Technology won’t be the answer to climate change

This is an excerpt of a longer article from Motherboard about the October 2018 UN climate report.  Well worth a read.  Key takeaway:  “…relying on largely imaginary technologies to help us stave off the threat of extinction is astonishingly stupid.”

By Nafeez Ahmed

But other studies imply there is one glaring weakness in the IPCC report: its unbridled enthusiasm for geoengineering techniques to drawdown carbon from the atmosphere.

These play a major role in the report’s transition scenario pathways, and include ‘negative emissions’ technologies designed to drawdown carbon emissions from the atmosphere. The main technology being proposed is called ‘BECCS,’ which stands for ‘bioenergy with carbon capture and storage’. This basically proposes burning biomass for energy, and capturing the carbon emissions to be stored underground.

While the technology has been tested and proven at small-scales, commercial scale operations have yet to be built—and the key obstacle appears to be the massive costs associated with the technology.

A recent paper in the Royal Society of Chemistry’s Environment, Energy and Science journal examines BECCS from a ‘net energy’ standpoint to measure how much energy it would require, compared to what it produces. The paper found that under current technologies, “more energy is used to operate BECCS than what is returned to society”, a serious problem which could result in greater use of fossil fuels to keep BECCS alive, and “an increase in CO2 emissions, with a potential offset of the carbon dioxide removal service provided by BECCS.”

The study identifies ways BECCS might be made more efficient, cheaper, and less energy intensive, but admits that the practical feasibility of those mechanisms is unclear and “the scope for unintended consequences is vast.”

The last word on the subject came in last month via a comprehensive study published in Nature Communications, evaluating a whole gamut of negative emissions technologies. While acknowledging that “several techniques may eventually have the physical potential to contribute to limiting climate change,” the study concludes that “all are in early stages of development, involve substantial uncertainties and risks, and raise ethical and governance dilemmas.”

Reviewing a range of ‘climate dioxide removal’ and’ radiative forcing geoengineering’ technologies, the study finds that there is no certainty that any of them could ever scale: “Based on present knowledge, climate geoengineering techniques cannot be relied on to significantly contribute to meeting the Paris Agreement temperature goals.”

Even if they were actively pursued and worked on a global scale as hoped, “they would very unlikely be implementable prior to the second half of the century.” This would be far too late to avoid the IPCC’s safe upper limit of 1.5°C, and probably even 2°C.

The study’s conclusion is stark. We literally don’t have time to wait for geoengineering machines to do their magic: “Thus at present, the only reliable way to attain a high probability of achieving the Paris Agreement goals requires considerably increasing mitigation efforts beyond the current plans, including starting extensive emissions reductions much sooner than in the current NDCs [nationally determined contributions—emissions reduction pledges committed to by governments].”

In other words, relying on largely imaginary technologies to help us stave off the threat of extinction is astonishingly stupid. A more rational approach to ensuring that our children, and their children, have a viable future on planet Earth has to involve cutting emissions at source. And that requires a radically different economy.

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