Sucking carbon out of the air is no magic fix for the climate emergency

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Negative emissions tech is important, but the idea it could replace decarbonisation is pure fantasy. Business as usual is not an option

he Arctic is on fire, hot on the heels of the latest scorching European heatwave. As the impact of the climate crisis mounts, more and more people are asking: how can we control this beast we have created? The scientific answer is fairly straightforward: reduce the amount of greenhouse gases added to the atmosphere to zero. The sooner that’s done, the lower the stabilised temperature and the fewer devastating climate impacts we must face.

The world signed up to this in the Paris agreement, agreeing to “pursue efforts” to limit global warming to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels, while committing to keep the rise “well below” 2C. To have just a 50% chance of meeting the 1.5C means halving global emissions over the next decade and hitting “net zero” emissions by about 2050. That means every sector of every country in the world needs to be, on average, zero emissions. That’s electricity, transport, industry, farming, the lot.

For many areas of life, near-zero emissions is an attainable, if extremely ambitious, goal. We could refit our homes and use electric-powered transport from low-carbon energy sources. Energy from the sun, wind and waves could power societies worldwide. But there are some areas where zero emissions by 2050 is impossible. There will, for example, always be some emissions from the farming needed to feed more than 10 billion people this century, and there is no sign of flying long-haul on an electric plane any time soon.

The answer to this is to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, using “negative emissions technologies”. By sucking carbon out of the atmosphere – at the same rate as it is being added – we can reach zero emissions. Whatever the shape of society in the future, a stable climate will require some working negative emissions technologies. They will be an indispensable tool to mop up the hard-to-eliminate emissions.

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