carry us well past 2 degrees Celsius of warming. Hence the need for carbon removal on a grand scale.

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