Negative Emission Technologies Won’t Save Us (yet)

And why we must proceed with caution.

Direct air capture technology. Credit: Carbon Engineering

So, if cutting emissions isn’t enough, what can we do?

The answer being suggested, like so often, is technology. In short, we need to remove carbon that has already been emitted on top of continuing to pursue aggressive mitigation actions. Negative emissions technologies (NETs), in theory, allow us to undo some of the damage we have already done.

Source: World Resources Institute

Moral Hazard

NETs run the risk of being presented as a silver bullet — an all-encompassing miracle technology that eliminates all of our carbon sins after we have committed them. If people buy this message that all emissions can simply be retrieved, individuals and decision-makers may stop pursuing actions that lead to aggressive emission reductions.

Misperceptions of the promise of carbon removal technologies can be leveraged as justifications for delaying actions and falling behind emission reduction schedules.

Modelling scenarios accounting for carbon retrieval technologies shows that emissions can remain as high as 32 gigatons in 2030 compared with 23 in the scenario without them. The 9 gigaton difference is equivalent to China’s annual emissions. If delays occur because we’re banking on NETs, and then they don’t work at the required scale, we end up with emissions far higher than without them entirely.

“I’m standing in front of a burning house, and I’m offering you fire insurance on it.”

Except in our scenario the house is in a wildfire, and the insurance might not pay out.

Thoughts on the environment, psychology and the future

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