Otherwise we risk allowing our politicians to put plans in place that will do more harm to people and wildlife, while failing to adequately cut climate pollution in the long term. Such false solutions include market mechanisms, negative emissions technologies like Carbon Capture and Storage, biofuels, offsetting schemes and others that prolong our use of fossil fuels.
Caught in the net
Scotland’s new Climate Change Act sets a target date for Scotland to reach net-zero emissions by 2045. Net zero simply means that any greenhouse gas emissions released into the atmosphere must be balanced by absorbing an equivalent amount back out of the atmosphere.
However, net-zero emissions is not the same as zero emissions, and leaves the door open to the false promise that we can continue to pump out carbon emissions for as long as we like, so long as we offset them with tree planting, peatland restoration or technologies like Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS).
Negative emissions technologies
Negative emissions refers to the removal of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. Because action to reduce emissions has been delayed for so long, the amount of carbon that can be released without going above 1.5 or 2C of warming (our carbon budget) is getting drastically smaller. So much that it’s now unlikely to be possible to keep within 2C warming without also removing carbon from the atmosphere.
In order to increase the amount of carbon which can be stored, natural climate solutions including tree planting, peatland restoration are all important. However, the capacity of these natural carbon stores is limited – they cannot soak up infinite amounts of carbon. These things should be done at the same time as radically cutting climate pollution across society, not instead of them.
As well as these natural ways of achieving negative emissions, there is increasing political clamour for negative emissions technologies that are intended to remove carbon from the atmosphere.
Carbon Capture and Storage
The idea behind Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) is that it will be possible suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and store it underground, forever. However since 2007, the EU has spent €587 million in subsidies on developing Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) plants. To date, none of this investment has led to a functioning CCS plant.
Even if it did work, it would actually use huge amounts of energy to run the technology, not to mention the risks for local communities, wildlife and the climate if all that carbon leaked out of the storage facilities.
It’s much talked about by wealthy western governments and big energy corporations, as it allows them to continue operating as normal in the hope that this silver bullet technology will come and save them, instead of making tough choices and changes today.
Bioenergy with carbon, capture and storage (BECCS)
BECCS runs on biofuels, requiring vast amounts of land to be planting with single tree crops that will then be harvested and burned for energy. Carbon is captured in the biomass by way of the photosynthesis during growth. Plants are then burnt for energy and a part of the carbon is captured again after combustion in the power plant and sequestered in underground geological formations. The net result of this cycle is supposed to remove CO2 from the atmosphere.
It is fraught with problems – from the vast area of land needed for planting to the ecological problems with creating vast mono-culture plantations. There are also serious concerns about land grabbing and pitting major corporations against communities for use of the land.
An increasingly attractive option for governments, big companies and individuals alike, offsetting allows polluters to continue business as usual, then pay someone else to reduce emissions for them – usually in a different country. Sounds too good to be true? It is.
Offsetting schemes have been beset with scandals, and it is incredibly difficult to prove that they even work. But by paying for projects to happen in other countries, often developing nation, offsetting schemes are often accused of neocolonialism. By allowing industrialised countries and big polluters to continue using the little remaining atmospheric space available, so denying developing countries the right to use this to develop and bring their populations out of poverty.
The Scottish Government is considering backing hydrogen to meet our energy needs. This is not be the right path for a number of reasons.
Going for hydrogen in a big way would require massive investment in new infrastructure, require carbon capture and storage to become economically viable and always carries with it the risk that hydrogen is much more likely to explode than natural gas.
The ‘cheap’ way to make hydrogen is from gas. No wonder the fossil fuel industry are so enthusiastic about the technology. There are some cases where it might be very sensible to use hydrogen as a fuel, as long as you make it by using renewable electricity to split water. For example, islands with lots of wind turbines you might use spare electricity to make hydrogen to power the island’s ferry.
If you have surplus renewable electricity during the summer it might make sense to make hydrogen which can be turned back into electricity in the winter, when energy demand is higher. Plus the government’s advisors say hydrogen could not be in wide-scale use until some time in the 2030s.
Almost all of these proposed technologies are used as an excuse to delay urgent action today, in the hope that the next generation will figure out how to make this technology work and clean up our mess. But it is the cumulative emissions in the atmosphere that lead to warming, and it is possible that dangerous tipping points will be reached and exceeded before negative emissions technologies such as CCS or BECCS could even start working at scale.
Clearly it is better for the climate if we reduce our emissions to actual zero, or as close as possible, as soon as possible. Thankfully, we know the real solutions already. We need to end fossil fuels, reduce energy use and invest in renewable alternatives.