Before we start releasing new content in earnest over coming weeks, we’d like to elaborate on the rationale for Climate Uncensored. Specifically, what’s with the name?
It’s now thirty years since the United Nation’s first major Earth Summit (Rio 1992) recognised the urgent challenges posed by anthropogenic climate change. Yet, in responding to these challenges we, as a global society, have failed spectacularly. Global emissions continue to rise, even as we stray ever closer to – and possibly already past – irreversible climatic and ecological ‘tipping points’. With annual emissions today a staggering 60% higher (and rising) than in 1992, increasing reliance is being placed on future technologies taking the place of present-day emissions cuts.
Despite widespread declarations of a ‘climate emergency’, there is little to no evidence within sovereign states of responses commensurate with any reasonable interpretation of an emergency. Wealthy, industrialised countries continue to treat the damaging and deadly impacts of a warming planet as problems to be dealt with in five, fifteen and even fifty years’ time. Worse still, many of these nations are actively seeking new oil and gas fields, when the evidence is absolutely clear that our climate commitments permit the combustion of only a small fraction of the reserves in existing fields.
At the same time, vulnerable nations, predominantly in the Global South, are already suffering at the sharp end of climate change. As the Working Group II contribution to the IPCC’s most recent assessment report (AR6) observes, at today’s 1.26°C of warming, “increasing weather and climate extreme events have exposed millions of people to acute food insecurity and reduced water security … hindering efforts to meet Sustainable Development Goals” and that in “in all regions extreme heat events have resulted in human mortality and morbidity.”
We are used to hearing that all that is missing from the equation to ‘solve’ climate change is the ‘political will’ to implement transformative policies. As a society, we scratch our heads and wring our hands over how such ‘will’ can be catalysed – whether by applying pressure to elected officials at the ballot, or to companies through our consumption choices, or in public protest, civil disobedience or even, for some, acts of direct sabotage to fossil fuel infrastructure.
How have we arrived at such a desperate moment; at this appalling disconnect between the immediacy of impacts and our prevaricating political responses? How is it that we have squandered thirty years of opportunity to act, to find ourselves now at such a precipice that we condone gambling the lives of younger and future generations on the planetary-scale success of ‘negative emissions technologies’, which do not currently (and crucially, may never) exist at the requisite scale?
Undoubtedly the enormous lobbying power of the global fossil fuel industry and vested financial interests endemic throughout the political class – that is to say, corruption – are in large part responsible for the deadlock in achieving effective policy responses. But even listening to those policymakers not tainted by climate-damaging commerce, one could easily get the impression that everything is more or less under control, that measures appropriate to the urgency of the situation are being taken.
Our, ostensibly independent, scientific advisory committees and agencies dispense policy recommendations in impressive and bewildering detail. They suggest that by a subsidy here and a technology substitution there we can reach ‘net-zero emissions’ in a few decades give or take, without any major upheaval to business as usual. Any overshoot of emissions budgets, we are assured, can be mopped up by removing CO2 directly from the atmosphere, once that technology becomes available.
The language of ‘net zero’ is now virtually ubiquitous throughout the mitigation modelling and policy discourse, but it is worth reflecting on how just how recently it has penetrated the literature and been adopted as a kind of ‘groupthink’. Compare the incidence of the term in the IPCC’s fifth and sixth assessment reports. ‘Net zero’ appears 23 times in the WGIII contribution to AR5, published in 2014 – almost all in the context of net-zero energy buildings, such as Passivhaus design; i.e. proven, tried-and-tested tech. Jump to this year’s WGIII contribution to AR6, and the incidence of ‘net zero’ skyrockets to 963 mentions – overwhelmingly now in the context of negative emissions and carbon capture; technologies that remain speculative at scale (see endnote below). And while of course scientific terminology is an evolving, emerging phenomenon, the present-day preponderance of these terms reflects an actual, measurable shift in the direction of policy. What were once considered fringe policies for their riskiness and highly-speculative nature are now a mainstay of the mitigation scenario and policy landscape, despite the continuing lack of evidence that they can be scaled up in time.
Digging deeper into the AR6 WGIII mitigation suites, of 311 scenarios for a 67% or better chance of limiting warming to 2°C, 294 (95%) included a significant quantity of carbon dioxide removal (CDR). The technology concept most commonly evoked is bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS), although this often stands as a catch-all for the wider portfolio of Negative Emission Technologies (NETs), including direct air capture with carbon storage (DACCS). That is to say, practically no scenarios that do not rely to a significant degree on CDR were given serious consideration in AR6. Were NETs and wider CDR part of a range of technological and behavioural interventions considered within the IPCC scenarios, their inclusion would be more credible. As it stands, CDR has propagated throughout the scenario set at the expense of alternative approaches. Playing devil’s advocate, one might question why, if unproven CDR is to be included, should there be not even a single scenario including nuclear fusion – scarcely more embryonic in its readiness for use at scale than planetary BECCS and DACCS. Like an invasive species let loose in an island ecosystem, CDR has colonised the intellectual terrain of the mitigation community to the exclusion of more effective but politically more onerous demand reduction measures.
The lie of ‘net zero’ and planetary-scale ‘carbon dioxide removal’ is starting to come under serious scrutiny, with an increasing number of highly-regarded scientists calling out the emperor’s-new-clothes superficiality of these concepts (for example: here, here and here). Such critics have pointed out the dangerous mitigation-deterrent effect of allowing CDR to do significant heavy-lifting in stabilising atmospheric CO2. Invoking CDR reduces the need to implement quantifiably effective policies of demand reduction in tandem with the rapid build-out of genuinely low- or zero-carbon energy supply and investment in storage.
Exceptions aside, the rhetoric of net zero remains largely unchallenged throughout the wider policy and mitigation research communities. Given how endemic these concepts are across the peer-reviewed literature and wider mitigation discourse, is it any wonder that the magic wand of negative emissions technology is so heavily relied on in national policy framing and target setting? Furthermore, it should not be surprising that the same delusion is also pedalled in popular renderings of the climate emergency challenge aimed at younger audiences. A prime example of this is the recent animated film by Kurzgesagt, ‘We WILL fix climate change’, in which a warm, soothingly paternal voice reassures viewers that “wherever you look you find scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs trying to solve some aspect of climate change… Solutions for low-carbon production of cement, electronics and steel, and innovations like…carbon capture are in the works.”
Part of the responsibility for such weak, dilatory and delusional political responses and popular accounts must reside with the expert scientific community of mitigation researchers – our native community, speaking as the authors of this blog. (Note that we see mitigation research as distinct from physical climate-science research). The dynamic at play here is multifaceted. At the tricky interface between science and policy, the freedom to ‘speak truth to power’ is essential for an honest representation of the science to be delivered. Sadly, such freedom is not offered on a plate by inherently conservative (with a small ‘c’) governments and civil service departments. Funded calls for research typically exclude inquiry into policy responses unlikely to align with the incumbent economic paradigm. Moreover, research outcomes that don’t support the paradigm seldom, if ever, achieve policy impact.
Take as an example the funding calls by the UK’s main academic grant-issuing body, UKRI, backed by the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS). Such calls are routinely couched in the language of making a contribution towards achieving the UK’s net-zero-by-2050 goal; the UKRI website proudly showcases projects connected to engineering our way to reaching this target, categorically asserting that “Carbon Capture Storage plays an effective role in helping the UK achieve net zero”, ignoring abundant evidence to the contrary. It is within these narrow ideological constraints that supposedly impartial academic researchers are expected to forge their careers by securing grant funding. Good luck getting funding for research that questions the groupthink, or even for work that isn’t obviously corroborative of it.
As a consequence, researchers are typically circumspect in the development of proposals and tend to downplay the ramifications of their work for public policy. To spell out frankly the implications of our research for society, so this line of thinking goes, risks appearing alarmist, or risks over-stepping one’s brief as scientist rather than policymaker, or of alienating our funders and even some of our colleagues.
Perhaps even more insidious than funding bias is the gagging and wing-clipping of early career researchers (doctoral candidates, post-doc researchers and some lecturers) by senior academics. We’ve heard many first-hand, confidential accounts of intellectual suppression meted out by supposed academic mentors and ‘superiors’; a saddening and invidious state of affairs for an ostensibly honest and rigorous academic sector.
Not uncommonly, senior academics are heavily invested in their own intellectual legacies, and as such are strongly attached to the orthodoxy that their careers helped to establish. Entrance to the upper tiers of the academic ziggurat is hard-fought, with little room for dissent or openly radical or revolutionary thinking. It is a source of immense frustration to us that senior and influential members of the climate community have frequently expressed off-the-record views about the implications of current ‘best science’ that they will not say in public.
Like virtually anyone working on mitigation, we have ourselves encountered strong resistance from esteemed and well-intentioned collaborators when it comes to swimming against the tide. Calling out the vacuity of CDR and net-zero groupthink is an obvious area of contention. Collaborations have been ultimately derailed by insistence that we include CDR within our scenarios for the sake of passing peer review and appeasing those who would otherwise dismiss our scenarios for daring to counter the accepted narrative.
Essentially what we are witnessing is a form of self-censorship by the mitigation community. Collectively and individually, we have serially underplayed the implications of our research findings in communicating them to policymakers, the wider public and sometimes ourselves. We have softened and sugar-coated what our own research tells us about the scale of the mitigation challenge and the policy suites capable of addressing such a challenge within the timeframes that matter.
In 2022, the Paris commitment to pursuing 1.5°C has been all but fatally undermined by inaction. Limiting warming to 2°C may yet be achievable, but further delay on rapid decarbonisation eats away at the remaining budget and reduces the likelihood of limiting warming even to this dangerous level.
We are at a critical point in the story of humanity. We urgently need the climate mitigation research community to stop pulling its punches and hedging its bets. It needs to make explicit the implications of its findings for societal, economic and technological transformation in response to climate change without fear of alarmism, upsetting paymasters or of offending political sensibilities.
At the same time, we urgently need an injection of big picture, systems-level analysis into the popular discourse on mitigation. We can no longer afford the luxury of wishful thinking, invoking the next silver-bullet without spelling out what it means if such promises cannot ultimately be delivered on. The younger generations of today and tomorrow demand and deserve no less. It may be asking too much of mainstream media to always require mitigation ‘experts’ to square their scenarios and climate solutions with a quantified carbon budget and wider framing of sustainability. But as a community of mitigation experts we need a culture of holding each other to account.
In its small way, it is such scrutiny and accountability that Climate Uncensored seeks to promote and facilitate. Through candid, incisive dialogue with a range of scientists, activists and policymakers, we aim to foster a more rigorous, quantitative and well-rounded exchange of information and perspectives than is typically available elsewhere. Our remit is purely constructive; we are not interested in vilifying or policing the output of other communicators, but we shall not hesitate to call out rhetoric, policies and media coverage that we think misrepresents the gravity of the climate emergency situation. By creating this independent platform to engage with thinkers and practitioners working to address the climate emergency, we hope to play a part in building momentum for a movement away from self-censorship and groupthink, and towards clear-sighted, equitable and effective responses to the climate emergency.
In 2010 the IEA’s CCS Technology Roadmap (as part of its low-carbon ‘Blue’ scenario) envisaged sixty large scale CCS projects by 2020, rising to around 500 by 2030 and over 1800 by 2050. In its 2021 report, the Global CCS Institute noted that there were twenty-seven plants operational, with four more currently under construction. Total capture was estimated at a little under 37MtCO2, or less than 0.1% of total fossil-fuel CO2 emissions. If those future plants designated by the Global CCS Institute as in a stage of “advanced development” were all to proceed to construction and then full operation, capture rates could rise by an additional 47MtCO2, bringing the total to a little over 0.2% of current annual fossil fuel emissions.
Importantly, these values include both geological storage and the use of captured CO2 for ‘enhanced oil recovery’. Considering only CO2 actually stored geologically reduces the 37MtCO2 to a little over 7MtCO2, or under 0.02% of energy-related CO2 emitted in 2021. As for the future projects, and again assuming they all proceed to full operation, then in terms of storage, by 2030 the total is set to rise to around 45 MtCO2, or a little over 0.1% of current emissions.