In her new pro-tree-planting video, Greta Thunberg says “To survive, we need to stop burning fossil fuels, but this alone will not be enough”. Which implies that she’s now on the bandwagon about removing CO2 from the air and stuffing it into the ground so we can get back to the ideal weather of, say, 1970, 1870 or whenever it was. And here we repeat that anyone claiming it’s now too hot really should be asked what the ideal temperature is and how they know. Because redesigning the Earth is actually slightly presumptuous and we’d like to see the details before saying “Go ahead, give it a spin, what could go wrong?”
It’s funny how quickly and quietly such things go from fringe to orthodoxy. Including “Net zero” itself, the goal or even aspiration of just 24 countries a mere five years ago and now espoused by 150. As for net minus, it’s now sweeping the world too.
Just as we were finishing the draft of this newsletter, The Economist’s “The Climate Issue” newsletter chimed in unselfconsciously with:
“Much of the public discussion around climate mitigation focuses on the need to drastically reduce the amount of greenhouse gases that humans produce. Politicians and businesses make grand promises about their plans to do this. That is all essential. Sadly it is not enough. It is now commonplace to say that already-emitted gases must also be removed from the atmosphere to keep to the goals of the Paris agreement, in part to offset ‘residual’ emissions that are likely to remain come mid-century (from heavy industry, for example, and aviation) and in part to make up for past sins. ‘Negative emissions’, as these flows are called, underpin ‘net-zero’ plans – hence the ‘net’.”
Once upon a time that publication would have been elegantly skeptical of things that suddenly became commonplaces, especially in the “grand promises” of politicians. No more. Instead it admits that:
“The problem is that negative emissions do not yet exist at anywhere near the scale required. Last week, for the first time, a group of American, British and European scientists published a global assessment of carbon-dioxide removal. They found a yawning gulf between current action and the solutions required.”
Instead of raising one arch eyebrow, however, it gushes that:
“The number of patents filed for wizzy carbon-removing tech has increased more than seven times over the past two decades (though not nearly fast enough, say the report’s authors). Interestingly, in recent years China has had the largest share of patents by a significant margin…. This raises the possibility that China could rapidly develop and deploy carbon-sucking solutions the way it did with solar and wind power, of which it is the largest producer in the world.”
After all, you can always count on the wisdom and honesty of Xi Jinping.
Likewise, that famous journal of progressive policy Scientific American just warned that:
“The world is not on track to meet its international climate targets, more than seven years since participants in the Paris Agreement pledged to keep global warming well below 2 degrees Celsius and under 1.5 C if at all possible. Both targets are swiftly approaching, and humanity could blow past the 1.5 C threshold within a decade or so. That’s mainly because world nations aren’t cutting their carbon emissions fast enough. But there’s another problem, too — they’re not sucking enough carbon dioxide out of the air.”
We’re not actually sure it’s practical. We keep hearing that carbon capture is about to become commercially viable although for some reason if you want CO2 to put in a soft drink or for industrial or medical purposes you still have to buy it from someone who is currently getting it out of the ground and plans to transition to “renewable gases” just as endless amounts of the boring old stuff are about to become dirt cheap.
Apparently we’re not alone. Scientific American quotes a co-author of that report that we don’t suck nearly enough that:
“Carbon removal looks a lot like renewables did like 25 years ago. Interesting technology: [It] could be really helpful for climate change, but [it’s] still small and not taken very seriously – in part because there wasn’t a lot of data about how much these technologies cost, how much we would need or how much there even was.”
Worse, or better, “Today, most CDR is achieved through conventional land-based methods, such as planting new forests, which naturally soak up carbon dioxide from the air.” So it’s trees all the way up. But Scientific American has seen the future:
“In the distant future, after net zero is achieved, additional CDR could help tip the world into negative emissions — that means sucking more carbon out of the atmosphere than the world is putting in. Negative emissions could gradually bring global temperatures back down again.”
Suddenly all the cool kids are on it. Though as to what we’d do if we could, Zeke Hausfather’s position is a bit hard to parse. In the Guardian he recently wrote that we’re doomed but in a good way:
“The past year has seen an unending drumbeat of climate-driven disasters. And yet, the climate story of this past decade has been one of slow but steady progress. Global CO2 emissions have flattened, and countries representing 88% of global emissions have adopted or announced plans to get to net zero in the latter half of the 21st century.”
And once a politician announces a plan, why, the rest is child’s play. So we’re doing great, but we’re in big trouble:
“Another reason to be hopeful is that clean energy became cheaper much faster than expected. The cost of both solar energy and batteries fell tenfold in the last 10 years and the cost of wind energy by two-thirds. Solar is the cheapest form of new electricity to build in much of the world today, and electric vehicles now represent 13% of new vehicle sales globally. But this doesn’t mean we can rest on our laurels. Far from it. We are still nowhere near where we need to be to meet our climate goals.”
Far from it. Instead:
“In the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, which I contributed to, we found that if we want to limit warming to 1.5C we can only emit 420bn more tons of CO2 – equal to around 10 years of current emissions. This means that even with the progress we’ve made, the increase in global temperatures is very likely to exceed 1.5C by the early 2030s.”
Yaaaaaaah! We’re all going to die. Except we’re not. Instead:
“climate change happens incrementally rather than in big jumps. There is no evidence that 1.5C represents a boundary between manageable and catastrophic impacts. But the further we push the climate beyond where it has been for the past few million years, the greater and more unpredictable the risks become. Large climate shifts in the Earth’s past, and potential future tipping points such as CO2 release from thawing permafrost, should give us pause: we can’t easily predict what might happen. Every tenth of a degree matters if we want to minimise the harm we inflict on ourselves and leave to future generations.”
Which is of course nonsense on stilts. Where the climate has been for the past few million years, if he means 2.58 or so, is in an ice age during most of which conditions have been terrible for life and as recently as 20kya atmospheric carbon was within 30 ppm of the mass die-off of most plants on earth and, of course, most animals, something that would make Greta’s imaginary sixth mass extinction seem like the teddy bears’ picnic. And if tenths of a degree mattered climate would be so unstable there’d be nothing to go extinct. But we digress.
The point is, his rollercoaster ride through climate reassuring panic then performs this loop-the-loop: “We know that if we can get emissions down to zero the world will effectively stop warming.”
Waaaaait a minute. Are you telling us that if we stop any net human emissions of GHGs all the ones that we already spewed toxically into the air will… stop having a warming effect? Where’s that in the IPCC?
Also, since as many people have pointed out the increase in temperature since 1850 has coincided with an astonishing improvement in human well-being especially in poor countries, are you saying we could just settle down to enjoy the warmer, greener, better-fed planet that now has a bit of a buffer against the next glaciation and a possible deadly drop in atmospheric CO2?
Heck no. He wants to push us in that direction and hope it all works out:
“climate models show that if we remove more CO2 from the atmosphere than we are emitting it will actually cool the world back down. Removing CO2 from the atmosphere and oceans was highlighted in the recent IPCC report as an ‘essential element’ of meeting our climate goals. Virtually all climate models suggest that we need to remove 6bn tons of CO2 per year by 2050 alongside rapid emissions reductions to bring temperatures [sic] back down to 1.5C by the end of the century.”
Note that here he seems to concede that a world 1.5C warmer than during the Crimean War might actually be a nice place. But once you start triggering climate change, in any direction, isn’t there a danger of tipping points, runaway effects and all that jazz?
Luckily it may well be that the climate models are totally wrong about the impact of CO2 at its present concentration, so if we did waste all that time and effort it would only cost us money and let us fizz our sodas from our cement factories. But hey, humans are smart enough to redesign nature and get it right this time, aren’t we? What could go wrong? So there’s no reason for anyone to worry that “A startup says it’s begun releasing particles into the atmosphere, in an effort to tweak the climate” with no regulation or vote, right? (Oh, other than “Little is known about the real-world effect of such deliberate interventions at large scales, but they could have dangerous side effects.” On which basis, or some concern about international treaties, the Mexican government did move to block it at least on their territory.)
Still, we want to know where you want to cool it down to and how you know that was the one and only “right” temperature nature was too dumb to stick to and kept bouncing around. Ideally just one opinion this time, too.