why do we put negative emissions last in line for implementation?

Posted in Algae by Robert Tulip on the December 4th, 2017

This question should be the central question in climate politics. However, the failure to address negative emissions in public debate illustrates a failure of human psychology. The main problem is an inability to discuss the evidence that should inform public policy when the evidence conflicts with widely held assumptions. When people feel a crisis may be overwhelming they tend to only tinker at the edges, unable to engage strategically with the big picture.

To achieve the two degree target, let alone the 1.5° aspiration of the Paris Accord, the world must remove about 6000 GT of CO2e from the air this century. However, the emission reduction plans presented at Paris would remove less than 1% of this stability target, reducing total carbon level by only 60GT of CO2e over its implementation period to 2030.

That disparity between means and ends means that all the achievements of Paris are essentially useless for climate stability. We have a broken paradigm. But worse, the emission reduction achievements are harmful to the climate, because they deflect attention and investment from strategies aimed at the other 99% of the stability requirement, which can only be achieved by physical removal of carbon from the air in much larger quantity than total addition.

Why is the policy framework so fractured? To answer that difficult question requires analysis of climate politics. People tend to see scientific questions through a political prism. There is no question that climate science is settled, but that does not at all imply that the science is settled on climate response, the priorities of addressing global warming.

Attitudes about what to do reflect people’s values and commitments, and in these areas, people are tribal. Concern about environment and climate is primarily on the left side of the political spectrum, while support for fossil fuel extraction is mainly on the right side of the spectrum. The unfortunate results of this polarity include that people develop tribal attitudes about the moral worth of opposing political positions. We are all aware of the crazy denial of science from right wingers. The climate lobby has also formed a strong political ideology, centred on the false idea that emission reduction is the main climate agenda.

What is wrong with that? It confuses the means and the ends. Emission reduction is justified in political ideology by the fallacy that it is the only way to achieve the end of climate stability. However, as I explained above, the numbers show it won’t work. The real ‘terrifying new math’ of global warming is that everything we can do to reduce emissions will still leave the amount of carbon in the air remorselessly increasing. In paradigm terms, that is called an anomaly. But rather than explore this logic without emotion, the tendency is to double down and treat the supposed means as an end in itself.

Symptoms of this confusion include first, the belief that attacking fossil fuels is central to stopping climate change, even though many countries will continue to use emitting energy at high level regardless of climate agreements. The election of Trump shows the capacity of climate politics to mobilise reaction, illustrating that attacks on fossil fuels will encounter vigorous opposition.

Second, the IPCC, as the home of climate ideology, has apparently defined climate mitigation as only achieved through emission reduction, even though emission reduction does almost nothing to mitigate climate change. The real priority for mitigating climate change should be carbon removal.

Third, and worst, there is a widespread attitude among climate activists, whether overt or covert, that actions to insure against climate change by removing carbon from the air should be opposed because they undermine political pressure to achieve emission reduction. Questioning emission reduction is as politically deplorable as questioning gay marriage.

The sad fact is the means has completely displaced the end in climate politics. The result is that it seems the climate movement is more concerned about building a popular left wing political front against fossil fuels, based on the failed emission reduction paradigm, than actually stopping climate change. It is as though the old political battles of the last century between socialism and capitalism have subconsciously been used as the map for climate politics.

Unfortunately, this focus on political conflict is a recipe for disastrous ongoing warming. It is even possible the fossil fuel industries and their allies could install military governments in some countries if elected governments insisted on policies that would shut them down. Meanwhile the sixth extinction marches on, with the collapse of planetary biodiversity and extreme risks to economic and climate stability.

My view is that this conflict on climate policy can be overcome if carbon removal is accepted as a strategy for a unified approach, presenting ways for fossil fuel industries to work in cooperation with climate science by investing money, resources, skills and political support in carbon removal, with a main focus on marine biology.

If new technology can be developed that can remove more carbon from the air than total emissions, emissions can continue, and there is no need for emission reduction. That would even mean the stock price of coal could be sustained.

Negative Emission Technology is last in line because it undermines emission reduction and destroys the political strategy of a popular front against fossil fuels, both of which are considered more important by the climate lobby than actually doing anything about global warming.

Robert Tulip