The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) embrace of geoengineering proposals, which began very tentatively with the release of their fourth assessment report, is beginning to shape up as a dangerous romance. The IPCC’s 2014 Synthesis Report provides the strongest support yet from the IPCC for technologies intended to remove carbon from the atmosphere and allow carbon polluting business as usual.
Carbon capture and storage (CCS) is an extremely expensive, technically challenging and unproven technology. To date, despite billions of dollars of investment, there is only one commercially CCS plant in operation. This opened in Saskatchewan, Canada last month. Electricity production from coal using CSS is more expensive that both solar and wind and is riddled with technical problems – including adequate, accessible, affordable and secure capture and storage.
It is rather alarming then that therefore that the IPCC relies heavily on BioEnergy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS) in the mitigation models in its latest Synthesis Report. This is a new twist on CCS that involves planting trees and crops, harvesting them, transporting them, burning them in special power plants, capturing the carbon dioxide (CO2) and storing it underground.
Adding biomass to the already fraught CSS equation creates the additional problem of finding hundreds of millions of hectares to grow trees or crops for fuel without displacing people, losing valuable food producing land and destroying valuable wildlife habitat.
The IPCC admits that there are “biogeochemical and technological limitations to their potential on the global scale,” and that “there is insufficient knowledge to quantify how much CO2 emissions could be partially offset by CDR [carbon dioxide removal] on a century timescale.” The technology is potentially risky and “may carry side-effects and long-term consequences on a global scale” Nonetheless, many of the mitigation models presented by the IPCC depend on carbon dioxide removal in order to keep CO2 levels below 350ppm. Many of the models assume an ‘overshoot’ of emissions that can be reversed by BECCs.
Despite the IPCC recognising how unproven the technology remains (and providing no analysis of the likelihood of it ever reaching a point where it can be scaled up to the degree necessary), they are determined to indulge in wishful thinking that this technology will work. This is a dangerous distraction that takes us away from insisting on and developing the solutions and structural changes that we know are necessary.
The IPCC has been a respected body in alerting the world to the dangerous rise in emissions, and the need for action by the world community to prevent potentially catastrophic impacts. Why has the IPCC shifted? Is it desperation in the face of inadequate global responses? Is it a new-found techno-optimism? Or is it that the pressure from corporate interests determined to maintain business as usual has convinced many in the political sphere and the IPCC that there will be no political solutions and that technology is all that can save us?
The IPCC’s thinking is wrong and dangerous and it needs to change.
The ideas are dangerous because approaches like BECCs aren’t solutions, but desperate choices we do not currently need to make. These technologies have potentially global repercussions and impacts. They are dangerous because they suggest that the IPCC has given up on real solutions that are well known and implementable. They are dangerous because they offer our political leaders an excuse not to make the hard choices those solutions demand. If offered a choice between restructuring our growth and exploitation based economy, or deluding themselves into believing that a new technology will solve all our problems, guess what most political leaders will choose?
When the IPCC turns away from proven solutions because of corporate or political pressure, and turns towards wishful thinking we can see those legitimate solutions move further away, grow smaller and less compelling. If we begin to believe that we can’t solve climate change through renewables, economic restructuring and behavioural change, we will well and truly have lost our way and any hope of tacking climate change.