Most of us will remember the Paris 2015 UN conference on climate change. After countless meetings over nearly thirty years the delegates had reached agreement on how to limit global warming. Against all expectations, after decades of failures, the international community had finally reached consensus on what needed to be done. The agreement was to keep warming to well below 2°C, preferably to 1.5°C, compared to pre-industrial levels. Of course the agreements are not binding, but the parties come together every five years to report.
Whilst the 2015 meeting was hailed as a success, the reality is different. First few believe that the goal of 1.5o C will be achieved. Such an imprecise target just leaves considerable room for manoeuvre. Of course, the probable failure does not rest with the Paris talks, rather to the entire multi-decade process which has been undermined by governments that were unable to explain the cost/benefit to their electorates combined with massive lobbying on behalf of the fossil fuel lobby.
So notwithstanding the so-called success of the 2015 meeting, we are now facing into COP26 which is again being billed as the real deadline, the moment that all countries have to commit to long term goals, to finish the work of COP25 setting out the rules for a carbon market between countries and agreements around implementing the 2015 agreement.
But things are not all as they seem. Enter the term “net-zero”. The IPCC says that ‘net zero’ is a state in which “human activities result in no net effect on the climate system”. This is VERY different to reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. As we know the threats of climate change are the direct result of there being too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. So the question gets asked, what’s easier, to change existing processes that emit carbon or to use capture devices that remove carbon from the atmosphere?
Initially there was huge interest in trees, they are the ultimate capture devices. They even look good! But there aren’t enough trees in the world to offset society’s carbon emissions – and there never will be enough. There isn’t enough physical space. So the race is on to develop carbon capture. Incredibly we are facing into an existential threat and placing critical dependency on technology that doesn’t yet exist! But hang on, Norway is reported to be planning massive carbon capture devices [see reference below]. They plan to use the vast network of oil wells and pipelines in the North Sea to pump CO2 into and store for the long term. But it seems an unexpected benefit of this model is that the process of storage will actually be able to pressurize more oil out of the currently declining or exhausted wells! So, assuming they can make it work, it’s highly likely that they will continue producing oil, and probably avoid the commercial disaster of unwanted oil companies, that they have been trying to avoid for years.
So all the efforts of society to change their habits are deprioritized. “Don’t worry, we will do it all for you!” Keep driving your diesel cars and heating your homes with oil etc.
We must equate Net Zero with a reckless “burn now, pay later” approach which will see carbon emissions continue to soar. At the same time pollution will continue at the current or greater levels and priorities for emission reduction in other sectors will be deprioritized.
In principle carbon dioxide removal proposals are reasonable. Leading edge science and engineering come to the rescue. There will be many forms of carbon removal from all sectors and it could become a major industry in very short order. Sectors under pressure to reduce emissions could easily see removal as a lifeboat for current business models. The problem is that if successful it could be use on a vast scale. This serves as a blank cheque for the continued burning of fossil fuels and the acceleration of habitat destruction.
Carbon reduction technologies should be seen as a solution of last resort that could save humanity from rapid and catastrophic environmental change. Just like an ejector seat in a jet aircraft. However, governments and businesses seem to be serious about deploying unproven technologies as a way to avoid doing the hard graft. And of course it will be the new kid on the block for making unimaginably large amounts of money!
Later this year we will see the great and the good meeting in Scotland for COP 26, billed as the last chance saloon. And astonishingly the meeting, being in the UK, will have the clown chancer Boris Johnson as host. As someone who has now proven to us all that he has no respect whatsoever for international agreements, we can imagine that short cuts, magical ideas and chimeras will be the order of the day. God help us all!