Global warming is too consequential for the world to ignore any longer. It is high time we start looking for ways to battle one of the biggest problems for the coming generation. Significant reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions, accomplished through different means such as switching from fossil fuels to renewable energy and preventing deforestation, are necessary to avert cataclysmic climate change. Now, more than ever, it is increasingly explicit that realizing a pathway to 1.5°C of warming, a globally agreed target, will also involve removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Hence, the need to talk about negative emissions, sinks, or removals.
Emma Gibbs gives us a perfect analogy to explain negative emissions. She tells us they are like walking into a bathroom and seeing an almost full bath with the taps still running. The first thing you would do is turn off the taps. You would reduce the emissions going into the atmosphere. But even if you could turn the taps off completely, you’d still have a full bath. So you’d also want to take the plug out. And negative emissions are basically like taking the plug out.
Shaun Fitzgerald tells us the three reasons why we need negative emissions. The first is because of the damage we have inflicted upon the climate. Today, we are north of 500 parts per million of carbon dioxide equivalent. Pre-industrial, we were at 270. We’ve already put too much up there. The second reason is that we’re not turning the emissions taps off fast enough. It will take a while to transition to a zero-emissions or near-zero-emissions economy. And third, we’re never going to get those taps wholly off. In very hard-to-abate sectors, such as agriculture, we will need negative emissions to counterbalance the emissions that will continue at some level in the foreseeable future.
Bioenergy carbon capture and storage (BECCS) is one of the most scalable and well-proven methods. It can remove gigatons of carbon that we need to eliminate in the coming decades. BECCS is also a way of using nature’s capture technology. Plants capture CO2 from the air and build it into their plant material. As we use the plant material, the CO2 is released, but we catch it with a technology called carbon capture, and we either use it instead of fossil fuels or put it back into the ground for storage. The net effect is that the plants take the carbon out of the air, and we put it away, so it doesn’t return to the atmosphere. By installing carbon capture and storage technology onto those industrial processes, we get a clean product like clean electricity or hydrogen.
A new report from the Coalition for Negative Emissions shows that to achieve the volume of negative emissions we need by 2050, we need to start ramping up production today. The operative word for negative-emissions technologies is “now.” There are technical issues to be resolved with negative emissions, and if we wait, we risk having to accelerate development at such a pace that it will be expensive. By starting now, we give ourselves the time to develop the technology. We need to think about how whatever we do regarding the development of negative-emissions technologies supports as many of the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals as possible. So, they will include things like improving the health of humans and trying to reduce social injustice—the crucial factors of society.
Negative emissions are a viable option to protect the earth from global warming in light of the current situation. Of course, none of this will work unless we prioritise stopping deforestation and forest degradation. The situation may be dire, but it is still in our hands.