Combating Extinction Will Help Stop Global Warming

Combating Extinction Will Help Stop Global Warming

Editor’s note: The dominant global culture (“industrial civilization”) is built on resource extraction and forced conversion of habitat to exclusive human use, and this has serious consequences.

Both global warming and the ongoing mass extermination of life on the planet (which has been deemed “the sixth mass extinction”), as well as other ecological crises (aquifer depletion, toxification of the total environment, ecosystem collapse, oceanic dead zones, etc.) are symptoms of humanity’s broken relationship to the planet. In plain terms: this way of life is killing the planet.

Today’s article reminds us that these crises are deeply interlinked, and so are solutions. While we are a revolutionary organization, every small step in the right direction also matters. And as a biocentric organization, we are in favor of actions to protect the natural world rather than putting our faith in technological Bright Green Lies.

By Tara Lohan / The Revelator

Mass extinction lurks beneath the surface of the sea. That was the dire message from a study published in April in the journal Science, which found that continuing to emit greenhouse gases unchecked could trigger a mass die-off of ocean animals that rivals the worst extinction events in Earth’s history.

The findings serve as just the latest reminder that climate change and biodiversity loss are interconnected crises — even if they’re rarely addressed in tandem by policymakers.

Toward that point, the Science study came with a dose of hopeful news: Action to curb greenhouse gas emissions and keep warming below 2 degrees Celsius could cut that extinction risk by 70%.

Additional research published in Global Change Biology offers another encouraging finding. The study, by an international team of scientists, found that not only can we do better at addressing biodiversity issues — we can do it while also targeting climate change.

“Many instances of conservation actions intended to slow, halt or reverse biodiversity loss can simultaneously slow anthropogenic climate change,” the researchers wrote in the study.

Their work looked at 21 proposed action targets for biodiversity that will be the focus of this fall’s international convening of the Convention on Biological Diversity in Kunming, China — a meeting delayed two years by the COVID-19 pandemic. The researchers found that two-thirds of those biodiversity targets also support climate change mitigation, even though they weren’t explicitly designed for that goal. The best opportunities to work on these crises together were actions to avoid deforestation and restore degraded ecosystems. Of particular focus, the study found, should be coastal ecosystems such as mangroves, seagrass and salt marshes, which can store large amounts of carbon and support a diversity of animals.

Mangrove GalapagosA pelican enjoys a perch in a mangrove stand in the Galapagos. Photo: Hans Johnson (CC BY 2.0)

Also important is restoring forests and woodlands, but doing so with native species is critical. Planting monocultures of nonnative trees won’t boost biodiversity, the researchers point out, despite such endeavors being incentivized as a climate change solution.

Another target is reducing runoff into rivers, lakes and coastal waters from excess nutrients — including nitrogen and phosphorus — that cause algal blooms and oxygen-depleted waters. This eutrophication, combined with warming, may increase greenhouse gas emissions in freshwater bodies, in addition to harming fish and other animals.

Expanding and connecting the network of protected areas is another mutualistic target. Globally, we’ve protected about 15% of land and 7% of marine habitats. But we need to bump those numbers up considerably. As the researchers behind the Global Change Biology study put it, “There is a substantial overlap of 92% between areas that require reversing biodiversity loss and the areas needing protection for enhancing carbon storage and drawdown.”

Working on these issues in tandem can help boost the benefits.

We’re also spending large sums of money in all the wrong places. The study lists the reduction or elimination of subsidies that are harmful to biodiversity and the climate as “one of the most important and urgent reforms.”

We spend 10 times more on subsidies for environmentally harmful practices than on biodiversity conservation, the researchers note. Brazil, for example, spends 88 times more on subsidizing activities linked to deforestation than on those that may help stop it.

Other target areas to boost biodiversity and climate work include recovering and conserving wild species; greening urban areas; eliminating overfishing; reducing food and agricultural waste; and shifting diets to include more plant-based foods and less meat and dairy.

And, the researchers say, we need to “mainstream” the issues together — embedding both climate and biodiversity targets and metrics into policy, business and consumer practices.

Understanding these issues should start early, too. A study of school curricula in 46 countries found that fewer than half addressed climate change, and a paltry one-fifth referenced biodiversity. Both these subjects should be covered more and integrated together, the researchers say.

It’s not possible, after all, to tackle one crisis without addressing the other.

To fight climate change, we need fully functioning ecosystems with healthy populations of native plants and animals.

“And climate change is damaging this capacity,” said Hans-Otto Pörtner, a study coauthor and climate researcher at the Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research. “Only when we succeed in drastically reducing emissions from fossil fuels can nature help us to stabilize the climate.”

Rewilding: rare birds return when livestock grazing has stopped

Rewilding: rare birds return when livestock grazing has stopped

Editor’s note: The Brexit gives the UK the chance to become independent from the very destructive EU agricultural policy. This is the time for UK activists to step up for rewilding.

Featured image: Forest in Somerset, UK. Photo by Deb Barnes

By Lisa Malm, Postdoctoral Fellow, Ecology and Environmental Sciences, Umeå University, and Darren Evans, Professor of Ecology and Conservation, Newcastle University

After a particularly long week of computer based work on my PhD, all I wanted was to hike somewhere exciting with a rich wildlife. A friend commiserated with me – I was based at Newcastle University at the time, and this particular friend wasn’t keen on the UK’s wilderness, its moorlands and bare uplands, compared to the large tracts of woodland and tropical forests that can be found more readily abroad.

Luckily, I count myself among many who are charmed by the rolling heather moorlands and sheep grazed uplands, whose colours change beautifully with the seasons. But my friend had a point – there is something very different about many of the UK’s national parks compared to those found in much of the rest of the world: the British uplands are hardly the natural wilderness that many perceive.

These upland habitats are in fact far from what they would have been had they remained unaffected by human activity. In particular, grazing by livestock has been carried out for centuries. In the long run, this stops new trees from establishing, and in turn reduces the depth of soil layers, making the conditions for new vegetation to establish even more difficult. Instead of the woodlands that would once have covered large areas of the uplands, Britain is largely characterised by rolling hills of open grass and moorlands.

Government policy has long been to keep these rolling hills looking largely as they do now. But the future of the British uplands is uncertain. Regulations and government policy strongly influences land management, and the biodiversity associated with it. In fact, the management required to maintain British upland landscapes as they are now – management that largely involves grazing by sheep – is only possible through large subsidies. And due to Brexit, this may change. A new agricultural policy will soon replace the often-criticised Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).

What this will look like remains unclear. There are a range of competing interests in the uplands. Some wish to rewild vast swathes of the land, while others want to intensify farming, forestry and other commercial interests. The rewilders tap into the increased interest in restoring natural woodland due to its potential in carbon uptake, increased biodiversity and reintroduction of extinct species such as wolves and lynxes, while some farmers argue that this will be bad for the economy. The UK stands at a crossroads, and interests are rapidly diverging.

Whatever path is taken will obviously have an impact on the unique assemblages of upland plants and animals, many of which are internationally important. But upland birds and biodiversity have for a long time been on the decline. Whether rewilding is the answer to this or not has long been debated: some claim that we need to stop grazing animals to allow the natural habitat to reassert itself, while others claim that some species, such as curlews, rely on such grazing practises for their survival.

But our new research, published in the British Ecological Society’s Journal of Applied Ecology, provides the first experimental evidence to our knowledge, that stopping livestock grazing can increase the number of breeding upland bird species in the long term, including birds of high conservation importance, such as black grouse and cuckoo. This is interesting, as it is often argued that land abandonment can result in lower biodiversity and that livestock grazing is essential for maintaining it.

Our research shows that, depending on how the uplands are managed, there will be bird “winners” and “losers”, but overall when sheep have gone the number of bird species returning increases.

A subsidised landscape

Before going into the research itself, it’s important to consider the history of British upland land management. Truly “natural” habitats in the UK are few and relatively small. Deciduous woodland, and to a lesser extent coniferous forests, used to cover most of the British uplands below the treeline. For example, only about 1% of the native pine forests that once covered 1.5 million hectares (15,000km²) of the Scottish Highlands remain today.

These woodlands provided homes for charismatic species such as pine marten, red squirrel and osprey, together with now extinct species such as lynx and bears. But centuries of farming has shaped most of the upland landscape to what it is today: a predominantly bare landscape dominated by moorlands, rough grasslands, peatlands and other low vegetation.

These marginal areas tend to have low financial profitability for those who farm the land. And so a range of other activities, such as grouse shooting and commercial forestry, exist to boost rural community incomes.

Despite their low profitability, however, many grazed areas are considered to represent “high nature value” farming. This seems paradoxical, but basically means they are considered important as habitats to protected species benefiting from open upland landscapes. One such species is the iconic curlew.

Because farming is tough in the uplands and it’s a struggle to make a profit, landowners receive, and often rely on, subsidies to maintain their farms. The form of these subsidies has changed over time, in line with the current perception of appropriate land management for food production. At the moment, the scale of these subsidies are based on the size of the farm, but they also require that the farmer maintains the land in a good agricultural state. This leaves little room for shrubs or trees, except along field edges, especially in England where there is no financial support for agroforestry (where trees are integrated in agricultural land).

But these subsidies will soon no longer be allocated through the EU – and so it’s time to reconsider what kind of land management should be supported. It seems sensible to consider introducing financial support for other land management types, such as reforestation, natural regeneration or wildflower meadows. Such habitats have other public and nature conservation benefits.

It’s not just farming and aesthetics that are at stake here. Challenges such as climate change and air pollution should also inform how financial support for appropriate land management is managed. For example, floods are predicted to become more common as the climate gets warmer. Reforestation can help to diminish floods, the roots channelling water down through the soil instead of letting it run off the land. Re-establishment of woodlands can also improve air quality: the leaves absorb harmful gases such as sulphur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide.

But rewilding, or any form of restructuring land management, can be costly. It therefore needs to be based on the best scientific evidence, preferably from well-designed experimental research studies. In controlled experimental studies, the cause for any effects found can more easily be determined, as opposed to observational studies, which risk being biased by other, confounding, factors. But due to the cost and complexity of maintaining them, long-term, experimentally manipulated land use studies are rare, and with it the necessary evidence base for long-term management decisions.

Experimental grazing

I’ve been lucky to be involved in one such long-term experiment. The Glen Finglas experiment, managed by the James Hutton Institute, was set up in 2002 in Scotland’s Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park. The experiment examines the long-term ecological impacts of different livestock grazing intensity levels on plants, arthropods (insects and spiders), birds and mammals. These grazing levels reflect the conventional stocking rate in the region at the start of the experiment (about three ewes per ha), low intensity grazing at a third of the conventional stocking rate (with sheep only or both sheep and cattle), or no grazing at all.

The Glen FInglas Estate.
© Lisa Malm, Author provided

The experiment has six replicates of four grazing treatments and covers around 0.75km² of land, with 12km of fencing. This may not seem large, but in experimental terms, it is. According to Robin Pakeman, a researcher at the James Hutton Institute who manages the project, the experiment constitutes “an unrivalled resource to understand how grazing impacts on a whole range of organisms”.

Since the start, the Glen Finglas experiment has shown that grazing intensity affects plants and the amount of insects and spiders. The highest amount of plants, insects and spiders were found in the ungrazed areas. This was not too surprising as grazing livestock removes vegetation, which results in reduced habitat conditions for insects and spiders overall (although some species benefit from grazing).

There have also been studies on carbon storage, vole abundances and fox activity within the experiment. These have shown higher carbon storage and higher fox activity in the ungrazed areas.

Meanwhile, the research on birds within this experiment has, from the start, focused on meadow pipits. These small, brown birds are the “house sparrows of the uplands”, yet often go unnoticed. But they are the most common upland bird and an important part of upland food webs, forming key prey for birds of prey such as hen harriers and a common host for cuckoos. The experiment has provided unique insights into the ecology of this fascinating little bird, and a much clearer understanding of how it is affected by grazing.

Meadow pipit at Glen Finglas.
© Matthieu Paquet, Author provided

In just the first two to three years, it became clear that meadow pipits could be affected by grazing intensity. My PhD supervisor, Darren Evans, found that the breeding density and egg size were both positively affected by low intensity mixed cattle and sheep grazing. But there were no differences in how many meadow pipit chicks were produced and fledged between the grazing treatments, at least not in the very early phase of the experiment.

I wanted to test whether these results changed in the longer term. Together with colleagues from Newcastle University, the British Trust for Ornithology, The James Hutton Institute and The University of Aberdeen, we looked at whether 12 years of continuous experimental grazing management had affected the breeding success of meadow pipits.

We assumed that low intensity grazing, compared to high intensity or no grazing, was most beneficial for pipit breeding productivity. We found the low intensity grazed areas did indeed seem to be better for meadow pipits, but the effects were not clear enough to be statistically significant. And there seemed to be potentially more important factors, such as predation, affecting their breeding outcome.

But although we did not initially set out to test it, we found other, more significant, effects on the wider bird community.

Willow warbler in an ungrazed area.
© Lisa Malm, Author provided

Unexpected findings

When the experiment started, there were almost no bird species other than meadow pipits in and around the treatment areas, hence the focus on them. But in 2015, while looking for meadow pipit nests, we came across a few other beautiful nests in the low intensity grazed areas. These nests had colourful blue eggs or eggs that appeared to have been painted with dark brown watercolour paint. These turned out to be stonechat and reed bunting eggs, two bird species that had not previously been seen in the experiment.

Later on, we saw that they had fledged successfully: the parents would call them to warn about human intruders. If we didn’t get too close, the newly fledged young would curiously nudge their heads up through the vegetation. By this stage of the experiment – 12 years in – the vegetation had actually become quite dense and high in the ungrazed and some of the low intensity grazed areas.

We also detected several black grouse nests, mainly in the ungrazed areas. Most of them were already hatched, but one had a female who bravely stayed put on her eggs every time we visited this area until they hatched.

Another great discovery was when we found a meadow pipit nest with one egg that seemed oddly big in comparison to the rest of the clutch. We were really excited to realise that it had been visited by a cuckoo that had laid an egg there, which hadn’t happened during the early years of nest monitoring in the experiment. This egg had a brown spotted pattern which was fascinatingly similar to the meadow pipit eggs. (As exciting as this all may seem, nest searching should only be carried out under permit. I also had a bird ringing permit covering my research activities).

Cuckoo at Glen Finglas.
© Lisa Malm, Author provided 

Thanks to all these encounters, we decided to test how the different grazing treatments affected the species richness of breeding birds. Over the first two years, we found that there was basically no difference. But another decade on and there were clearly more bird species found in the ungrazed areas compared to the other experimental plots.

A fractious debate

It was not only bird species richness that needed time to respond to the change in grazing management. Although plant structure responded early, it was not until 2017 – 14 years since the experiment began – that an effect on plant species richness could be detected. In this case, the variety of species was greater in the intensively grazed areas, probably because the livestock holds back fast-growing plants from dominating. Whether this would remain the same in another decade is far from clear.

The ungrazed areas in our study, meanwhile, showed more shrub and tall-growing plants after a bit more than a decade. There were also patches of deciduous tree species, which were not there when the experiment commenced.

Rewilding is such a fractious debate because of the difficulty in obtaining solid scientific evidence on which to base decisions. It takes a very long time – far longer than our political cycles, most research studies, perhaps even a lifetime – to determine what the ultimate effects of large scale land management on the environment are. In our experiment, changes have been very slow. Pakeman explained to me that this is partly expected in cold and infertile habitats but another reason for slow responses is that plant communities exist in a sort of “mosaic”, with each community having a different preference for the grazers. He continued:

The long history of grazing has meant that the most highly preferred communities show little response to grazing removal as they have lost species capable of responding to this change.

There is no one management practice which creates the perfect environment. Some bird species (skylark and snipe) were only found in grazed areas. Other species were more abundant in the ungrazed areas. There is no one size fits all.

Sheep grazing at the Glen Finglas experiment.
© Lisa Malm, Author provided 

But much more consideration and effort needs to be given to unattended land and its potential for boosting biodiversity. There is no single answer to what is the best alternative, but our experiment indicates that a mosaic of different grazing types and shrub or woodland would be more suitable if the aim is to increase biodiversity, carbon uptake and habitats for endangered species.

The experiment also showed that changing the management had no effects on plant diversity and bird species richness in the first years. But this may only be the beginning of the transformation. Another decade of no grazing may result in even higher, or lower, species richness. This shows how important it is to be patient in receiving the effects of land management on plants and wildlife.

Using existing evidence

Our results bring some experimental evidence to the debate around sheep farming versus rewilding. Hopefully, decisions around new policies and subsidy systems will be based on such evidence. As new policies are formed, there will inevitably always be winners and losers, among both humans and wildlife, according to which habitat types receive more support.

Biodiversity is incredibly important. It creates a more resilient ecosystem that can withstand external stresses caused by both humans and nature. It also keeps populations of pollinators strong. At the moment, perhaps the most current and urgent reason is that it could be instrumental in protecting us from future pandemics. A wider range of species prevents unnatural expansions of single species, which can spill over their diseases to humans.

But preserving biodiversity is just one element of long-term environmental aims. Other processes, such as increased flood protection and carbon storage, which both can be achieved through more vegetation, may soon become more prevalent.

Meadow pipit in front of ungrazed area.
© Lisa Malm, Author provided 

There are therefore several biological processes pointing towards public gain from increasing the area of unmanaged land. Across Europe, land is being abandoned due to low profitability in farming it. There are predictions that the amount of abandoned land in Europe will increase by 11% (equivalent to 200,000km² or 20 million ha) by 2030. This is often reported negatively, but it does not have to be. The problem most people see with land abandonment or rewilding is the decrease in food productivity, which will have to increase in order to feed a growing human population.

But as Richard Bunting at the charity Rewilding Britain explained to me, a decline in food production could be avoided, while increasing the areas subject to rewilding to 10,000km² (a million hectares) by the end of the century:

We’re working for the rewilding of a relatively small proportion of Britain’s more marginal land. One million hectares may sound like a lot, but there are 1.8 million hectares [18,000km²] of deer stalking estates and 1.3 million hectares [13,000km²] of grouse moors in Britain. In England alone, there are 270,000 hectares [2,700km²] of golf courses.

As farmers and other upland land owners may be opposed to the idea of rewilding, I also asked him how this would work in practice. He told me that he believes farming and rewilding could work well together, but he had some caveats:

We do need conversations around fresh approaches to the way farming is carried out and how land is used. A key point here is that for farmers, engaging with rewilding should always be about choice, as we seek a balance between people and the rest of nature where each can thrive.

There are many ways to rewild. The Woodland Trust have been successful in restoring ancient woodlands and planting new trees by protecting them from large herbivores such as deer and livestock. Another method is to let “nature have its way” without intervening at all. This has been successful in restoring natural habitats, including woodland, such as the Knepp estate in West Sussex, which Isabella Tree has made famous in her book Wilding.

After 19 years of no conventional management, The Knepp estate now hosts a vast range of wildlife, including all five native owl species, the rare purple emperor butterfly and turtle doves. Large herbivores, including both livestock and deer, graze the area on a free-roaming level. These animals are replacing the large natural herbivores such as aurochs, wisent and wild boar which would have grazed the area thousands of years ago.

So there is room for discussion on what environmental and financial benefits there may be of different rewilding, or woodland restoration projects, and where they are most suitable.

The first thing to do, I think, is to diversify the types of land management championed by the government through subsidy. Natural habitats could be increased through more financial benefits to landowners for leaving land unattended, while improving public interest in visiting woodlands and thereby the support for preserving wild habitats.

Meanwhile, long-term research of land-use change would give us a better evidence base for future decisions. But this must go hand in hand with much needed serious evaluations of rural communities’ long-term income opportunities under alternative management scenarios, which will always be a cornerstone in land use politics.

Lisa Malm, Postdoctoral Fellow, Ecology and Environmental Sciences, Umeå University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Climate scientists: concept of net zero is a dangerous trap

Climate scientists: concept of net zero is a dangerous trap

In this article, originally published on The Conversation, three scientists argue that the concept of net zero which is heavily relying on carbon capture and storage technologies is a dangerous illusion.

By James Dyke, Senior Lecturer in Global Systems, University of Exeter, Robert Watson, Emeritus Professor in Environmental Sciences, University of East Anglia, and Wolfgang Knorr, Senior Research Scientist, Physical Geography and Ecosystem Science, Lund University

Sometimes realisation comes in a blinding flash. Blurred outlines snap into shape and suddenly it all makes sense. Underneath such revelations is typically a much slower-dawning process. Doubts at the back of the mind grow. The sense of confusion that things cannot be made to fit together increases until something clicks. Or perhaps snaps.

Collectively we three authors of this article must have spent more than 80 years thinking about climate change. Why has it taken us so long to speak out about the obvious dangers of the concept of net zero? In our defence, the premise of net zero is deceptively simple – and we admit that it deceived us.

The threats of climate change are the direct result of there being too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. So it follows that we must stop emitting more and even remove some of it. This idea is central to the world’s current plan to avoid catastrophe. In fact, there are many suggestions as to how to actually do this, from mass tree planting, to high tech direct air capture devices that suck out carbon dioxide from the air.

The current consensus is that if we deploy these and other so-called “carbon dioxide removal” techniques at the same time as reducing our burning of fossil fuels, we can more rapidly halt global warming. Hopefully around the middle of this century we will achieve “net zero”. This is the point at which any residual emissions of greenhouse gases are balanced by technologies removing them from the atmosphere.

This is a great idea, in principle. Unfortunately, in practice it helps perpetuate a belief in technological salvation and diminishes the sense of urgency surrounding the need to curb emissions now.

We have arrived at the painful realisation that the idea of net zero has licensed a recklessly cavalier “burn now, pay later” approach which has seen carbon emissions continue to soar. It has also hastened the destruction of the natural world by increasing deforestation today, and greatly increases the risk of further devastation in the future.

To understand how this has happened, how humanity has gambled its civilisation on no more than promises of future solutions, we must return to the late 1980s, when climate change broke out onto the international stage.

Steps towards net zero

On June 22 1988, James Hansen was the administrator of Nasa’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, a prestigious appointment but someone largely unknown outside of academia.

By the afternoon of the 23rd he was well on the way to becoming the world’s most famous climate scientist. This was as a direct result of his testimony to the US congress, when he forensically presented the evidence that the Earth’s climate was warming and that humans were the primary cause: “The greenhouse effect has been detected, and it is changing our climate now.”

If we had acted on Hansen’s testimony at the time, we would have been able to decarbonise our societies at a rate of around 2% a year in order to give us about a two-in-three chance of limiting warming to no more than 1.5°C. It would have been a huge challenge, but the main task at that time would have been to simply stop the accelerating use of fossil fuels while fairly sharing out future emissions.

Alt text

 © Robbie AndrewCC BY

Four years later, there were glimmers of hope that this would be possible. During the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio, all nations agreed to stabilise concentrations of greenhouse gases to ensure that they did not produce dangerous interference with the climate. The 1997 Kyoto Summit attempted to start to put that goal into practice. But as the years passed, the initial task of keeping us safe became increasingly harder given the continual increase in fossil fuel use.

It was around that time that the first computer models linking greenhouse gas emissions to impacts on different sectors of the economy were developed. These hybrid climate-economic models are known as Integrated Assessment Models. They allowed modellers to link economic activity to the climate by, for example, exploring how changes in investments and technology could lead to changes in greenhouse gas emissions.

They seemed like a miracle: you could try out policies on a computer screen before implementing them, saving humanity costly experimentation. They rapidly emerged to become key guidance for climate policy. A primacy they maintain to this day.

Unfortunately, they also removed the need for deep critical thinking. Such models represent society as a web of idealised, emotionless buyers and sellers and thus ignore complex social and political realities, or even the impacts of climate change itself. Their implicit promise is that market-based approaches will always work. This meant that discussions about policies were limited to those most convenient to politicians: incremental changes to legislation and taxes.

Around the time they were first developed, efforts were being made to secure US action on the climate by allowing it to count carbon sinks of the country’s forests. The US argued that if it managed its forests well, it would be able to store a large amount of carbon in trees and soil which should be subtracted from its obligations to limit the burning of coal, oil and gas. In the end, the US largely got its way. Ironically, the concessions were all in vain, since the US senate never ratified the agreement.

Postulating a future with more trees could in effect offset the burning of coal, oil and gas now. As models could easily churn out numbers that saw atmospheric carbon dioxide go as low as one wanted, ever more sophisticated scenarios could be explored which reduced the perceived urgency to reduce fossil fuel use. By including carbon sinks in climate-economic models, a Pandora’s box had been opened.

It’s here we find the genesis of today’s net zero policies.

That said, most attention in the mid-1990s was focused on increasing energy efficiency and energy switching (such as the UK’s move from coal to gas) and the potential of nuclear energy to deliver large amounts of carbon-free electricity. The hope was that such innovations would quickly reverse increases in fossil fuel emissions.

But by around the turn of the new millennium it was clear that such hopes were unfounded. Given their core assumption of incremental change, it was becoming more and more difficult for economic-climate models to find viable pathways to avoid dangerous climate change. In response, the models began to include more and more examples of carbon capture and storage, a technology that could remove the carbon dioxide from coal-fired power stations and then store the captured carbon deep underground indefinitely.

This had been shown to be possible in principle: compressed carbon dioxide had been separated from fossil gas and then injected underground in a number of projects since the 1970s. These Enhanced Oil Recovery schemes were designed to force gases into oil wells in order to push oil towards drilling rigs and so allow more to be recovered – oil that would later be burnt, releasing even more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Carbon capture and storage offered the twist that instead of using the carbon dioxide to extract more oil, the gas would instead be left underground and removed from the atmosphere. This promised breakthrough technology would allow climate friendly coal and so the continued use of this fossil fuel. But long before the world would witness any such schemes, the hypothetical process had been included in climate-economic models. In the end, the mere prospect of carbon capture and storage gave policy makers a way out of making the much needed cuts to greenhouse gas emissions.

The rise of net zero

When the international climate change community convened in Copenhagen in 2009 it was clear that carbon capture and storage was not going to be sufficient for two reasons.

First, it still did not exist. There were no carbon capture and storage facilities in operation on any coal fired power station and no prospect the technology was going to have any impact on rising emissions from increased coal use in the foreseeable future.

The biggest barrier to implementation was essentially cost. The motivation to burn vast amounts of coal is to generate relatively cheap electricity. Retrofitting carbon scrubbers on existing power stations, building the infrastructure to pipe captured carbon, and developing suitable geological storage sites required huge sums of money. Consequently the only application of carbon capture in actual operation then – and now – is to use the trapped gas in enhanced oil recovery schemes. Beyond a single demonstrator, there has never been any capture of carbon dioxide from a coal fired power station chimney with that captured carbon then being stored underground.

Just as important, by 2009 it was becoming increasingly clear that it would not be possible to make even the gradual reductions that policy makers demanded. That was the case even if carbon capture and storage was up and running. The amount of carbon dioxide that was being pumped into the air each year meant humanity was rapidly running out of time.

With hopes for a solution to the climate crisis fading again, another magic bullet was required. A technology was needed not only to slow down the increasing concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, but actually reverse it. In response, the climate-economic modelling community – already able to include plant-based carbon sinks and geological carbon storage in their models – increasingly adopted the “solution” of combining the two.

So it was that Bioenergy Carbon Capture and Storage, or BECCS, rapidly emerged as the new saviour technology. By burning “replaceable” biomass such as wood, crops, and agricultural waste instead of coal in power stations, and then capturing the carbon dioxide from the power station chimney and storing it underground, BECCS could produce electricity at the same time as removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. That’s because as biomass such as trees grow, they suck in carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. By planting trees and other bioenergy crops and storing carbon dioxide released when they are burnt, more carbon could be removed from the atmosphere.

With this new solution in hand the international community regrouped from repeated failures to mount another attempt at reining in our dangerous interference with the climate. The scene was set for the crucial 2015 climate conference in Paris.

A Parisian false dawn

As its general secretary brought the 21st United Nations conference on climate change to an end, a great roar issued from the crowd. People leaped to their feet, strangers embraced, tears welled up in eyes bloodshot from lack of sleep.

The emotions on display on December 13, 2015 were not just for the cameras. After weeks of gruelling high-level negotiations in Paris a breakthrough had finally been achieved. Against all expectations, after decades of false starts and failures, the international community had finally agreed to do what it took to limit global warming to well below 2°C, preferably to 1.5°C, compared to pre-industrial levels.

The Paris Agreement was a stunning victory for those most at risk from climate change. Rich industrialised nations will be increasingly impacted as global temperatures rise. But it’s the low lying island states such as the Maldives and the Marshall Islands that are at imminent existential risk. As a later UN special report made clear, if the Paris Agreement was unable to limit global warming to 1.5°C, the number of lives lost to more intense storms, fires, heatwaves, famines and floods would significantly increase.

But dig a little deeper and you could find another emotion lurking within delegates on December 13. Doubt. We struggle to name any climate scientist who at that time thought the Paris Agreement was feasible. We have since been told by some scientists that the Paris Agreement was “of course important for climate justice but unworkable” and “a complete shock, no one thought limiting to 1.5°C was possible”. Rather than being able to limit warming to 1.5°C, a senior academic involved in the IPCC concluded we were heading beyond 3°C by the end of this century.

Instead of confront our doubts, we scientists decided to construct ever more elaborate fantasy worlds in which we would be safe. The price to pay for our cowardice: having to keep our mouths shut about the ever growing absurdity of the required planetary-scale carbon dioxide removal.

Taking centre stage was BECCS because at the time this was the only way climate-economic models could find scenarios that would be consistent with the Paris Agreement. Rather than stabilise, global emissions of carbon dioxide had increased some 60% since 1992.

Alas, BECCS, just like all the previous solutions, was too good to be true.

Across the scenarios produced by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) with a 66% or better chance of limiting temperature increase to 1.5°C, BECCS would need to remove 12 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide each year. BECCS at this scale would require massive planting schemes for trees and bioenergy crops.

The Earth certainly needs more trees. Humanity has cut down some three trillion since we first started farming some 13,000 years ago. But rather than allow ecosystems to recover from human impacts and forests to regrow, BECCS generally refers to dedicated industrial-scale plantations regularly harvested for bioenergy rather than carbon stored away in forest trunks, roots and soils.

Currently, the two most efficient biofuels are sugarcane for bioethanol and palm oil for biodiesel – both grown in the tropics. Endless rows of such fast growing monoculture trees or other bioenergy crops harvested at frequent intervals devastate biodiversity.

It has been estimated that BECCS would demand between 0.4 and 1.2 billion hectares of land. That’s 25% to 80% of all the land currently under cultivation. How will that be achieved at the same time as feeding 8-10 billion people around the middle of the century or without destroying native vegetation and biodiversity?

Growing billions of trees would consume vast amounts of water – in some places where people are already thirsty. Increasing forest cover in higher latitudes can have an overall warming effect because replacing grassland or fields with forests means the land surface becomes darker. This darker land absorbs more energy from the Sun and so temperatures rise. Focusing on developing vast plantations in poorer tropical nations comes with real risks of people being driven off their lands.

And it is often forgotten that trees and the land in general already soak up and store away vast amounts of carbon through what is called the natural terrestrial carbon sink. Interfering with it could both disrupt the sink and lead to double accounting.

As these impacts are becoming better understood, the sense of optimism around BECCS has diminished.

Pipe dreams

Given the dawning realisation of how difficult Paris would be in the light of ever rising emissions and limited potential of BECCS, a new buzzword emerged in policy circles: the “overshoot scenario”. Temperatures would be allowed to go beyond 1.5°C in the near term, but then be brought down with a range of carbon dioxide removal by the end of the century. This means that net zero actually means carbon negative. Within a few decades, we will need to transform our civilisation from one that currently pumps out 40 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year, to one that produces a net removal of tens of billions.

Mass tree planting, for bioenergy or as an attempt at offsetting, had been the latest attempt to stall cuts in fossil fuel use. But the ever-increasing need for carbon removal was calling for more. This is why the idea of direct air capture, now being touted by some as the most promising technology out there, has taken hold. It is generally more benign to ecosystems because it requires significantly less land to operate than BECCS, including the land needed to power them using wind or solar panels.

Unfortunately, it is widely believed that direct air capture, because of its exorbitant costs and energy demand, if it ever becomes feasible to be deployed at scale, will not be able to compete with BECCS with its voracious appetite for prime agricultural land.

It should now be getting clear where the journey is heading. As the mirage of each magical technical solution disappears, another equally unworkable alternative pops up to take its place. The next is already on the horizon – and it’s even more ghastly. Once we realise net zero will not happen in time or even at all, geoengineering – the deliberate and large scale intervention in the Earth’s climate system – will probably be invoked as the solution to limit temperature increases.

One of the most researched geoengineering ideas is solar radiation management – the injection of millions of tons of sulphuric acid into the stratosphere that will reflect some of the Sun’s energy away from the Earth. It is a wild idea, but some academics and politicians are deadly serious, despite significant risks. The US National Academies of Sciences, for example, has recommended allocating up to US$200 million over the next five years to explore how geoengineering could be deployed and regulated. Funding and research in this area is sure to significantly increase.

Difficult truths

In principle there is nothing wrong or dangerous about carbon dioxide removal proposals. In fact developing ways of reducing concentrations of carbon dioxide can feel tremendously exciting. You are using science and engineering to save humanity from disaster. What you are doing is important. There is also the realisation that carbon removal will be needed to mop up some of the emissions from sectors such as aviation and cement production. So there will be some small role for a number of different carbon dioxide removal approaches.

The problems come when it is assumed that these can be deployed at vast scale. This effectively serves as a blank cheque for the continued burning of fossil fuels and the acceleration of habitat destruction.

Carbon reduction technologies and geoengineering should be seen as a sort of ejector seat that could propel humanity away from rapid and catastrophic environmental change. Just like an ejector seat in a jet aircraft, it should only be used as the very last resort. However, policymakers and businesses appear to be entirely serious about deploying highly speculative technologies as a way to land our civilisation at a sustainable destination. In fact, these are no more than fairy tales.

The only way to keep humanity safe is the immediate and sustained radical cuts to greenhouse gas emissions in a socially just way.

Academics typically see themselves as servants to society. Indeed, many are employed as civil servants. Those working at the climate science and policy interface desperately wrestle with an increasingly difficult problem. Similarly, those that champion net zero as a way of breaking through barriers holding back effective action on the climate also work with the very best of intentions.

The tragedy is that their collective efforts were never able to mount an effective challenge to a climate policy process that would only allow a narrow range of scenarios to be explored.

Most academics feel distinctly uncomfortable stepping over the invisible line that separates their day job from wider social and political concerns. There are genuine fears that being seen as advocates for or against particular issues could threaten their perceived independence. Scientists are one of the most trusted professions. Trust is very hard to build and easy to destroy.

But there is another invisible line, the one that separates maintaining academic integrity and self-censorship. As scientists, we are taught to be sceptical, to subject hypotheses to rigorous tests and interrogation. But when it comes to perhaps the greatest challenge humanity faces, we often show a dangerous lack of critical analysis.

In private, scientists express significant scepticism about the Paris Agreement, BECCS, offsetting, geoengineering and net zero. Apart from some notable exceptions, in public we quietly go about our work, apply for funding, publish papers and teach. The path to disastrous climate change is paved with feasibility studies and impact assessments.

Rather than acknowledge the seriousness of our situation, we instead continue to participate in the fantasy of net zero. What will we do when reality bites? What will we say to our friends and loved ones about our failure to speak out now?

The time has come to voice our fears and be honest with wider society. Current net zero policies will not keep warming to within 1.5°C because they were never intended to. They were and still are driven by a need to protect business as usual, not the climate. If we want to keep people safe then large and sustained cuts to carbon emissions need to happen now. That is the very simple acid test that must be applied to all climate policies. The time for wishful thinking is over.

Researchers Urge Better Protection As Wetlands Continue To Vanish

Researchers Urge Better Protection As Wetlands Continue To Vanish

This article was written by Morgan Erickson-Davis.  

Morgan describes how biodiverse wetlands are, she asserts we need a change in law to restore them begin to look after and to recreate balance between people, wetlands and biodiversity. 

By Morgan Erickson-Davis

  • Wetlands provide many benefits to ecological and human communities alike, from nutrients and nurseries to flood control and climate change mitigation.
  • However, as much as 87% of the world’s wetlands has been lost over the past 300 years, with much of this loss happening after 1900.
  • In response, nations banded together and in 1971 ratified the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, an intergovernmental treaty designed to facilitate wetland conservation and sustainable use around the world.
  • But 50 years on, researchers say the convention has not led to effective protection and wetlands continue to blink out.

Swamps, sloughs, marshes, bogs, fens; water purification, flood control, wildlife nurseries, nutrient providers, carbon sinks: wetlands have many names and serve many environmental purposes. But for centuries they have been viewed simply as hindrances to human development, obstacles to drain and dredge to make room for progress.

Few have escaped this pressure.

Research indicates the world may have lost as much as 87% of its wetlands over the past 300 years, with much of this loss happening after 1900. But in the mid-20th century scientists started grasping just how ecologically – and economically – important wetlands are, and the global environmental community rushed to protect those that still remained.

The result was the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, an intergovernmental treaty designed to facilitate wetland conservation and sustainable use around the world. Named after Ramsar, Iran, where it was first signed in 1971, the convention today protects 2,413 wetlands encompassing some 2.55 million square kilometers (985,000 sq mi) and has been ratified by 170 countries.

And yet, wetlands are still disappearing. In an article published in the journal Nature earlier this month, researchers Peter Bridgewater at the University of Canberra and Rakhyun Kim at Utrecht University say the convention has not been the protective force it was intended to be.

“Over the 50-year lifetime of the convention, at least 35 percent of wetlands globally have been lost,” Bridgewater and Kim said in a press release.

That number was revealed during the Ramsar Convention’s first-ever Global Wetland Outlook in 2018, which also found that the world’s wetlands were disappearing three times faster than its forests. According to the outlook, the major driving forces behind wetlands loss are climate change, population increase, urbanization and changing consumption patterns like shifts towards a more meat-heavy diet, which requires the clearing and cultivation of larger areas of land.

Wetlands are among the most biodiverse ecosystems on the planet, on par with coral reefs and rainforests.

In addition to supplying vital habitat and “biological supermarkets” for wildlife, wetlands provide important ecosystem services for human communities around the world. They reduce the likelihood of flooding by soaking up excess water from swollen rivers, they filter pollutants from groundwater before it enters aquifers, and they are one of the most effective natural carbon storage systems on the planet. According to the Ramsar Scientific and Technical Review Panel, wetlands store 35% of the world’s land-based carbon – despite covering just 9% of the its surface.

“Without wetlands, the global agenda on sustainable development will not be achieved,” said Martha Rojas Urrego, Secretary General of the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, in a statement. “We need urgent collective action to reverse trends on wetland loss and degradation, and secure both the future of wetlands and our own at the same time.”

In their article, Bridgewater and Kim acknowledge the Ramsar convention has achieved positive results such as increasing awareness and attracting membership of most of the world’s nations, as well as establishing a global network of Wetlands of International Importance. However, they say it is not really working as intended.

“One of its major flaws is the Ramsar’s site-based approach,” they said, referring to the convention’s focus on identifying and protecting individual wetlands. All too often this protection exists only on paper, Bridgewater and Kim say, explaining that there is generally little on-the-ground change when a site is officially demarcated as a Wetland of International Importance.

“Clearly, expanding the Ramsar list has not been sufficient to improve the conservation status of wetlands,” they write, “although its absence may likely have produced even worse results for wetland conservation.”

To truly protect the world’s wetlands, Bridgewater and Kim say the convention needs to better connect with other global conservation schemes, shift its focus from simply collecting sites to ensuring that those already established are more effectively managed, and implement a more holistic understanding of wetland ecology and hydrology that considers the influence of the surrounding landscape.

“Some structural change in governance and implementation mechanisms is necessary,” they write. “Only more adaptive and dynamic global governance mechanisms will help take global decisions through to implementation and action locally, nationally and regionally; restoring the balance needed between people, wetlands and the rest of their biodiversity in the Anthropocene.”

This article was written by and originally published on Mongabay on 13th February 2021. You can read the original here.


Citation: Bridgewater, P., Kim, R.E. The Ramsar Convention on Wetlands at 50. Nat Ecol Evol (2021).

Net Zero and Other Climate Delusions

Net Zero and Other Climate Delusions

Facing The Truth

by Elisabeth Robson

“In order to maintain our way of living, we must tell lies to each other, and especially to ourselves.” — Derrick Jensen

On November 6, 2020, I allowed myself one breath out, a breath of relief that a despicable administration and its despicable leader have been voted out of office. With my next breath in, I reminded myself that the administration that will replace it will be just as despicable, only in different ways. Its leaders may be more humane—perhaps they will no longer separate children from their parents at the border, and perhaps they will offer sincere sympathies to the families of those who have died of COVID-19—but they will not usher in a voluntary transition to a more sane and sustainable way of living. They may not lie about their tax returns or the size of their inauguration crowd, but they will certainly lie about many other things. More dangerously, they will lie about those things while believing they are righteous, and in so doing will convince many others to believe they are righteous, too.

One lie the Biden-Harris administration is telling that I am most immediately concerned with is the lies that the words “clean energy” and “net zero” mean something real. This lie is rooted in a fundamental denial of physical reality.

Clean Energy and Net Zero

The first and primary goal of the Biden-Harris climate plan is to

“Ensure the U.S. achieves a 100% clean energy economy and reaches net-zero emissions no later than 2050.”

Most people will, at this point, be familiar with the term “clean energy”. This usually means renewables, including wind, solar, hydropower, hydrogen, geothermal, and nuclear. These technologies are considered “clean” because the generated energy does not emit CO2 at generation time.

However, many will be less familiar with the term “net zero”. It’s understandable why so many in climate change circles, including Joe Biden and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), would rely on the concept of “net zero” given the decline in CO2 emissions required to meet the IPCC’s stated goals of keeping global warming to “well below +2C” if we actually wanted to get our emissions to zero:

SOURCE: @Peters_Glen

The delusion of “clean energy” and “net zero” allows policy makers world wide to instead produce a graph that looks more like this:

SOURCE: Science, Vol 354, Issue 6309 14 October, 2016

This second graph is a lot more reassuring than the first. It means that we can continue to emit CO2 as long as we count on something—technology? forests? soil?—to pull extra CO2 out of the atmosphere (called carbon dioxide removal, or CDR) so we can say our CO2 emissions are “net zero” instead of zero. As long as the amount of CO2 we continue to emit is less than or equal to the CO2 we are pulling out of the atmosphere at the same time, we’re good.

We imagine that instead of facing the cliff-like drop-off in CO2 emissions in graph 1, we can follow graph 2, by gradually replacing the electricity grid with renewables producing “clean energy”, replace all 1.2 billion cars in the world with EVs, somehow figure out how to make concrete without massive amounts of fossil fuels, invent a substitute for steel that doesn’t require massive amounts of fossil fuels, replace industrial agriculture with regenerative agriculture world wide while still feeding 8 billion people, and do all this at a slower pace than within the decade or two required to get to zero emissions to avoid climate catastrophe. And, if the CDR works well enough, perhaps we imagine that we can continue to burn small amounts of fossil fuels for the foreseeable future, putting CO2 into the atmosphere and pulling it out in equal measure.

Clean energy and net zero go hand in hand, and not just in the Biden-Harris climate plan. Indeed, net zero is required for a clean energy plan to work. To see why, think about what’s required for clean energy.

Wind and Solar

To build, install, and maintain wind and solar requires not just a whole lot of mining and refining of the materials (metals and minerals) to manufacture the component parts of wind turbines and solar panels; it also requires installing the turbines and the panels in giant farms, most often on public lands where plants and animals live until they are scraped away and killed for these farms. Installing the giant turbines and panels is a fairly energy intensive process. It also requires maintaining these farms for their lifespan, which is about 25-30 years, and then dismantling and disposing of the waste at the end of that lifespan (most often in landfills) and replacing them with new wind turbines and solar panels.

It also requires building massive energy storage plants, either from batteries, which require their own energy intensive resources to make, or in energy storage schemes like pumped hydro, which requires building dams (see below). It also requires building additional grid lines to the solar and wind farms and their associated energy storage, which requires vast amounts of copper, steel, and concrete. None of this is easy to do, and all of it currently requires a whole lot of minerals and metals, which must be mined out of the ground, and energy, which is usually in the form of fossil fuels. Hmmm. That means these clean energy solutions are still emitting a lot of CO2.


To build dams requires immense amounts of concrete, and concrete is still one of the world’s most energy-intensive substances to make. It requires large, heavy machinery, running on fossil fuels, and high heat, provided by fossil fuels. And the reservoirs behind the dams often become methane producers, and methane is a greenhouse gas with 20 times the atmosphere heating qualities of CO2. The water energy must be turned into electricity, which must be transported for use or storage, requiring grid lines. Hmmm. That means that this clean energy solution is still emitting greenhouse gases, both CO2 and methane. Oh, and dams kill rivers, but that doesn’t seem to matter to clean energy advocates.


Hydrogen fuel is clean when burned (meaning it produces only water at burn time), but currently requires a lot of energy to make. It is usually made from natural gas (a fossil fuel), but sometimes biomass (i.e. plants and trees). Mining natural gas emits quite a bit of methane, and cutting trees and harvesting plants emits CO2. The energy required to convert natural gas or biomass to hydrogen fuel could come from renewable sources but as we’ve seen those renewable sources are not clean. Hmmm. That means this clean energy solution is still emitting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.


Geothermal might be the least bad of these bad solutions, but geothermal still requires that we build infrastructure (from steel) and power plants (to convert steam heat into electricity) and grid infrastructure to get the electricity from the source to where the electricity is used. Hmmm. All of those steps require metals, minerals, concrete, and other resources, so it would seem this clean energy solution is still emitting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, too.


Everyone already knows the main downside to nuclear energy: we’ve seen these downsides first hand at Fukushima and Chernobyl and Three Mile Island. Aside from the energy required to mine uranium, build nuclear power plants, and deal with the nuclear waste (all of which requires fossil fuels), the devastating long term impacts of nuclear waste on the natural environment mean that it is perhaps the epitome of delusion to consider nuclear energy clean in any way.

So, even if we were somehow to run our “clean energy economy” on electricity from renewables alone, we’d still be far from zero CO2 emissions. Which is why we need “net zero”. We need a way to offset the CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions that will happen in the energy sector even if we were to somehow replace fossil fuels with renewables world wide. This accounting also does not include the emissions from other sectors producing greenhouse gas emissions, such as industrial agriculture, transportation, and industry (even if industry is run on renewables for its energy, large amounts of greenhouse gases are released during manufacturing from chemical reactions, as an example).

Negative Emissions Technologies

So what is the future something that we will rely on to pull CO2 from the air so we can get to net zero emissions? It’s a suite of technologies known as negative emissions technologies.

In a 2018 report on negative emissions technologies, the United Nations Framework on Climate Change Convention (UNFCCC, with 197 countries participating) includes the following technologies: reforestation and afforestation, land management, enhanced weathering, ocean fertilization, bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS), direct air capture and carbon storage (DACCS), and carbon capture and storage (CCS).

Nature-based NETs

Reforestation and afforestation means planting a whole lot of trees. It means reforesting the areas we’ve deforested, and it means planting trees in areas that were not previously forested. The thinking is that trees pull CO2 from the air as they grow. Of course, before industrial civilization, there were a whole lot more trees, and those trees were part of the normal carbon cycle of the Earth, pulling CO2 out of the air in balance with the amount of CO2 emitted by normal processes that are part of life and death on this planet. So to get more CO2 pulled from the atmosphere to offset the industrial emissions from fossil fuels and other man-made sources of greenhouse gases, we’d have to plant a whole lot more trees.

This at a time when deforestation continues apace for mining, development, and industrial agriculture, and at a time when population continues to grow and land is regularly cleared of forest in order to produce the vast quantities of food to feed that growing population. Unfortunately, many tree planting schemes concocted for carbon offsets tend to be mono-crops of trees, rather than forests, and so don’t contribute to increasing viable habitat for wildlife at the same time. In addition, if trees are planted in the wrong place, this can often do more harm than good. It is hard to argue against planting more trees (if done well, and in the right places), but given we continue to deforest more than reforest, it seems unlikely this solution is viable.

Increasing carbon storage in soil through land management:

including regenerative agriculture and biochar, could store up to 0.7 gigatons of carbon (GtC) a year from the atmosphere, according to the UNFCC, and perhaps more if the depth of carbon storage is increased significantly with deeper soils. Keep in mind, that the total GtC released into the atmosphere from fossil fuels is about 10 GtC a year, and that carbon capture in soil would require completely overhauling global industrial agriculture at a time when industrial agriculture is rapidly expanding to feed the world’s growing population.

Enhanced weathering

Enhanced weathering is a technique to increase the rate of CO2 absorption in slow natural mechanisms that remove CO2 from the air, such as rock weathering, by applying chemicals to rocks, or by spreading finely ground rock over large areas of land. This is a purely speculative NET since no studies have been done at scale on the process.

Ocean fertilization

Ocean fertilization is the process of adding fertilizer, typically iron, to the ocean to increase the uptake of CO2 by plankton algae. Only small tests have been done with ocean fertilization, including one rogue fisherman who dumped 100 tons of iron dust in the waters off Canada. As the UNFCCC states in its report, ocean fertilization is “associated with very high levels of uncertainty and ecological risks for relatively small sequestration potential.”

My conclusion is that manipulating nature to reduce atmospheric CO2 has limited potential at best, and the risk of damaging the natural ecology of the Earth at worst.

Technology NETs

That leaves technology. The technologies included in the UNFCCC report are carbon capture and storage (CCS), bioenergy with CCS, and direct air CCS. CCS is really just a catch all name for BECCS and DACCS, as well as the ecosystem manipulation techniques described above.

BECCS requires replacing the fossil fuels burned in power plants world wide with biomass fuels, and adding technology that can capture the CO2 emitted when burning the biomass. Estimates of the amount of land required to grow the biomass to replace electricity at current levels of demand are about twice the size of India. Needless to say this would be problematic not just for food production, but also the reforestation and afforestation plans mentioned above. Another major problem with BECCS is that capturing CO2 in power plants is still highly speculative, has been demonstrated in only a few power plants, and the captured CO2 is most often used for “enhanced oil recovery”—i.e. getting more oil out of the ground—rather than stored. As of 2012 there were 62,500 power plants operating around the world, and 18 of them can now capture carbon. I’ll leave you to do the math.

If we add CO2 capture to all existing, non-biomass burning power plants, this will reduce the CO2 emitted from fossil fuels at burn time, but will do nothing to stop the destructive mining to get the fossil fuels from the ground. Existing coal power plants that have been converted to biomass typically burn wood pellets, some of which come from forests cut down to provide that wood, which seems counterproductive given the first NET discussed above, requiring that we plant more trees, not cut more of them down. In addition, it takes more wood to produce the same energy as you’d get from burning coal, so more CO2 is emitted, and because of the long lag time in tree regrowth and associated carbon sequestration, it quickly becomes clear that burning biomass will add more CO2 to the atmosphere during the critical near-term time period we need to be rapidly decarbonizing.

This is a well-known loophole in CO2 accounting schemes, and yet biomass burning has been enthusiastically embraced by power plants as an easy way to reuse current technology without having to account for the CO2 emitted.

DACCS is another speculative technology that uses giant fans to bring air into reactors made with plastic and potassium hydroxide to bind with CO2 and remove it from the air.

The CO2 is then purified and processed with “chemicals” (I’m not sure which chemicals, it seems to be proprietary information)—a process that requires energy, of course—and the resulting pure CO2 can then be stored to keep it out of the atmosphere. However, to pay for the technology and energy required to capture CO2, rather than being stored, the captured CO2 is typically used for enhanced oil recovery, which would seem to make the entire process moot. Indeed, one of the most well known of the DACCS companies operating today, Carbon Engineering, partnered with Chevron in 2019 in order to use the captured CO2 to pump more oil and gas.

If the captured CO2 from both BECCS and DACCS is to be stored, which is necessary to prevent it from heating the atmosphere, the CO2 must be stored forever. So far the most promising technique for storing CO2 long-term is to mix it with water and inject it into basalt (volcanic) rock, where it reacts with the rock and remineralizes. This technique has been demonstrated in only a small number of experiments. If one imagines power plants and direct capture infrastructure capturing CO2 all around the world, this also begs the question of how to get the captured CO2 to locations where it can be stored into rock, remembering that the world currently emits about 40 GtCO2 a year, which is a huge amount of CO2. Would we use pipelines? And if so, how do we build the pipelines without a whole lot of steel and fossil fuels? Other techniques for storing CO2 are to put it in old salt mines or to replace oil extracted from the ground, but both of these storage techniques have limitations in a world with regular earthquakes, seepy rock, and human error.

In sum, none of the negative emissions technologies discussed in the UNFCCC report sound particularly hopeful, and even the UNFCCC admits in its own report that

“these technologies offer only limited realistic potential to remove carbon from the atmosphere.”

Policy Delusions

Despite this, the IPCC states in a post dated July 31, 2020, that

“global emissions need to be reduced to net-zero within the next few decades to avoid a dangerous increase in global temperatures”

and that

“the good news is we already have affordable, reliable technologies that can put the peak in global emissions behind us and start the drive down to net zero.”

They continue,

“Deployed quickly and on a major scale, the clean energy technologies we have at our disposal right now can bring about the kind of decline in energy-related emissions that would put the world on track for our longer-term climate goals.”

Governments around the world, including the United States, look to the IPCC for guidance on making policy related to climate change and yet this guidance is clearly delusional.

The list of lies one must tell oneself in order to believe this rhetoric is long:

  • renewable energy and associated technologies (e.g. electric vehicles) is “clean”;
  • deploying renewable energy world wide in time to avoid climate catastrophe is possible or even desirable;
  • mining and refining the metals and minerals required to build that renewable energy is an acceptable further destruction to the natural world at a time when scientists are telling us habitat loss and biodiversity loss and extinction are crises just as important as climate change;
  • that it’s okay for us to target “net zero” emissions rather than zero emissions because we have faith we’ll have the technology we need to pull CO2 from the air,
  • that we can deploy these technologies globally in time to prevent catastrophic climate change;
  • and perhaps worst of all, that any of this can be called “environmental justice” for those most impacted—the land, rivers, lakes, plants, and human and non-human animals whose homes and lives are lost to mining, industry, and technology.

Nowhere does the Biden-Harris plan for the future make mention of de-growth, reducing industry or the military, or reducing consumption. Nowhere. In fact we see the opposite: the catch phrase for the Biden-Harris administration is “build back better”. Build back to what? The unsustainable lifestyle to which we have become accustomed? A life of jumping on planes to the nearest tourist destination, where we buy crap we don’t need and throw away six months later? A life of building more houses, more roads, and bigger and more productive corporations with the municipal and industrial waste that goes with that? A life with a military that is the worst polluter in the United States and requires a constant supply of fossil fuels, metals, and minerals mined from the ground? Biden claims he wants to “build prosperity”. Does he understand that true prosperity is created by healthy ecosystems, because without healthy, flourishing, fecund ecosystems, there is no life on Earth? We live in a world where eight people have more wealth that most of the rest of the world combined. How is that prosperity helping the natural world? How is that prosperity being used to stop the destruction? The answer is obvious: it isn’t.

These are just a few of the lies we must tell to each other, and especially ourselves, if we wish to go along quietly with the policies outlined in the Biden-Harris plan for the next four years.

However, if you cannot lie to yourself or your loved ones, speak up. Tell the truth. Face ecological reality. This is no time for delusion, unless we are ready to ignore the suffering around us and give up on this beautiful planet we call home.