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Geoengineering: a boon for big business not the environment

Environment
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Youth Activists Focus on Carbon Emissions with #ZeroBy2050 Campaign at COP21 by COP21

A pro-corporate spin underpins the euphemisms used in the climate negotiations, writes Jeremy Tager.

If you were in Paris during two weeks of climate negotiations, you would have had free entry to the Solutions pavilion in the Palais Royal. This is exhibition was sponsored by corporate interests devoted to climate change ‘solutions’ that don’t involve changing an economic system based on perpetual growth.(i)

Behind the spin sits another more believable reality – corporate access to decision-makers. According to the pavilion website – although the information has now been removed – access will cost between 30,000 - 250,000 euros. This includes a range of opportunities – including hosting stakeholders in privileged meetings, ‘endorsement’ through the use of corporate logos, corporate partner participation in media events, and the right to host an evening event in the Grand Palace.(ii)

The COP21 meeting in Paris looks all too familiar: Inadequate emission reduction ambitions;(iiii) excessive corporate control over the meeting and its outcomes - including an increasing shift towards techno-fixes; and leaders who are too captured by corporate interests to act in the best interests of everyone.

At its heart, COP21 is about world leaders appearing to address climate change, while ensuring that we continue on a path of endless growth and endless exploitation.

At a recent Environmental Law conference at Tulane University in the United States Gregor Trumel, Consul General of France, promised strong action on climate change coming out of COP21. At the same time, he noted that this must occur in the context of continued growth. Trumel also noted that there is lots of money to be made out of these processes and urged his audience to ‘go for it’.(iv)

Similarly, a new World Bank report claims that “zero net emissions is achievable as part of well-planned, robust economic growth” and “carbon capture and sequestration would make it possible to use more coal.”

Which of the existential failures of the current system aren’t clear?

The terms ‘net zero emissions’, ‘negative emissions’, ‘climate neutrality’ and ‘greenhouse gas emissions neutral’ are the current euphemisms for geoengineering.(vi) These terms are used in the COP21 negotiating text and are distinguished from decarbonisation and other terms that refer specifically to reducing fossil fuel use.(vii) They are bandied about as though the technologies to achieve zero or negative emissions are mature and proven. They are not even close, but geoengineering is an absolutely critical component to the fallacy of a business as usual solution to climate change.

In the last few years, as our failures to act on climate change have become more pronounced and chronic, the narrative of technological solutions has strengthened. Over the last year, the IPCC,(viii) the National Academy of Sciences(ix) and the World Bank have, to varying degrees, endorsed geoengineering approaches to climate change.

The two technologies being most discussed are:

1. Spraying sulphate aerosols particles into the upper atmosphere to block out radiation and, like a volcano, cool the planet quickly.

2. Bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS). This requires the growing, harvesting and burning of biomass to produce carbon dioxide that is captured and stored in geological formations underground.

The risks, costs and technical hurdles associated with both these approaches are enormous. Concerns with the spraying of sulphate aerosols range from altering global rainfall patterns to diminished light and sun affecting the production of food. Additionally, the spraying of sulphate aerosols only masks the impacts of rising CO2 levels. Once spraying stops, the temperature will spike - unless other technologies are available to remove vast quantities of CO2 from the air.(x)

BECCS is trumpeted as offering the possibility of negative emissions. CO2 is absorbed from the atmosphere during the natural growth process of biomass. Following combustion of the biomass the CO2 is captured and permanently stored providing a net carbon removal from the atmosphere, or ‘negative emissions’.

However, deploying BECCS at the scale needed to tackle climate change would require the world to maintain an area 1.5 times the size of India, full of fields or forests capable of absorbing vast amounts of carbon dioxide, while still providing enough food for a global population that is expected to exceed nine billion by 2050.(xi)

Even assuming sufficient non-food producing land could be found without major biodiversity impacts and land-grabbing - and that harvest and transport could occur without carbon emissions, the capture and storage of such large quantities of CO2 still remains unresolved. Storage not only requires stable, secure and very large geological formations, it also requires massive transport, storage and monitoring infrastructure.

It is estimated that in order to capture sufficient CO2 to keep warming within 2 degrees, a BECCS industry almost twice the size of the global oil industry would need to be created by 2050. Currently, there are only 22 pilot projects globally. Despite billions of dollars having been spent on the research and development of carbon capture and storage, the technology remains immature, costs are enormous and storage capacity and safety remain massive technical problems. The chances of such an industry therefore seem very remote indeed.(xii) (xiii)

How will these new technologies be rolled out? To date, we have seen substantial government subsidies to support these profit based approaches and no governance interventions over either the spraying of sulphate aerosols or BECCS. Is the intention therefore to let the market decide?

The use of a corporate capitalist system to implement urgent policy needs is madness. As we have seen with Clean Development Mechanisms (CDM) and other carbon markets, such schemes are riddled with corruption, compromise, conflicting purposes, lack of oversight or enforcement, dubious accounting methods and new forms of colonial exploitation, such as land grabbing.(xiv) Market based approaches also mean non-market approaches are simply ignored. For example, moving away, from chemically intensive, industrialised agricultural systems will never be the preferred option under the current system - no matter how superior the alternatives.

Even in the unlikely event that we achieve net zero emissions under the current system, the voraciousness of the markets will continue. Negative emissions won’t stop the next great extinction, the accelerating loss of resources and diversity or the death of our oceans.

Geoengineering merely offers business as usual, only worse.

Notes:

(i) http://www.solutionscop21.org/en/presentation/

(ii) False Solutions COP21. http://corporateeurope.org/sites/default/files/false_solution_final.pdf. Viewed on the official Solutions website 1.12.15 http://www.solutionscop21.org/en/partners/. This information has now been removed.

(iii) Statement from new Climate Space initiative about COP21 (2015). http://newpol.org/content/statement-new-climate-space-initiative-about-cop21

(iv) Tulane Environmental Law Conference COP21 (2015). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xqYqnSZBPSQ, beginning at 8’40

(v) Fay, M. et al. (2015) Decarbonizing Development: 3 steps to a zero-carbon future. The World Bank. http://www.worldbank.org/en/news/feature/2015/05/11/decarbonizing-development-zero-carbon-future

(vi) Jay, D. (2015) Net Zero is not Zero: Inside the G7’s dystopian decarbonisation scheme. Geoengineering Monitor. http://www.geoengineeringmonitor.org/2015/06/net-zero-is-not-zero-the-g7s-dystopian-decarbonization/

(vii) United Nations Framework on Climate Change (2015). Negotiating text. http://unfccc.int/resource/docs/2015/cop21/eng/01.pdf

(viii) Fifth Assessment Report, International Panel on Climate Change (IPCCC),( 2014). https://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar5/

(ix) The National Academies of Science (2015). Climate Intervention Reports. https://nas-sites.org/americasclimatechoices/other-reports-on-climate-change/2015-2/climate-intervention-reports/

(x) Hamilton, C. (2013). ‘The Ultimate Technofix’: Playing God with the Climate. http://www.wheelercentre.com/notes/fb84f31f5f37

(xi) The Paris Climate-Change Spectacular (2015). The ETC Group. http://www.etcgroup.org/content/paris-climate-change-spectacular

(xii) False promise of ‘carbon capture’ exposed (2015). The Ecologist. http://www.geoengineeringmonitor.org/2015/05/false-promise-of-carbon-capture-exposed/

(xiii) Around the world in 22 carbon capture projects (2014). Carbon Brief. http://www.carbonbrief.org/around-the-world-in-22-carbon-capture-projects

(xiv) See, e.g. Bohm and Dahbi (Eds) Upsetting the Offset: The Political Economy of Carbon Markets. Mayfly Books. http://mayflybooks.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/07/9781906948078UpsettingtheOffset.pdf

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