False Negative? BECCS, Climate Realism, and the Quest for Negative Emissions

By James A. King


“As we come to the end of the 24th century, the world looks very different. Climate change hit us hard in the years leading up to 2100 – over a billion people were displaced by rising seas, huge numbers of species were driven to extinction, and the emergence of new disease strains in a world out of balance led to an alarming death toll. Humanity, however, was fortunate – a Japanese biologist, acting alone as far as we know, genetically engineered a type of lichen which rapidly absorbed carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. She then deliberately released it from her lab, and it spread like wildfire around the globe. Within 20 years the organism had brought yet more change to the planet’s appearance, and had begun to stabilise the concentration of atmospheric carbon. Earth then began its steady road to recovery.”

Science fiction, certainly; but this tale, told by the noted historians of science Erik Conway and Naomi Oreskes in their cheerfully titled book ‘The Collapse of Western Civilisation’, struck me as important in a number of ways. It was a warning. A plausible future, devised by writers with deep knowledge of history, politics, and climate science, which showed what could happen if the world continues not to properly tackle climate change as an existential threat. While there are many possible directions the future climate could take, it is hard to predict what humanity’s response will be. However, it is noteworthy that in this particular tale, the solution to the problem of climate change comes not from a United Nations resolution, a global treaty, or the election of enlightened governments. It comes from a negative emissions technology which does not yet exist.


Solutions to climate change which include at least some aspect of negative emissions are becoming increasingly common in what we might call the ‘climate establishment’. In fact, many of our more optimistic projections of the future are based around the concept of negative emissions. In order to avoid dangerous levels of global warming, it is widely acknowledged that we need not only to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions to zero, but to actively go beyond and remove more carbon from the atmosphere than we are putting into it. While the chemistry behind removing carbon from the atmosphere is relatively well understood (if the pot plant on my desk can do it, why can’t we?), achieving the vast scale of carbon drawdown needed to meet ambitious temperature targets would be an effort requiring an unprecedented amount of global investment and coordination. Why, then, is this idea so pervasive? Is it a realistic goal we should be striving towards, or the stuff of speculative fiction? And what do these arguments tell us about how the climate establishment works?


The celebrated Paris Agreement of 2015, in which countries committed to keeping warming below 2°C above the pre-industrial average, was informed by the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). This body, comprised of experts from around the world, encapsulates the current consensus view on climate change. Among other things, the IPCC develops scenarios for the future. This relies heavily on tools called integrated assessment models (IAMs). These complex software programmes link the climate to the socioeconomic sphere. Put simply, we can use them to set a future target (for example, to keep emissions below that 2°C level, or the more ambitious 1.5°C), and they will generate possible pathways for how we could use resources and generate energy that will achieve this. Taking hundreds of possible pathways into account means we can assess what policies might be most useful for tackling climate change. 


It turns out that that as well as cuts in emissions, future scenarios heavily rely on large-scale removal of CO2 from the atmosphere. Typically, in a 1.5°C pathway, the scenario will assume the amount of carbon removed will exceed the amount of carbon emitted by 2050. It is also assumed that by this point, no CO2 at all will be emitted from the process of generating electricity, and nearly none from other sources of energy. Various methods of achieving this have been proposed, but one method that has caught the attention of the climate establishment more than the others is bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS). This concept involves burning biofuels to generate electricity, then capturing the emitted CO2 and burying it underground. In theory, this would generate the stable energy supply the world needs, while simultaneously reducing the total amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. This is important given that current methods of generating electricity (for the most part) rely on fossil fuels and have a long shelf life; many estimates suggest that the power stations that already exist doom us to a future beyond 2°C. BECCS could be the future, if it works. This, however, may turn out to be one of the biggest ‘ifs’ in history.


Despite general acknowledgement that some degree of carbon capture will be necessary to stay below 2°C of warming, there is a growing sense of unease among some climate scientists about the prominent role of BECCS in climate scenarios. Scepticism arises from two main sources. Firstly, carbon removal on a large scale is not currently proven to be technically or economically feasible. Secondly, some believe BECCS to be morally hazardous, posing serious ethical problems. There is currently only one large commercially operating BECCS plant in the world, and a number of planned projects elsewhere have been cancelled owing to a lack of funding. The technology remains expensive and the costs for building it on a large scale are beyond what private utility companies are willing to shoulder; when considering the scale of global electricity demands, BECCS is little more than a concept. Additionally, this technology requires biomass, which means growing plants on a huge scale on land that then can’t be used for growing food or biofuels in a world which needs increasing amounts of both. The amount of land we would need for planetary-scale BECCS is comparable to the entire area of India, yet IAMs tend to assume the vast technical and economic barriers to making this concept work will be overcome without too much effort or social strife. One recent study typifying this attitude to scenario development decided not to address the feasibility of BECCS, on the grounds that the word ‘feasibility’ is too hard to define.  


The moral argument against BECCS holds that, by assuming that this speculative technology will be up and running at some point in the next few decades, the Paris Agreement places the burden of seriously addressing climate change on future generations. It is attractive because it seems to suggest that the world can continue on its present course, emitting more and more carbon dioxide in the cause of economic growth, without having to worry about global warming until later. This taps into a very human desire to procrastinate, but with consequences that may shape the future of our species. If negative emissions technologies fail to take off, the future looks very challenging indeed – the amount of carbon we can still emit until we need to stop emitting anything at all in order to stay below 2°C will be emitted within the next 20 years at current rates. If we are sceptical about BECCS, we need immediate and rapid cuts in carbon emissions of around 10% per year by 2025. This would require investing in renewable and nuclear energy, taxing carbon, replacing petrol and diesel vehicles with electric or hydrogen alternatives, putting solar panels and insulation in every house, ending subsidies for fossil fuels, discouraging frequent flying rather than rewarding it with air miles and first class upgrades…the list goes on. 


It is clear that we are at a crucial moment in Earth’s history, and the choices made now and in the next decade will affect our ability to maintain a safe living space for humanity. Climate professionals devote their careers to this. Why, then, has the negative emissions concept become so pervasive? Why have scientists and the IPCC tacitly or explicitly argued for it, even as protestors around the world who are on the same side demand action on emissions? 


For over 40 years, climate scientists have been warning of the dangers of continuing emissions of greenhouse gases. The IPCC and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) were set up to bring science and politics together in the service of humanity. However, climate change is a difficult problem because it has no respect for borders, sovereignty, or countries’ rights to economic advancement. Climate action must be agreed upon by all; the commitments to emissions reduction of small countries matter little if large countries reject the logic that the world is warming due to human action because, in terms of the climate, it does not matter where or by whom carbon is emitted. Furthermore, there is a tight link between economic growth and emissions. The countries that are rich today are rich for many reasons, but one of the main ones was the plentiful availability of cheap energy from fossil fuels in the 20th century. As the West begins to wean itself off coal and oil, most power stations that will need to be abandoned to maintain safe temperatures are in rapidly growing countries such as China and India. 


Like most things which are the concern of all nations, the climate establishment has become bureaucratised and corporatized. Consequently, climate scientists have increasingly had to conceal the radical implications of their research. The reason BECCS is such a commonly cited concept is because it is a way to suggest that we can tackle climate change without having to move away from economic growth as the imperative driving global politics, or to acknowledge that currently rich countries and corporations share the blame for a crisis which will affect them less. Without negative emissions, the conclusions from climate science are much less palatable to the delegates of the UNFCCC in their air-conditioned conference centres a world away from flooded villages and sinking islands. Massive emissions cuts are needed around the world, which are not compatible with continuing to increase the size of the economy as it currently operates. Rich countries must shoulder the burden of these cuts through financial aid to developing countries, since future pathways assume India, China, and others will simply skip the phase of development that requires the use of fossil fuels – so far, the only known means of developing an advanced economy. Inequality lies at the heart of climate change – the world’s poor are less responsible for and more vulnerable to its impacts, but face a future of increasing pressure not to develop in the manner of the West. The radical implication of climate change for the global South, as the Indian writer Amitav Ghosh has put it, is that not everyone in Asia and Africa can have a car, a fridge, and a couple of foreign holidays a year. If they do, the world burns. While the IPCC argues that both negative emissions and emissions reduction are needed, the seductive appeal of the former may divert attention from the much more difficult latter. For its part, the IPCC states that BECCS will require overcoming ‘challenges and risks’, but the prominence given to the technology in its scenarios and the complex way its conclusions are communicated have been read as tacit endorsement – whether or not this was intentional, it has led to widespread assumptions about a BECCS future.


Some climate scientists, notably Kevin Anderson at Manchester University, argue that researchers must say things like this openly, without feeling the need to make their conclusions politically palatable – while not completely against BECCS, he believes we must proceed on the assumption that it will not become our primary source of electricity and focus instead on rapid emissions cuts and global economic equity, acknowledging that this is likely to be incompatible with economic growth. His (often radical) critiques of the IPCC and UNFCCC, however, place him on the fringes of mainstream climate discourse; the age-old dichotomy between activism and policy engagement shows no signs of being resolved here. The traction gained by Extinction Rebellion, the school strike for climate movement, and the Green New Deal policy in the US suggests that an increasing proportion of the public, as well as the more radical wing of climate science, are becoming exasperated with climate negotiations as they have been done in the past. A younger generation are finding their voice; they believe that every day spent at a UN conference arguing over whether or not a scientific finding is to be ‘welcomed’ or ‘recognised’ detracts from their futures, and they are angry. Negative emissions, to the young, seem like an excuse to delay action now by placing the burden for it on them. Meanwhile, a major new research centre is being set up in the UK to investigate radical modification of the climate system, in a sign that scientists are losing faith in politicians’ willingness to cut emissions. 


In Conway and Oreskes’ world, it takes the deaths of hundreds of millions and the collapse of the very underpinnings of society for anything to be done about climate change. ‘It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism’ wrote the late cultural theorist Mark Fisher (echoing Fredric Jameson) in 2009. Where climate change is concerned, we can adapt this theory of ‘capitalist realism’ more broadly; ‘climate realism’ would state that because it’s easier (for scientists especially) to say what climate change will do than how we will stop it, we look to technological ‘fixes’ rather than changes to the structures that brought about climate change in the first place. Working within a political or economic system makes it hard to imagine a systemic change, yet evidence is mounting that such changes will be needed. Current thinking stakes our common future on negative emissions technology. Depending on whether or not this comes to pass, future generations will see this thinking as either enlightened or a devastating failure of imagination.

James A. King is a doctoral candidate in climate science at Linacre College, Oxford. He researches climate change in East Africa, and has more general interests in climate policy and ethics, as well as being one of the custodians of Britain's longest continuous weather record. James is from the New Forest, Hampshire.


Art by Alex Willis

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