It isn’t too late to limit average global warming to 1.5°C without resorting to geoengineering, and deploying geoengineering technologies such as carbon capture storage (CCS) and solar radiation management (SRM) would be counterproductive and dangerously irresponsible, according to panelists at an April 25 webinar.
The two-hour online event, hosted by the Heinrich Böll Foundation, the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL), Oil Change International, and the DiCaprio Foundation/OneEarth, heard that continuing fossil fuel development in spite of the urgent need for deep reductions in carbon pollution is feeding a false narrative that geoengineering is the only way to stabilize global climate systems. It laid out scenarios to limit average global warming to 1.5 to 2.0°C that rely on rapid deployment of proven, off-the-shelf renewable energy options, achievable increases in energy efficiency, and ecosystem-based solutions to sequester carbon, rather than exotic, unproven technologies that could also be exquisitely dangerous.
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Considering the Unthinkable
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned last fall that global warming must be kept below 1.5°C, and “the time window for meaningful action is shrinking rapidly,” said Lili Fuhr, head of the International Environmental Policy Division at the Heinrich Böll Foundation. Now, thanks to “inadequate climate action on the part of governments so far,” coupled with “major investments in oil and gas, especially in the United States,” serious and well-informed observers are considering geoengineering technologies “that until recently would have been unthinkable.”
Noting that many countries’ emissions reduction strategies rely heavily on future deployment of technologies like CCS, Fuhr listed four principles applicable to all the geoengineering techniques currently under consideration:
• They all pose environmental and socio-political dangers that are “transboundary, unpredictable, and potentially irreversible.”
• Better governance is urgently needed, although the United Nations’ 2010 Convention on Biodiversity does provide a de facto moratorium on geoengineering.
• Despite that moratorium, research and testing of geoengineering technologies are proceeding quickly, and commercial development is being actively explored.
• “A small but very active” pro-geoengineering community exists, but there is also “a silent majority that is very opposed.”
Keeping New Fossils in the Ground
“If we’re serious about remaining well below 2.0°C, we can’t expand fossil production,” said Alex Doukas, lead analyst with the Stop Funding Fossils Program at Oil Change International (OCI). Ultimately, he said, effective climate action means addressing the problem of existing fossil fuel supply.
In its 2016 report The Sky’s Limit, Oil Change compared data on oil, gas, and coal reserves that were either already producing or under construction against the carbon budgets necessary to keep global warming below 1.5° or 2.0°C. Carbon dioxide emissions from just the oil and gas in already-operating fields globally would push the world far beyond 1.5°C average warming, and adding already-operating coal mines would exhaust a 2.0°C carbon budget.
OCI’s January 2019 report, Drilling Towards Disaster, concluded that if the U.S. oil and gas boom “continues unchecked, it could be game over for climate action,” Doukas told participants. New oil and gas production in the U.S., primarily oil in the Permian Basin and gas in the Appalachian Basin, could produce 120 gigatons of emissions by 2050, equal to the “lifetime CO2 emissions from almost 1,000 coal plants.”
Plans for the Permian and Appalachian basins will also have profoundly negative impacts on energy equity, he added. If the U.S. expansion continues unchecked while the rest of the world tries to adhere to a 1.5°C carbon budget, U.S. oil and gas will account for 50% of global supply by 2030 and 90% by 2050. In equity terms, by contrast, “what is required of the U.S. now is managed decline.”
Yet expanded fossil fuel production continues to be justified, “even by those who profess to care about the planet”. That’s based on the “fairy tale” being widely circulated by the oil and gas industry that it can take care of any extra emissions by capturing and burying the carbon in salt domes or similar structures, or through carbon dioxide-enhanced oil recovery (CO2-EOR), which involves injecting CO2 into aging oil wells to extract more product.
Carbon Capture as Fossil Subsidy
But CO2-EOR is clearly “not a climate solution,” Doukas said. In a 2017 analysis, OCI projected that a US$35-per-ton U.S. tax subsidy for expanded CO2-EOR would increase the country’s oil production by at least 400,000 barrels per day in 2035, representing 50.7 million tonnes of CO2 per year.
Subsidizing CO2-EOR could also extend the lifetimes of coal plants, by giving them an opportunity to sell their CO2 to oil and gas producers.
Two other critical factors make CO2-EOR a non-starter as a climate solution, Doukas said. “Each barrel of oil extracted contains more carbon than is injected to recover it,” he explained, and “new oil will tend to induce some additional demand, especially if generous subsidies make existing reserves of oil cheaper to produce.” Proponents argue that any new oil extraction made possible by CO2-EOR will displace oil produced elsewhere. But the U.S. government’s own modelling for new offshore oil leases shows that 50% of the output using CO2-EOR would represent additional production.
Most CO2-EOR credits to date have gone to big players like ExxonMobil, Doukas told participants, at an annual cost to taxpayers of $3 billion. That so much public money should be “dumped into companies that are the most vocal opponents of serious climate action” is very concerning, he said. Moreover, the local health and ecosystem impacts of decades of CCS and CO2-EOR-assisted oil, gas, and coal production will be devastating.
A February 2019 report by the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL), Fuel to the Fire, determined that CCS and other forms of CO2 removal, like direct air capture (DAC) and bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS), will further entrench the fossil economy by locking investment dollars into new fossil infrastructure. It also examined how dangerous solar geoengineering technologies are being promoted to justify slower, more incremental steps away from fossil fuels.
The Rush to Geoengineering
But in the wake of the IPCC report last fall, “there has been a rush of public media coverage and public discourse suggesting that we are out of time, and that the only thing to do is invest massively in an array of geoengineering technology,” said CIEL President and CEO Carroll Muffett. Indeed, most IPCC models and Nationally Determined Contributions under the 2015 Paris Agreement “are dependent on the widespread deployment of CCS” for CO2 removal.
Yet of all the proposals floated to use or store captured CO2, CO2-EOR is the only one “available at scale and with market potential,” he told participants. And because CO2-EOR leads to yet more oil, CO2-EOR-reliant climate models can only deliver negative emissions “over any frame of time” by either ignoring the emissions produced when the oil is burned, or making readily refutable arguments about displacement.
Muffett reviewed the growing advocacy around DAC, a process that is profoundly more energy-intensive than traditional CCS as it depends on sucking CO2 from the air, where the gas is much less concentrated. Even if the DAC process could be powered entirely by renewable energy, it would still be important to ask what better purposes that electricity could serve.
He noted that the majority of business cases for DAC target either Enhanced Oil Recovery or production streams like jet or drop-in fuels, thereby perpetuating the fossil fuel economy.
The International Energy Agency’s (IEA) greenhouse gas working group “has been clear” that, for the fossil industry, the rationale for CCS and DAC is “not about addressing the climate problem,” Muffett added. Rather, the technologies are about unlocking unburnable carbon and “providing a rationale for exploiting reserves long past the point that we know we can exploit them.”
That the IEA should promote such a rationale is not surprising, he said, given that it is “dominated by coal, oil and gas, and integrated utilities—all of whom have a vested interest in the continuation of the status quo.”
Muffett spoke briefly about the risks posed by solar radiation modification and marine cloud brightening technologies. In addition to their inherent dangers, he said, these technologies are “too often promoted as an alternative to taking early, aggressive action to reduce emissions.” Geoengineering is increasingly the go-to for climate deniers, especially those in the U.S. Congress, even though large-scale interventions would risk “unleashing a whole array of new risks that to date we still only poorly understand”—while failing to acknowledge “that it is entirely possible to get to a 1.5°C world without geoengineering.”
1.5°C Without Geoengineering
The pathway to 1.5°C must be understood as a “technical benchmark” that will demand a truly global consensus, along with massive efforts to repair and protect the world’s forests, said Dr. Sven Teske, Research Director at the Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney. Teske was lead author of Achieving the Paris Climate Agreement, a 500-page report financed by the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation whose comprehensive global and regional energy scenarios, together with land use changes and reforestation, showed a pathway to average global warming below 2.0°C—and, with concerted effort, below 1.5°C—without recourse to CCS or other geoengineering technologies.
Teske said the One Earth climate modeling project, which took 18 months to complete, took into account global trends in the energy sector, including higher shares of renewable energy, ongoing digitalization of electricity, and sector coupling, particularly the electrification of heating and transport. The scope of the project was to develop a scenario for 100% renewable energy and global decarbonization of the energy sector by 2050, using only technologies that are already in the market or at the end stage of development—and excluding both BECCS and nuclear.
An international team of almost 20 scientists combined data from seven established computer models. They included the Renewable Resource Assessment ([R]E-SPACE) model, which uses geographic information system mapping to determine the renewable energy resources available globally for utility applications, as well as a transport model (TRAEM) that relies on a “bottom-up approach to model transport demand, both freight and passenger, in road, rail, aviation, and marine transport.”
These two inputs were put into an energy system model whose outputs were in turn plugged into a power system model that simulated electricity systems at every hour of every day of the week, with sufficient geographic resolution to assess infrastructure needs like grid connections and storage.
The reference case for the model’s scenarios was the IEA’s ”Current Policies” projection of 5.0°C warming by 2040, further interpolated to 2050. The study also calculated one 2.0°C and one 1.5°C scenario with carbon budgets of 590 gigatons and 450 gigatons to 2050, respectively, plus immediate and much-accelerated action to hit the 1.5°C target.
The modelling showed that most countries have “more than enough” potential for both utility-scale solar and wind, Teske said. As for the transport model, while emissions from aviation and cars “go through the roof” in the 5.0°C reference case, the main growth at both the 2.0 and 1.5°C thresholds is in passenger trains, which more than triple around the world between now and 2050.
Overall, global energy demand increases by almost 60% by 2050 under the 5.0°C reference case. By contrast, thanks to efficiency gains mainly in the transport and industry sectors, demand decreases 19% to achieve a 2.0°C target, and 26% to hit 1.5°. Global electricity demand grows dramatically, supplied primarily by increasingly affordable solar and wind energy deployments.
While hydrogen fuel will be in demand, especially for large-scale transport by ship and truck, biofuel use will be limited to aviation and industrial processes where carbon is required and no alternative has been developed yet, Teske said. North Africa, the Middle East, and Australia will be the chief suppliers of these fuels, producing far in excess of their regional needs.
He added that the resulting reductions in fuel costs will free up enough capital to cover nearly 90% of the additional investment required in a 1.5 or 2.0°C scenario.
The IEA’s baseline scenario has the world’s energy-related carbon dioxide emissions hitting 43.5 gigatons per year by 2050, a 17.3% increase over last year’s level of 37.1 Gt, a level sufficient to deplete a 1.5°C carbon budget in nine years. Emissions decrease to 7.0 Gt by 2040 in the 2.0°C scenario and 2.6 Gt on the 1.5°C pathway, both en route to zero in 2050.
To achieve either of the Paris targets, solar and wind must get priority access to the grid, Teske said. For that reason alone, neither CCS nor nuclear can play any substantial role in a 1.5 or 2.0°C world, since “there is no room” for any technology whose business case demands 24/7 production. Achieving the Paris targets will mean increasing the combined grid share for solar photovoltaics and wind from their current 5% to 65%, while dispatchable fossils decline from 60% to 7%.
The modelling also calls for “significant” investment in battery storage and pumped hydro systems along coastlines, but no increase in large-scale hydroelectric plants, Teske told participants.
Teske said the path to a 2.0°C target requires a 2% annual drop in fossil fuel use, while a 1.5ºC target dictates another 1% reduction—and both raise issues of just transition and fairness to fossil industry workers that are addressed in the One Earth model. But he stressed that decarbonization of the energy system will not be enough on its own to achieve a 1.5°C climate stabilization. Countries will also have to achieve negative emissions by stopping deforestation and mounting aggressive reforestation programs.
He also cited a recent analysis of mineral and metal requirements in 1.5 and 2.0°C pathways, published by the Institute for Sustainable Futures, that shows demand for cobalt exceeding current production rates by 2023, for lithium by 2022.
Pushing Back with Legislators
The panelists were asked to identify the most important geoengineering issues to raise with U.S. legislators. Fuhr said the rest of the world is very concerned that the United States is conducting outdoor experiments—with some of them going by the misleading name of “climate restoration”—without international consensus, and often imperiling the rights of Indigenous peoples. At the 2019 UN Environment Assembly in Nairobi in March, the United States and Saudi Arabia together blocked a Swiss resolution on geoengineering governance, she added.
Muffett stressed the need to “ensure that the Green New Deal doesn’t embed DAC or other CCS” into its climate action plans, focusing instead on “win-win natural solutions” that are immediately deployable, such as ecosystem restoration and soil conservation.
Doukas stressed the need and opportunity to push back against fossil fuel subsidies.
Teske said the energy scenarios produced using the One Earth model include capital, labour, operations, and maintenance costs, but leave out transport costs that are “very difficult to calculate on global level.” With respect to energy transition costs, he said, “we are in a very comfortable position” thanks to ever-cheaper renewables. What is needed is “priority access to the grid” and the eradication of fossil subsidies.
On negative emissions, he added that “the best CCS tech is an untouched tropical rainforest,” and forest protection is “by far the most important measure in terms of getting negative emissions.” The most critical takeaway from the One Earth model is that “there are no low-hanging fruit left,” so that even with “a very ambitious energy scenario, we still need to preserve our forests.”
Responding to a question about energy, pipeline, and water inputs for CCS and DAC, as well as local harms, Doukas said regulatory and monitoring requirements around water use are “pretty lax,” while infrastructure requirements are “one of the least discussed but most important impacts of CCS at scale.” Those impacts fall disproportionately on poor and marginalized communities, he added.
But the debate around geoengineering “will only get more intense”, he warned, as those interested in the status quo double down on the notion that only geotech will save humanity from climate disaster.
With the IEA pointing to how quickly the world is preparing to transform its energy system, Fuhr said climate solutions ultimately come down to political will, and “geoengineering is a profound distraction.” Teske agreed that the world is poised for a very quick transition to renewable energy as the “cheapest and easiest” option, adding that affordable energy storage “will not be an issue” 10 years from now. But with many of the necessary policy frameworks still missing, he said non-government organizations must assume a stronger advocacy role.
He added that he is “absolutely positive that with a bit of delay, we arrive at 1.5°C in terms of energy.” But land use changes are worrying, and the world is “not on track” to address deforestation.Fuhr urged webinar participants to sign the Hands Off Mother Earth! Manifesto Against Geoengineering.