Scientists Say Climate Pact Leans on ‘Technical Utopia'

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By Rick Mitchell

Dec. 12 — The climate agreement reached Dec. 12 in Paris leaves the door open to dependence on unproven uses of “negative emission” technologies like biomass energy with carbon capture and storage, but it's still a step forward for fighting climate change, scientists told Bloomberg BNA.

Nearly 200 nations reached an historic climate agreement Dec. 12, after United Nations talks that exceeded their two-week deadline.

The 32-page agreement calls for holding “the increase in the global average temperature to well below” 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels, and for pursuing “efforts to limit the temperature increase” to a more ambitious 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit).

It calls for reducing annual carbon dioxide emissions to 40 gigatons by 2030 to achieve the 2 degrees Celsius goal, or, for the 1.5 degrees goal, reducing emissions to a level to be identified in a future special report.

“It's positive that the document refers to the scientific basis for … temperature goals. That could be used to hold governments accountable and that's an improvement over the last draft. However, those temperature goals are quite aspirational at this point,” said Kevin Anderson, deputy director of the Tyndall Centre for climate change research in Manchester, England.

“There is very little in there that requires real economic, political or social change to meet those aspirations,” Anderson said.

‘Neutrality' Removed

Anderson and other scientists commented on the agreement achieved Dec. 12 by the UN climate summit, which started Nov. 30 and brought negotiators from some 196 countries to the Paris suburb of Le Bourget.

The agreed to text omitted the Dec. 10 penultimate draft's call for “greenhouse gas neutrality in the second half” of the century, which scientists criticized Dec. 11 as too vague.

“What's in there now is not much better, but it's somewhat clearer on what it means in practice,” said Steffen Kallbekken, research director at the Centre for International Climate & Energy Policy in Norway. The agreement also includes no percentage emission reduction targets to reach stated temperature goals.

“It would have been much better if you had clearer guidance on where countries need to go in the short to medium term. You could have, for instance, used the [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] findings that you need to cut emissions by 40 to 70 percent by 2050 to have a chance of reaching the 2 degree target,” Kallbekken said.

“It also would have been a much stronger agreement if they had included shipping/aviation emissions, which account for about 5 percent of global emissions,” said Kallbekken.

CCS and Other Steps

Kallbekken said the agreement does not include a call for countries to “decarbonize” their economies, making it more likely there will be a large focus on using carbon capture and storage to achieve emissions goals.

If CCS is proven to work, it could make a transition to a low-carbon economy much easier. “But it's a risk to base our current emissions on the hope that it will be available on a large scale in the second half of the century. I am concerned that, based on that hope, we could allow ourselves much larger emissions today than we otherwise would have done,” said Kallbekken.

Anderson said the agreement, and the national climate pledges they are based on, seem to count on a “technical utopia” view of the future. By not spelling out how to achieve its call to reduce annual carbon dioxide emissions to 40 gigatons by 2030, from a projected 55 gigatons business-as-usual projection, it implies the world is on track to bust its carbon budget long before midcentury.

So, to achieve temperature goals, the agreement “is fundamentally premised” on use of so-called negative emissions technologies. The chief such technology, BECCS, or Biomass Energy with CCS, involves planting massive volumes of trees or other plants to remove atmospheric carbon dioxide, harvesting biomass to produce pellets to fuel power plants, airplanes, ships and other uses, and removing carbon dioxide with CCS.

Removing 10 gigatons of carbon dioxide by 2030 would require planting trees across an area the equivalent of the land mass of India, which would raise all kinds of other complications, Anderson said.

Step by Step

Despite the agreement's imperfections, Jean-Pascal van Ypersele, a professor of physical science at Universite Catholique de Louvain and a former IPCC vice-chair, said the agreement is major progress.

“These climate negotiations progress step by step. If you go back to Article 2 of [the 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, parent treaty to the deal reached in Paris], it only made a vague call for ‘avoiding dangerous interference with the climate system.’”

By contrast, the Paris agreement's 2 degree or even 1.5 degree targets are “much more precise.” Even the agreement's call to peak emissions “as soon as possible,” though not specific, is understandable to anyone. “That is a fundamental shift of the trend of the last 50, even 100 years,” van Ypersele said.

“I believe this was the best agreement possible to reach this year,” said Kallbekken.

To contact the reporter on this story: Rick Mitchell in Paris at correspondents@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Greg Henderson at ghenderson@bna.com