Going Negative: Time to Suck It Up

It’s fair to say that the climate discussions in Bonn (known as COP23, part of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change) did not deliver radical change.

We also learned that after three years of emissions remaining constant, in 2017 emissions went up. That’s bad enough. But behind the discussions in Bonn and the commitments of the nations, an uncomfortable fact lurked.

We can’t hit our climate targets without going negative. I don’t mean negative messaging, I mean negative emissions – removing CO2 from the air and oceans.

The recent UN Emissions Gap Report lays it out pretty clearly, citing papers like this one. In order to avoid a worse-than-2C world, we need to start removing CO2 from the atmosphere “bigly”. Here’s what that looks like:

UNEP EMission Gap Report, 2017

Source: UNEP Emissions Gap Report, 2017

– To reach a 2C world by 2100, we need to achieve world-wide zero emissions and start pulling CO2 out of the air and oceans by 2070.

– We don’t really know how to stop some emissions (things like the nitrous-oxides from adding fertilizer to farm soils, or airplane use). That’s about 15-20% of emission’s we probably can’t or won’t get.

– Since we probably can’t and won’t get to zero, we need to start pulling CO2 out of the air and oceans much sooner – something like 12 years from now. Said differently, that’s 2030, in two Senate terms, or before my 12-year-old son turns 25.

The volumes of CO2 we will need to pull from the air and oceans every year will be very large – 10 billion tons of CO2 or more. That’s about 20 times the weight of all humans alive today, or about as huge as the whole global oil and gas industry today.

That’s because humans have added 2 trillion tons of CO2 to the air and oceans. We have to pull it back out.

Time to clean our rooms. Time to suck it up.

Some of this can be done today with pretty low-tech, ready-to-launch approaches. Exhibit A: planting trees. India and China have begun enormous tree planting efforts, and the technology for automatic tree planting has improved a bunch (e.g., these rapid-fire tree planting drones). Other approaches like soil-carbon farming and restoring degraded ecosystems can work as well. Based on a recent study by the Nature Conservancy, it looks like a good piece of the carbon removal solution could be done with land-use modification and natural systems. These options are great and we should start them. Many deliver extra benefits as well, like maintain biodiversity, increasing crop yields, and improving water quality.

Spoiler: that may not be enough. While natural systems have great potential, we don’t know how climate change will affect these systems. We don’t know how quickly they can draw down atmospheric CO2, or how long they can hold that carbon. Already, it looks like some forests that used to draw down CO2 have reversed and are now jettisoning their carbon back to that atmosphere.

More to the point, humans haven’t exactly demonstrated that we can and will manage our global land masses. The politics are tough, often pitting farmers, rangers, forestry and environmentalists against each other. Societies everywhere use land and water for food and wood, and some land can’t be reforested without more water and energy-intensive fertilizer. It’s not clear we can ever get a large-number of stakeholders and nations around the world to hold hands and pull together to restore lost soil, forests and ecosystems.

There’s a reason Dilbert ™ is funny.

To be safer and better off, we must add options. For example, we can invent new ways of pulling CO2 from the air and oceans. Remember the scene “Apollo 13” when Mission Control and the Apollo crew had to design a system on the fly that pulled CO2 from the air?

We gotta do that. On steroids.

Some have already started. A few companies (like Carbon Engineering and Climeworks) have commercial systems that are pulling CO2 from the air. One is converting it to fuels. One is storing it permanently in the rock mass of Iceland. Other companies (like Global Thermostat) are developing their own approaches.

Of course, it would be easier to do this if folks can make money doing it. That’s a subject for a future blog post.

For now, we have to start thinking about creating a massive global industry the size of the oil and gas industry, working in reverse. Jobs lie there – that’s the good news. The bad news is we pretty much have to do it or we cook the world and us in it. That’s the harsh arithmetic of the global climate math.

One last point. Following the wise words of the great Bill McDonough (e.g., in his Nature paper), talking about negative emissions basically confuses everyone. We’re doing a positive action (carbon harvesting; rebalancing and restoration) but calling it negative. To make forward progress on this issue, we need a better phrase than “negative emissions”.

I agree, and I’m voting with my feet. This is the last time I will write or publicly use the phrase “negative emissions” to describe this important and positive work. My future posts will use these phrases to describe the work:

– Carbon Harvesting

– Carbon Removal

– Atmospheric restoration and rebalancing

These positive, proactive statements help enable positive action. Others can say what they like. From here on out, I’m sticking with a positive description of going negative.

*If you want to know more, check out the Center for Carbon Removal, a new environmental NGO dedicated to “going negative”. They have technical and policy recommendations for the US, and are biased to action for soils, forests, and engineered solutions.

Julio Friedmann

Senior Research Scholar, and Lead of CaMRI Initiative at Columbia University in the City of New York

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