Exploring the Climate Science/Policy Jungle: I. Negative Emissions and Forests

Exploring the Climate Science/Policy Jungle: I. Negative Emissions and Forests


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I’m calling this “exploring the jungle” because I feel like I’m doing that, with a few shreds of maps that may or may not be connected.

Negative Emissions Used in Current IPCC Scenarios
Roger Pielke, Jr. does a nice job of laying out the fact that the IPCC has been using BECCS in its scenarios, the history and the policy implications in his recent paper in Issues in Science and Technology IST_33-39 Pielke.

In general, further research is necessary to characterize biomass’ long-term mitigation potential.” Yet by 2013, such caution had been left far behind, and negative emissions were central to nearly all scenarios of the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report that are compatible with a 2°C target. In less than a decade negative emissions went from an afterthought to being absolutely essential to international climate policy. No government had actually debated the merits of BECCS, there were no citizen consultations, and very little money was being devoted to research, development, or deployment of negative emissions technologies. Yet there it was at the center of international climate policy.


Because the proposed technologies were speculative and at best well off into the future, estimates of the costs and feasibility of their implementation could be tailored to the needs of sustaining the policy regime. Peter A. Turner and colleagues have observed that whereas “BECCS appears to be cost-effective in stylized models, its feasibility and cost at scale are not well known.” Of course not. If nothing else, full implementation of BECCS “at scale” would require the use of a global land area one and a half times the size of India (land that will therefore not be available for agriculture or other uses). In the absence of any justifiable method for predicting actual costs, why not just assume that BECCS will be affordable?

When I read this, I thought “uh-oh were we (forest people) supposed to be doing something to make this happen? Like using wood for biomass? Or planning great afforestation projects? No one told us, did they?” But I thought there had been/ is a big discussion about whether biomass was even carbon-neutral with the EPA Science Advisory Committee? Leaving that aside for now, I decided to find a list of what counted as negative emissions.

What Are Negative Emissions Technologies?

Activities commonly considered to create negative emissions include large-scale afforestation, bioenergy combined with carbon capture and storage (BECCS), direct removal of CO2 from the ambient air by means of chemical reaction, enhanced weathering, biochar formation, and soil carbon sequestration. It seems like we don’t talk much about afforestation, disagree about BECCS (with woody and non-woody plants, but either way don’t know how to scale up), with some work in biochar and soil carbon sequestration. If you’ve been watching research outputs as I have, you’ll find lots projecting what might happen under various climate change scenarios, and hardly anything about developing workable on-the-ground cost-efficient, economically viable and environmentally sensitive negative emissions technologies. But apparently others are noticing this. Fuss_2016_Research priorities for negative emissions.ERL is a paper by Fuss et al. that describes the current research gaps, and some ideas for filling them in. It even has a few paragraphs specific to forests.

How Do Negative Emissions Technologies Get Developed and Implemented?
When I asked about “how do these targets for negative emissions get implemented in the real world?” I was referred to Peters_2017_Catalysing a political shift from low to negative carbon.NCC commentary by Peters and Geden.

I’d like to thank the scientists who were kind enough to provide reprints of their papers and answer my questions. I’d like to close with three observations.
1. You don’t need to be an expert in climate to read and understand these papers and what they are saying.
2. There seems to be a disconnect between IPPC scenarios and the real world in terms of negative emissions technologies.
3. Maybe we should spend more research $ on trying to find and scale up negative emissions technologies in the real world, instead of modelling the details of unknown future events, even if some disciplines would be winners and others losers. If we looked across the broad range of government research funding, is there an optimal ratio of “trying to solve problems” versus “describing possible future problems to the fifth decimal place?” Does anyone even think about this?


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