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Net losses: why net zero carbon targets may backfire

16 Oct 2019 Dave Elliott
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(Image courtesy: iStock/magann)

A “net zero” carbon emission targets has been set by the UK, amongst others, for 2050. The European Union (EU)’s version fudges the date, due to opposition by some coal-reliant countries to the 2050 initially specified.

But whatever the date, the net zero formulation does not usually specify how net zero emissions are achieved, so in principle any project will be acceptable if it can claim to avoid, or compensate for, carbon dioxide production. These can include carbon offset and carbon removal projects, as well as renewable energy and energy efficiency schemes. Some argue that this mixes up basically conflicting policy approaches — emission avoidance and post-generation carbon removal. Emission avoidance at source is about decarbonising energy production and use, for example by switching to using renewables or by using energy more efficiently, so less carbon dioxide is produced. By contrast, carbon removal is about compensatory post-fossil-generation carbon dioxide clean-up, for example by Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) and Negative Emission Technology (NET).

We can’t just keep sweeping emissions under the carpet

The documentation for the Green New Deal programme backed by the UK Labour Party says: “The use of a ‘net zero’ target that integrates both goals for decarbonisation and allowances for carbon removal is an unacceptably high risk strategy ….falsely discounting the carbon reductions that are needed while weakening ambition and delaying progress toward a fully decarbonised economy.” As I noted in an earlier post, the party wants to focus on the latter and says there are problems with CCS and NETs.

That view has been backed up by a study from Lancaster University, UK, which says that many of the technologies for carbon removal from the atmosphere are speculative, and may not actually be able to deliver. In his summary for Carbon Brief, Duncan McLaren says that “net-zero plans that rely on promises of future carbon removal – instead of reducing emissions now – are, therefore, placing a risky bet. If the technologies anticipated to remove huge quantities of carbon in the 2040s and 2050s fail to work as expected – or lead to rebounds in emissions from land-use change, for example – then it might not be practical to compensate for the cumulative emissions from mitigation foregone between now and then.”

McLaren looks to a “formal separation of negative emissions targets and accounting for emissions reduction, rather than combining them in a single ‘net-zero’ goal”. That would avoid the risk of carbon removal undermining the expansion of emission avoidance: carbon removal would be additional to reducing emissions, rather than a rival, although he says we may need both: “Even if emissions were brought to net-zero by 2050, the world would likely still need to achieve ‘net-negative’ emissions for a period, to reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations back to safer levels. At least some countries and sectors will need to go ‘beyond net-zero’.”

The Labour Party paper is also not opposed to some carbon removal offset options, but says that the Green New Deal must “establish a clear delineating between targets for emissions reductions and assumptions regarding negative emissions, and must limit the ‘net’ to include only those necessary emissions which can be offset through programmes such as domestic reforestation and rewilding”. So while some specific natural carbon removal projects may be condoned, artificial sequestration approaches are not. Instead, Labour’s main priority is “rapidly phasing out of fossil fuels, countering its decline with a massive programme of investment in renewable energy”, supported with help from the government..

That is also the approach adopted in the US Green New Deal proposed by presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders, which specifically excludes CCS as well as nuclear. Earlier proposed variants of this Green New Deal also specifically rejected market-based cap and trade/carbon tax approaches, in favour of government-led regulatory and intervention approaches, and that seems to be what Sanders also has in mind — though others see it differently. Carbon pricing and carbon market trading still have US adherents, including support from those that are pro-nuclear. Certainly, that might help nuclear stay in the game, as well as renewables, by pricing fossil fuel even further out of the market.

Back in the UK, the Conservative government is also still keen on carbon pricing and emission trading, as well as on nuclear. The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) is planning for the future of carbon pricing in a no-deal Brexit. Under these circumstances (any day now?), the UK would cease to participate in the EU Emissions Trading System (EU ETS), and BEIS would replace emissions trading in the UK with a fixed rate tax, evidently to be called the Carbon Emissions Tax. That presumably would hit unabated gas projects hard, including any using shale gas, but would stimulate support for fossil CCS projects, and maybe NET projects, as well as nuclear and renewable energy generation. So there could be some conflicts.

In addition to the conflict between emission reduction/avoidance at source and post-combustion carbon removal, there is also a more general – but similar – potential conflict between emission avoidance/reduction, sometimes in this context called “mitigation”, and “adaptation” to climate change, which aims to reduce vulnerability to its impacts. The use of these two terms can be confusing — you might say that reducing carbon emissions at source mitigates impacts, and so do adaptative lifestyle changes. However, it is clear that, while simple physical adaptation, for example by investing in protection against sea-level rise, may reduce some local impact costs in the short term, and some emergency measures clearly will have to be taken, unlike physical emission reduction/avoidance projects, that does not deal with the cause of the problem — carbon emissions.

You might say we need to do both, avoid/reduce emissions wherever possible and adapt to their impacts where you can’t, but it has been argued that there is a fundamental social equity conflict: “investments in emission reduction benefit everyone while adaptation only benefits the party that undertakes it”. What’s more, given that there will be competition for funding for climate-related action, it’s claimed that adaptation should be treated as only the option of last resort, and that too much of a focus on adaptation, just like too much of a focus on carbon removal, may slow emission reduction/avoidance.

However, there are problems with getting the right priorities, especially in poorer countries. Adaptation may be cheaper and easier than emission avoidance/reduction and it may be all that poorer countries can afford. In any case, emission reduction/avoidance at source may not be able to reduce local climate-related problems quickly. So mitigation may be deferred, leaving emission reduction to others to deal with. This may be understandable but, if a focus on adaptation occurs on a wide scale globally, that could reduce overall emission reduction efforts, the latter being the only long-term way to limit climate change.

None of this means that adaptation or setting targets to cut carbon levels are bad ideas. We clearly need to try to reduce the impacts of climate change, and “net zero carbon” targets have wide support, even if they mean some interim carbon offsetting. Certainly, planting more trees is a good idea, whatever else we do. In a recent EU-wide Eurobarometer public opinion survey (see reports 490/492), 92% of respondents thought that greenhouse gas emissions should be reduced to a minimum, while offsetting the remaining emissions, to make the EU economy climate neutral by 2050. Going even further, in a recent UK opinion poll, 33% of respondents said the UK should aim to hit net zero emissions by 2025 in line with the Extinction Rebellion demand, 25 years ahead of the government’s target.

However, we do have to be careful about over-reliance on carbon removal. Like adaptation, capturing carbon and storing it somewhere may buy us some time but it is not a permanent solution — we can’t just keep sweeping emissions under the carpet. The climate problem will just get worse if we do not cut emission at source.

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