The Magical Thinking Behind Global Climate Ambitions

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The Magical Thinking Behind Global Climate Ambitions

You promise your partner you will clean the entire house by noon tomorrow. Okay, your partner says, but there’s a lot to clean. How will you manage that? You respond, naturally, that you plan to hire several cleaning fairies, and develop a brand new machine that can render a room spotless in mere minutes. Your partner sighs, and wanders away reconsidering their life choices.

This is, more or less, what international climate policy looks like. Various roadmaps, plans, pledges, and more assume a degree of magical innovation and scale-up of barely existing tech that, so far at least, the world has shown no signs of managing.

The International Energy Agency’s roadmap to a net-zero world by 2050 includes what are known as “negative emissions,” or removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere in one way or another — 1.5 billion tons of the stuff, coming from a combination of BECCS (bioenergy with carbon capture and storage) and direct air capture. So far the world is managing to capture only about two million tons of bioenergy emissions; the IEA projects we could manage 30 million tons or so by 2030, a far cry from the 190 million that would have the world at least on the right track.

Direct air capture is faring even worse. Pulling CO2 from the sky is doable, but expensive, still on the order of several hundreds of dollars per ton. A couple dozen facilities are now up and running, but with a laughable total output: around 10,000 tons per year. To get on the IEA’s roadmap, that would somehow need to become 75 million tons per year by 2030. A year that, if you’re scoring at home, is six years away.

Other projections are even more ambitious. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has modeled hundreds of pathways that attempt to limit warming to 1.5 or 2.0 degrees Celsius (we’re at around 1.2 degrees, or maybe a tad more, now); the most effective of them will require hundreds of billions of tons of carbon dioxide removal.

Still others are much more vague. The landmark agreement at COP28 in Dubai in December highlights a net-zero in 2050 goal, and advocates an “acceleration” of carbon removal and carbon capture and storage technology. Dozens of national climate plans mention the need for negative emissions, but few attempt to quantify it or describe how to get there; most instead rely on “enhancing forest and soil carbon sinks” — planting trees, essentially. Only two national plans, according to one analysis published late in 2022, even bother to give an estimate for the amount of direct air capture needed (the U.K. and Switzerland, if you’re curious).

At some point, the hand-waving about negative emissions needs to turn into reality. An over-reliance on magical tech is sort of a hallmark of recent human experience, though, and when it comes to the climate a certain brand of techno-optimist has long managed to arouse and placate any number of rooms in Aspen or Davos with vague promises of “innovation” coming to save us.

Yes, the cost of solar power, and wind to a slightly smaller extent, has dropped in truly remarkable fashion over the past couple of decades, but direct air capture and other forms of negative emissions have so far shown no indication of following any sort of similar path. It is likely that broad deployment of that tech will require enormous government subsidies to make it worth building at all. Scientists and economists are, in fact, thinking about this: led by researchers at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, an analysis released on Thursday laid out an entire scenario for the European Union’s carbon dioxide removal needs, centered around the creation of a “carbon central bank” and the significant subsidizing of removal of each ton of carbon.

Though they offer what they call a “concrete concept” for how it all can be managed, the sheer scale involved again seems absurd: overall, carbon dioxide removal may cost the world up to three percent of its entire GDP, or something like three trillion dollars. And as with all climate change issues, the hour for any of this to start scaling up is getting pretty late. It’s time to hire the cleaning fairies.

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