The Log-istics of Carbon Dioxide Removal

Trees are the coolest source of CO2 Removal on the planet.

Trees and vegetation are known to help cool ambient air temperatures through evapotranspiration.  If left undisturbed, forests can also be a vital source of carbon storage.  Estimates from the Global Forest Resources Assessment (FRA 2015) show that the world’s forests and other wooded lands store more than 485 gigatonnes (Gt) of carbon: 260 Gt in the biomass, 37 Gt in dead wood and litter, and 189 Gt in the soil.

In the most recent IPCC Special Report Summary for Policymakers (SPM), the world’s leading climate scientists assess the pathways the global community can pursue over the next few decades to prevent overshoot ofScreen Shot 2018-10-08 at 3.58.11 PM warming beyond 1.5°C.  The fact that all pathways to limit global warming to 1.5°C require mitigation via some form of Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR) is not to be overlooked. But these removal amounts vary across pathways, as do the relative contributions of Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS) and removals in the Agriculture, Forestry and Other Land Use (AFOLU) sector.  BECCS sequestration is projected to range from 0-1, 0-8, and 0-16 GtCO2/yr, in 2030, 2050, and 2100 respectively; the AFOLU-related measures are projected to remove 0-5, 1-11, and 1-5 GtCO2/yr in these years.  These contributions appear meager, and they are… but every little bit counts in this climate.

A reasonable argument can be made for increased investment in and use of CCS to achieve emissions reductions.  The SPM makes it clear that forests alone won’t be able to make a significant numerical difference in reduction of CO2 from the atmosphere.  And as the New York Times aptly points out, “the world is currently much better at cutting down forests than planting new ones.”

On the surface, CCS seems like a logical outgrowth from the nature of GHG emissions production.  The IPCC’s Special Report on Climate Capture and Storage (SRCCS) describes CCS as a mitigation activity that Screen Shot 2018-11-15 at 11.37.30 PMseparates CO2 from large industrial and energy-related point sources, which has the potential to capture 85-95% of the CO2 processed in a capture plant.  Direct Air Capture (DAC) technologies like ClimeWorks remove CO2 from the air. Proponents argue that DAC is a much less land-intensive process than afforestation: Removal of 8 Gt/CO2 would require 6.4 million km² of forested land and 730 km³ of water, while DAC would directly require only 15,800 km² and no water.

However, as our blog has cautioned readers in the past, CCS requires significant financial investments from industry and government and are only regionally accessible.  Only places that have sufficient infrastructure and political support can pursue this path of technological sequestration, leaving underdeveloped countries at a major disadvantage.  A recent report published in Nature Research further emphasizes that BECCS will have significant negative implications for the Earth’s planetary boundaries, or thresholds that humanity should avoid crossing with respect to Earth and her sensitive biophysical subsystems and processes.  Transgressing these boundaries will increase the risk of irreversible climate change, such as the loss of major ice sheets, accelerated sea level rise, and abrupt shifts in forest and agricultural systems.  Above all else, CCS ultimately supports the continual burning of fossil fuels. CCS technology may capture carbon, but it also has the potential to push us over the edge.

Money tree

Mitigation has historically been the focus of the FCCC and other collaborative climate change efforts.  Global climate change policy experts are familiar with the binding language associated with activities related to mitigation in the multilateral environmental agreements: Article 4(1)(b) of the Convention calls for commitments to formulate, implement, publish and update national programs containing measures to mitigate climate change; and Article 3 of the Kyoto Protocol (KP) calls for Annex I Parties to account for their emissions reductions in order to promote accountability and activity guided by mindful emissions production.  In the waning hours of the KP, the Paris Agreement has become the new collective rallying document, whose ambitious emissions reduction target has inspired the likes of the IPCC to offer us pathways to get there.

If we are not currently on track towards limiting GHG emissions well-below 2°C in the grand scheme of the FCCC, why not insure some success, however small, buy securing CO2 in forests, not CCS?  Forests are a well-established CDR technology that do not have the associated risks with CCS.  While the most recent UN Forum on Forests report kindly reminds us that forests are also crucial for food, water, wood, health, energy, and biodiversity, the SPM upholds that mitigation contributions from carbon sequestration technology are numerically minuscule in the face of the large-scale change necessary to avoid CO2 overload.  A much more engaged energy overhaul is needed.

The ideal SPM pathScreen Shot 2018-11-15 at 11.10.17 PMway states that afforestation can be the only CDR option when social, business, and technological innovations result in lower energy demand and a decarbonized energy system.  A more middle-of-the-road scenario achieves necessary emissions reductions mainly by changing the way in which energy and products are produced, and to a lesser degree by reductions in demand.  This speaks to the need for a broad focus on sustainable development rather than continuing business as usual.  Regardless of the pathway, forests need to be preserved, whether it be for carbon sequestration, their cooling effects, or merely beauty.

Sometimes there is no turning back.

Combatting HFCs with the Most-Effective MEA

Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) are greenhouse gases commonly used in a variety of applications, including refrigeration, air conditioning, building insulation, fire extinguishing systems, and aerosols. HFCs are a synthetic gas and have a high global warming potential, with some estimates putting their global warming impact at up to 10,000 times that of carbon dioxide. This global warming potential is especially troubling because HFC emissions are projected to increase nearly twentyfold in the coming decades. Without a reduction in emissions, HFCs could contribute the equivalent of 100 billion tons of carbon dioxide and lead to more than 0.5°C of warming. This increase in HFC emissions would offset many of the climate benefits that the Montreal Protocol has achieved.

The Montreal Protocol, which is an implementing instrument of the Vienna Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer, was adopted in 1987 and is widely accepted in the international community as one of the most successful multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs). The purpose of the Protocol is to reduce the production and consumption of ozone depleting substances in order to reduce their abundance in the atmosphere, and thereby protect the earth’s fragile ozone layer. Since adoption, nearly 100 ozone-depleting substances have been phased out world-wide. The Protocol is estimated to have averted greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to more than 135 billion tons of carbon dioxide. The Protocol is most well-known for its success in eliminating emissions of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), a common component in refrigerators. CFCs emissions contributed to the hole in the ozone layer, and their phasing out will allow the ozone layer to recover by the middle of the century. Now, the Parties are using it to combat HFC emissions.

From November 1-5, 2015, the Parties to the Vienna Convention debated whether to address HFCs through an amendment to the convention or to try and combat the problem through the UNFCCC. The Parties ultimately agreed to a “Dubai Pathway” for negotiations on an amendment to phase out HFC emissions. “After seven years of efforts, we have at last agreed to amend the Montreal Protocol next year to phase down HFCs,” Jeem Lippwe, a negotiator for Micronesia, told reporters on the conclusion of the talks. This Pathway helped the Parties agree to an amendment, which was adopted at the Conference of the Parties to the Vienna Convention this year.

On October 14, the nearly 200 Parties to the Vienna Convention agreed to the Kigali Amendment. This Amendment outlines a plan in which developed countries, including the US and the EU, will start phasing out HFC emissions by 2019. A group of developing countries including China, Brazil, and most of Africa will follow with a freeze of HFCs consumption levels in 2024. All Parties will significantly reduce consumption of HFCs by the late 2040s. The Parties also agreed to provide financing for HFCs reduction, with an exact amount to be determined at their next meeting in 2017. The ambitious Kigali Amendment sends a clear statement by world leaders that the transformation started in Paris is irreversible and unstoppable.


US-China relations post-COP19

Today’s HuffPost features an article on EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy’s view that China is poised for beijing air qualitya green revolution.  McCarthy sees internal pressures by the rising Chinese middle class on its political leaders to do more on environmental regulation and climate change.  She cited to the now famous example of the U.S. embassy’s air quality monitoring that led to a diplomatic brouhaha – and greater transparency from the Beijing municipal authorities.  Recent school closures and public health threat warnings due to industrial smog recall the Donora, PA killer smog that spurred the fight for the Clean Air Act.  McCarthy made these remarks on the eve of a trip to China to seek ways to work with the Chinese government on environmental regulation.

Venezuela working with the U.S.

Venezuela working with the U.S.

Post COP19/CMP9, as I think about the question most often asked of me – what was accomplished at this negotiation? – I’m struck by the interplay between multilateral and bilateral treaties in making international environmental law.  There is a long tradition of bilateral (think US-Canada Great Lakes Compact and governing Commission) and regional multilateral (think of the Rhine River treaty and its governance structure) environmental treaties that have provided very effective legal and environmental management of common natural resources.  The challenge in addressing climate change is trying to regulate a natural resource – the atmosphere – shared by every country in the world, which is being degraded in a variety of ways through multiple means of pollution.  One legal solution is the UNFCCC, which seeks an all-in approach, and the annual COPs that refine the complex inner workings of this legal compact. Post COP15 in Copenhagen, there have been repeated calls for scrapping the UNFCCC and focusing instead on getting the top 25 emitting countries who contribute some 75% of GHGs to the atmosphere to negotiate a new treaty amongst themselves.

EU working with India.

EU working with India.

But this HP article reminds me of the importance  and potential for bilateral and regional multilateral treaties to add to, not supplant, the work of the Framework Convention.   McCarthy signals the US-China work to come (and we shouldn’t lose sight of the achievements of this past summer) – all of which builds on and adds to the working relationships that are the backbone to broader UNFCCC progress toward a binding legal agreement for all 195 countries in 2020.