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Negative Emission: Panacea or Curse?

Author: Eduard Campillo-Funollet

Overconfidence in the new negative emission technologies could lead to a catastrophic increase in carbon emissions, according to a paper published in Science in October. In the paper, Kevin Anderson, deputy director of the Tyndall Center for Climate Change Research at the University of East Anglia, and Glen Peters, a researcher at the Center for International Climate and Environmental Research Oslo, warn about the consequences that we may face if the negative emission technologies, still in early stages of development, fail to be as efficient as expected in the Paris Agreement.

Negative emission is the removal of carbon from the atmosphere. These technologies focus on processes that consume more carbon than they emit. Some technologies go even further and seek to remove carbon from the atmosphere without any extra emission in the process.

The aim of the Paris Agreement is to mitigate the human causes of climate changes. One of the goals is to hold the increase of global average temperature below 2°C above the pre-industrial levels. To control the temperature increase, we should control the carbon levels in the atmosphere.

Most of the climate models that were used to negotiate the Paris Agreement rely on new negative emission technologies to reduce the net carbon emission –the difference between carbon emission and carbon removed from the atmosphere.  But negative emission technologies are still in development. Many of them are just theoretical studies and small scale demonstrations. Others, like afforestation and reforestation, are claimed to be mitigating measures, but there is not enough evidence about their efficiency.

One of the most promising negative emission technologies is Bioenergy Combined with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS). This technique, qualified by Anderson as a “political panacea”, is attractive because it not only removes carbon from the atmosphere, but also provides energy as a result of the process.

According to Anderson and Peters, the risk lies on the assumptions that the Paris Agreement makes based on the performance of negative emission technologies. If research to make these technologies efficient fails to provide results,  carbon levels will keep increasing. Even a delay on the availability of negative emission technologies will jeopardise the predictions of th e Paris Agreement.  Furthermore, the expectations for  negative emission technologies can stop efforts to reduce carbon emissions by other methods – it is tempting to avoid the economic and political costs of carbon cut measures, and wait for the technology to solve the problem.  A safer path would be to not only control the net emissions, but to reduce carbon emissions. In this way, even if negative emission technologies fail to deliver at the promised levels, the carbon emissions will keep decreasing.

Researchers in negative emission technologies are afraid that these arguments could block their investigations. Klaus Lackner, director of the Center for Negative Carbon Emissions at Arizona State University, qualifies the approach of Anderson and Peters as a “moral hazard”.  Other experts are of the opinion that the best strategy is to keep working on negative emission technologies, but without neglecting the need for reduction of the carbon emissions. “The real moral failure is restricting the ways scientist think about mitigating climate change”, says professor John DeCicco from University of Michigan.

University of Sussex has reduced its carbon footprint by more than 40\% in the last 10 years. Several projects are in place with the aim to improve this figure.

The carbon emission predictions submitted by the countries as part of the Agreement differ from the model outcomes. Thus, there is a strong dependence on negative emission technologies to satisfy the terms of the Agreement.

IMAGE: Pexels

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