To avoid challenging the fossil fuel profiteers, the Paris negotiators bet on untested and dangerous geoengineering technologies.
Belgian ecosocialist Daniel Tanuro is the author of Green Capitalism: Why It Can’t Work (Merlin Press, 2013). This article, which will also be published in French in Inprecor, has been translated for Climate and Capitalism by Ian Angus.
by Daniel Tanuro
Although the Paris Climate Conference (COP21) Agreement was described by negotiators and the media as ambitious and historic, the document is actually little more than a statement of intent that confirms the target set in Copenhagen in 2009: to keep the temperature rise this century to less than 2°C above the pre-industrial level. Under pressure from the most threatened countries, the Paris deal adds a hope to keep the increase under 1.5°C, a goal already envisaged in 2010, at the Cancun COP.
It is certainly important to have unanimity on these goals: it confirms that the influence of climate deniers is declining, and that the impact of the climate movement is rising. But the agreement doesn’t set a year for global emissions to start decreasing, or an annual rate of decline, or a date when humanity will stop using fossil fuels. On these key points, we must be content with an extremely vague assertion: “Parties aim to reach global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible, recognizing that peaking will take longer for developing countries, and to undertake rapid reductions thereafter in accordance with best available science, so as to achieve a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century.” (Article 4).
The agreement does not say how the effort should be shared among countries with differing historical responsibilities and capabilities, as required by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) adopted in 1992. Remember that the Copenhagen COP failed on precisely this point, the South’s view that the North was not meeting its obligations. In Paris, that problem was finessed by simply reaffirming the general principles of the UNFCCC, without considering whether each country’s actual plans for climate stabilization are consistent with those principles.
The glass is 80% empty
In COP21 jargon, those plans are known by the acronym INDCs—Intended Nationally Determined Contributions. Despite claims that the Agreement is ambitious and historic, these “intended contributions” are nothing of the kind. Even if fully implemented, their cumulative effect will be 2.7 to 3.7°C warming of by the end of the century. This is less than 4 to 6°C increase projected if emissions continue at current rates, but about twice as much as the objective in the Agreement.
Does this mean that the Paris glass is half full? No. The ad hoc body set up in Durban to “raise ambitions,” has compared the climate impact of the INDCs to scenarios that would stay well below 2°C. It’s synthesis report, submitted to the UNFCCC Secretariat before COP21, is clear: the national plans represent only one-fifth of the effort needed to produce a 66% or better chance of staying below 2°C. The glass is 80% empty.
The preamble to Paris Agreement emphasizes “with serious concern the urgent need to address [this] significant gap.” To that end, the Agreement will be updated every five years, but there is no certainty, because the outcome depends on the countries’ good will. Some legal experts believe the text is binding and that the parties are required to act “in good faith,” but good faith is hard to enforce when no penalties are prescribed and what might constitute infringement is unclear under an Agreement that does not specify what each country must do to meet the 1.5–2°C goal.
The first update will be prepared in 2017 and apply in 2023, three years after the Agreement comes into force. But there are no deadlines, in particular for the year when, at the latest, global emissions must begin to fall if warming is to be kept below 2°C. This is a crucial issue. Digging deeper leads to suspicions: either the 1.5–2°C target is just hot air, or there was a backstage agreement on massive deployment of geoengineering technology without public discussion. The author of these lines leans to the latter possibility.
No big deal, after all?
The fourth report of the IPCC said that global emissions must start to fall in 2015 at the latest if there is to be a 50% chance keeping the atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases between 445 and 490 ppmv CO2e, which would mean average warming between 2 and 2.4C°.
The fifth report gave somewhat different projections, by region: for a 66% chance of staying between 430 and 480 ppm CO2e, emissions must peak in 2010 in the OECD countries, in 2014 in states of the former Eastern Bloc, in 2015 in Latin America, and in 2020 in Africa, Asia and the Middle East.
But now, the summary report of the Durban ad hoc group on INDCs, says it is possible to stay below 2°C even if global emissions don’t peak until 2020, 2025 or even 2030.
These receding deadlines leave the impression that the threat of global warming is not that serious after all, that solutions that would prevent disaster will remain available for many years. Is this true? If not, what put such a dangerous idea into their heads?
That question can be answered simply, using the concept of “carbon budget for X°C”—that is, the amount of greenhouse gas, expressed in CO2 equivalents, that can still be emitted with a probability Y that the atmosphere will not warm more than X°C by the end of the century. For a 66% or better probability of warming 2°C or less, the fifth IPCC report says the emissions budget from 2011 to 2100 must be 1000 gigatons or less. At the current rates, that budget will be exhausted in about fifteen years. It is, therefore, more urgent than ever to recognize that we face an extremely serious threat.
A giant challenge
Coal, oil and natural gas, the major sources of greenhouse gases, account for over 80% of our energy supply. Furthermore, agribusiness and capitalist forestry, both of which use fossil fuels and emit CO2, methane and nitrous oxide, significantly reduce the soil’s ability to absorb carbon. So it is crucial to develop a comprehensive plan that reduces energy consumption, replaces fossil fuels with renewables, and re-establishes organic agriculture in a rational land use framework. Then after peaking, the emissions curve will fall toward zero, while carbon absorption by agricultural and forest ecosystems increases.
Is this still possible? Is it still possible to respect the 1000 gigaton carbon budget, given that the necessary actions have been delayed for 25 years while annual emissions have grown? In theory, yes—if rapid emission reductions and improved absorption begins immediately. In the first place, according to Kevin Anderson, director of the prestigious Tyndall Center for Climate Change Research, global energy sector emissions must decline by at least 10% a year, beginning now.
The challenge is immense. Considering how much capital is invested in fossil fuel reserves, conversion facilities, refining and distribution, as well as in the capitalist agro-forestry system, it is absolutely impossible to achieve while respecting capitalism’s need for profit, growth, competition and private ownership. On the contrary, it will require radical anti-capitalist measures: ending wasteful and harmful production and planned obsolescence, making recycling mandatory regardless of cost, eliminating conspicuous consumption by the rich, sharing resources, expropriating energy and financial corporations, localization, development planning, replacing profit-based agribusiness with peasant agriculture, and more.
The ideological bias of IPCC research
Despite its thousands of pages of reports, the IPCC does not address this fundamental issue: thinking outside the laws of the market is not even considered by the economists who develop climate scenarios. Armaments are a limited but striking example: the US Department of Defense annually emits as much CO2 as 160 million Nigerians, and its war against Iraq generated more CO2 between 2003 and 2008 than any of 139 countries—but not one scenarios considers ending production of weapons or other unnecessary and harmful goods. The range of possible solutions is limited precisely because the researchers ignore such things.
Working Group III explicitly reveals this ideological self-censorship in its section of the fifth IPCC report: “The models use economics as the basis for decision making. … In this sense the scenarios tend towards normative, economics-focused description of the future. The models typically assume fully functioning markets and competitive market behavior.”
In this neoliberal framework, where “the economy” is viewed as a natural law, it is not surprising that scientists can only watch helplessly as the 2°C carbon budget shrinks. It would be no different if the IPCC had produced twenty reports, because that framework allows no way out. So, rather than shout “No more fossil fuels, leave them in the ground!” the scientists who shape the scenarios bow to the dictates of profit, and look for ways to remove carbon from the atmosphere, while fossil capital continues to dump it in.
Negative emissions, A Non-Solution
A new field of research is now emerging: Negative Emissions Technologies, or NET. A few of these can be quickly mentioned. Some aim to develop artificial trees that capture CO2 from the air in special resins, from which it can be washed out and stored in the depths of the earth. Others propose dumping lime in the oceans: CO2 would react with the lime to form calcium carbonate (the main compound of limestone), which would fall to the ocean floor, allowing the water to absorb more CO2 from the air. Still others propose burning large amounts of biomass in low-oxygen atmospheres (pyrolysis) to produce charcoal (called biochar in this context) which is rich in carbon and can be buried in soil. And still others suggest Bio-Energy with Carbon Capture and Sequestration (BECSS)—burning biomass instead of or in combination with fossil fuels, capturing the CO2 produced by combustion and burying it deep in geological strata.
IPCC Working Group III reports that these negative emissions technologies (also called CDR—Carbon Dioxide Removing—technologies”) could enable removal of 10 Gt a year from the atmosphere by 2050, and perhaps 40 Gt a year by the end of century. Transnational energy companies are keenly interested in this, and are funding research, for good reason: by balancing the carbon budget after the fact, “negative emissions” could allow fossil fuel combustion to continue for several decades.
There is no doubt that these are at best pseudo-solutions. Two examples illustrate how absurd they are:
Transporting enough lime to convert sufficient oceanic CO2 to calcium carbonate would require building as many new ships as there are in the entire world shipping fleet today.
Converting atmospheric CO2 to calcium carbonate, using sodium hydroxide in scrubbers, would use immense amounts of energy—removing the CO2 for storage requires temperatures of 900°C. The cost would be outrageous: 1300 scrubbing towers, each 110 meters in diameter and 120 meters high, would barely remove 0.36 gigatons a year, less than one percent of global emissions.
Similar objections apply to the other proposals. All this to avoid forcing the fossil lobbies to stop exploit their reserves! The absurdity of such plans is obvious.
On the wrong path
Exceeding the carbon budget is obviously in the interests of the energy-financial complex at the heart of world capitalism, but the long run cost to humanity as a whole will be greater, making it harder, if not impossible, to stabilize the world’s climate.
Scandalously, scenario researchers have now abandoned their former “ideal assumption” that the transition must take place when it is least expensive. As a result, the majority of new stabilization scenarios assume that emissions will exceed the carbon budget, and later be offset using Negative Emission Technologies.
It’s easy to criticize the IPCC, but it is merely following its mandate, which is to produce reports that summarize published scientific research. So much of that involves NET-based scenarios, that proposals for “mitigation” of climate change are deeply affected—or rather infected. Worst of all, the year when emissions must peak can be delayed as long as there is—on paper!—a hypothetical possibility that the carbon budget hole being dug now and for 20 to 30 years to come might be filled in the second half of the century.
Saving stranded assets
Here is where we are today. Kevin Anderson points out that the IPCC’s fifth report database contains 113 mitigation scenarios in which there is a 66% or better chance of staying below 2°C—but 107 of them (95%) assume massive deployment of NET. In the other 6, emissions must peak no later than … 2010! Statements from COP21 concealed this disturbing reality: we are not on track to keep warming below 1.5°C.
We are off track now, and may be further off in future. Just as a taste of food creates an appetite for more, using the NET fantasy to conceal a small carbon budget hole may make it easier to justify digging bigger holes. An early 2015, study found it would be technically possible to withdraw 700 to 1350 gigatons of CO2 from the atmosphere by 2100, extending the carbon budget by 70 to 140% or more.
The authors of that study concluded, “it is clear that very large-scale negative emissions deployment, if it were possible, is not in any sense preferable to timely decarbonisation of the energy and agricultural systems.” The cost alone would be prohibitive. But that won’t stop fossil capital CEOs from seeing such calculations as a way to shrink the carbon bubble and thus save stranded assets. They only need to take the world hostage, to force society at large to pay the huge cost of geoengineering that, if nothing is done soon, will eventually be the only way to avoid a major disaster. In this way, they can continue exploiting fossil fuel reserves, at least for a while.
This is just speculation, for now. But it is noteworthy that when public debts to creditors can only be paid by extreme austerity, neoliberal economic pseudo-science insists that balanced budgets are essential; but when those same creditors can profit from a global carbon budget deficit, then, curiously, there is no suggestion of balancing. Instead, all available means are used to increase the deficit, so that society, future generations and ecosystems must pay the bill.
Delaying the reckoning
This analysis clarifies the content of COP21. Perhaps the negotiators just don’t care whether the gap between the INDCs and 1.5 to 2°C can be closed, in whole or in part. But it is more likely that they do care—the most intelligent of them certainly do—because too much warming would make their system unmanageable. But in a capitalist framework negative emissions technologies appear to offer the only possible way out.
Geoengineering is the specter that haunts the text adopted in Paris and gives it meaning. Otherwise, why mention emissions peaks, rate reductions, the possibility of decarbonisation? From now on, all of these concepts depend on the potential of NET, which they will address at some future date. The fact that the Agreement does not mention “energy transition” is not a regrettable lapse in generally good text, but proof by omission that the negotiators have chosen to bet on geoengineering instead of confronting fossil capital.
BECCS, a new infernal alternative
Among the Negative Emission Technologies, one is particularly prominent: BECCS, the massive use of biomass as an energy source. It is the least costly for the energy sector, because it does not require major system changes and is suitable for electrical generation, biogas and liquid fuel. Unlike synthetic trees, BECCS doesn’t just remove CO2 from the air, it gives energy companies something to sell.
The IPCC cites studies that suggest 3 gigatons a year as a “realistic” mount of carbon that BECCS could remove from the atmosphere by 2050, at an acceptable capital cost, so it is potentially economic. Working Group III also devotes a dozen pages to the uncertainties and risks of geological sequestration in general, and of BECCS in particular. However, when decisions are made, all that’s required is “fully functioning markets” and “competitive market behavior,” so the Durban experts group summary report on INDCs did not even mention the NET risks that the IPCC describes.
Nevertheless the risks are substantial. Risks to biodiversity, jeopardized by bio-energy projects. Risks to rural communities and indigenous peoples, faced by new pressure from land grabbing. Risks to wage earners and the poor, because competition between energy crops and food crops will drive up food prices. Risks for wage earners, particularly in sectors that emit greenhouse gases, because the profitability of those industries will be affected. Risks for women, the frontline troops in so many socio-ecological conflicts, who produce 80% of all food crops.
A recent paper outlines some of the consequences of competition between energy and food crops. The authors say that using BECSS to remove 3 gigatons of carbon a year from the atmosphere would require establishing of industrial plantations covering 7 to 25% of all agricultural land (25 to 46% of arable and permanent crop land). Water is another concern: the project would increase human use of potable water by 3%. If plantations were established on non-irrigated land, the 3 gigatons target could only be achieved by a 40% increase in their area.
Eat or save the climate?
I won’t repeat what most readers know, about the terrible risks of nuclear power. And we know the dangers and uncertainties of CO2 capture and sequestration in general—the impossibility of guaranteeing long-term storage, and the significant risk of earthquakes caused by underground storage.
As if these threats were not enough, the sorcerers’ apprentices of capitalist growth want to add another: competition between the food needs of the world’s people, and the desire to protect energy industry profits by removing some CO2 from the air. All with the excuse that there is no other way to save the climate.
The “carbon bubble” is so big that all ecosystems need to be mobilized to deflate it. That means that all the land (agricultural or not), forests and waters of the planet must be subordinated to that objective, through a system of “payment for environmental services” such as the REDD+ plan already in place for forests The subordination of ecosystems to fossil fuel profits also requires the subordination of human beings who live there.
That so infernal an alternative can wrap itself in the mantle of “Science” speaks volumes about the depth of the “icy water of egotistical calculation” (Marx) that market society has plunged us into, and about the decadence of scientific research that is increasingly fragmented into hyperspecialties, serving short-term capital interests.
No time to lose
This is another way, a road based on a vision of the energy system as a whole, including not only production of heat, light and movement by technology, but also the conversion of light energy into chemical energy by green plants—agriculture in the widest sense—and human consumption of that energy.
Unless we resign ourselves to barbaric solutions, the system on which nine million humans depend can only achieve equilibrium through a fundamental change in the mode of production, consumption and transportation. A comprehensive change involving all areas of human activity. A change in which organic agriculture and truly sustainable forestry play strategic roles, because they are the only acceptable geoengineering projects—natural, danger-free and democratically control. Social change in which the cosmogony of indigenous peoples is a precious weapon against productivist ideology. Revolutionary change in which the working class, despite all difficulties, must play a major role, because of its place in the economy.
Social movements must draw the necessary conclusions. A socially just road to saving the climate requires the convergence of the struggles of all oppressed and exploited peoples. We must declare a state of emergency—entirely different from the one that the French government used to lock us out of the climate negotiations!—to plan collective action to change the balance of power. It is still possible to escape the trap, to avoid that terrible moment when humanity will have no alternative but to put the climate thermostat in the hands of multinationals who control negative emissions technologies. But there is no time to lose.
(Long web links have been shortened.)
 The INDCs are posted on the UNFCCC website. http://goo.gl/eB8O4i
 The forecasts vary because the INDCs are not all based on the same kinds of data, and because the actions to be taken by some countries of the South against climate change and its effects will depend on aid provided by developed countries. The World Resources Institute has analysed the differences. http://goo.gl/3kaA7E
 UNFCCC Durban Platform for Enhanced Action, “Synthesis report on the aggregate effect of the Intended Nationally Determined contributions” http://unfccc.int/resource/docs/2015/cop21/eng/07.pdf
 “L’accord obtenu à la COP21 est-il vraiment juridiquement contraignant?” Le Monde, December 14, 2015. http://goo.gl/GUcVQm
 IPCC AR4, 2007. Contribution of Working Group III to the 2007 Report, Technical Summary, Stabilization scenarios, Table TS.2. https://goo.gl/67HK75 In the fifth report, the IPCC decided it was more appropriate to project temperatures to the end of the century, rather than to the equilibrium point a thousand years in the future.
 IPCC AR5, WGIII, Chapter 6, Table 6.4. https://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar5/wg3/
 IPCC AR5, WGI, section 126.96.36.199. https://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar5/wg1/ The term “carbon budget” itself indicates neoliberal contamination of the climate debate, notably by blurring the fundamental difference between the physical laws of the climate system and the social “laws” of the capitalist system.
 Kevin Anderson, “Duality in Climate Science,” Nature Geoscience, October 2015. http://goo.gl/0sSb2j
 To save the climate, 1) oil, gas and coal companies must abandon four fifths of their fossil reserves, which are part their assets and determine their share value; and, 2) most of the world’s energy system—about one fifth of global GDP—must be written off before it is amortized. “Carbon Bubble,” http://goo.gl/1gbHoR; World Economic and Social Survey, 2011. 53. http://goo.gl/KfGbDP
 Sohbet Karbuz, “How Much Energy Does The U.S. Military Consume?” http://www.dailyenergyreport.com/how-much-energy-does-the-u-s-military-consume/. A Climate of War. The War in Iraq and Global Warming, Nikki Reisch and Steve Kretzmann, 2008. http://goo.gl/L9JA0d
 IPCC AR5, WGIII, Chapter 6, 6.2.1.
 For a partial overview of NET, see Niall R McGlashan et al., Negative Emissions Technologies, Grantham Institute for Climate Change Briefing paper No. 8: October 2012, https://goo.gl/GIDXJr. For an evaluation, see Daniel Tanuro, “Negative emissions technologies. New Illusions, New Threats.” Contretemps, January 11, 2016. http://goo.gl/LJck0D
 One example among others: the Global Climate and Energy Project at Stanford University, sponsored by DuPont, ExxonMobil, General Electric, Schlumberger, Toyota and Bank of America, organized an international seminar on BECCS in 2012. https://goo.gl/m3frpF
 Paul Fennel, “Modelling and Potential of Negative Emissions Technologies, including Biomass-Enhanced CCS (BECCS).” Presentation at GCEP seminar, June 2012. https://goo.gl/Ezc39P.
 IPCC AR5, WGIII, Chap. 6 188.8.131.52. In most of the scenarios, nuclear power, capture, sequestration and renewable comprise the “energy mix”. Emissions from fossil fuel combustion are reduced but not wholly replaced: they even continue increasing in some sectors, such as transportation.
 Ben Caldecott et al., Stranded Assets and Negative Carbon Emissions Technologies, University of Oxford Stranded Assets Program Working Paper, February 2015. http://goo.gl/CVCl7z
 The fact that fossil multinationals are waiting for governments to invest in carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) pilot projects to seems to show that this hostage-taking strategy is already underway. The Global CCS Institute (a lobbying group composed of fossil companies, public institutions and research centers) complains bitterly that the 2008 crisis brought a halt to such investments. Closing the Gap on Climate. Why CCS is a vital portion of the solution, December 2015. http://goo.gl/UJ3dnz
 In 2012 World Bank declared that “we must avoid a 4 degree warmer world.” For some capitalist leaders, it seems that a temperature increase of 2–3°C is “manageable,” but an increase of 3–4°C is not. For them, the challenge is not to save the climate but to save capitalism. http://goo.gl/rEoD3X
 The Royal Society defines geoengineering as: “deliberate largescale intervention in the Earth’s climate system, in order to moderate climate change.” Quoted by Claire Gough and Paul Upham in “Biomass energy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS): a review”, Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, Working Paper 147, December 2010, 6. http://goo.gl/g5tTzv
 IPCC AR5, WGIII, Chapter 11, 11.13.
 Pete Smith et al., “Biophysical and Economic Limits to Negative CO2 emissions,” Nature Climate Change, December 7, 2015. http://goo.gl/NDpbV5
 It appears certain that an earthquake of a magnitude of 4.4 on the Richter scale in British Columbia, was caused by hydraulic fracturing (fracking) for shale gas. http://goo.gl/qyKzWB. On the risk of seismic accidents induced by CCS, and resulting CO2 leakage, see http://goo.gl/JZwUFl