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| 04/18/18

How realistic is a rapid, healthy, high-tech transition compared to negative emissions to help us reach our Paris targets?


Widespread uptake of options including lab meat to GMO crops to bike-loving lifestyles could keep us within even the toughest climate target, say researchers, without having to depend on a negative emissions option that could threaten food production.

Most scenarios that allow the planet to avoid dangerous climate change assume massive uptake of an unproven “negative emissions” technique that researchers have warned could threaten global food production.

To avoid using bioenergy and carbon capture and storage (BECCS), what if we got a lot faster at rolling out clean energy: all-electric vehicles by 2030, production of meat in labs, GMOs boosted crop yields, and everyone biked much more?

Modelling analysis published in Nature Climate Change last week by researchers from the prestigious Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research found that such a suite of options could work.

Up to now, policymakers have typically assumed that it will be incredibly difficult to reduce the world’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions on the sort of rapid schedule required to keep within the internationally agreed guardrail of 2C of global warming above pre-industrial times—and almost impossible for the aspirational goal of keeping within 1.5C of warming.

Most scenarios that keep the temperature down assume widespread adoption of BECCS. This yet-to-be-deployed technique involves the drawdown of atmospheric CO2 by plants that are largely converted into biofuel. When combusted, the emissions are not released back into the atmosphere, but instead captured and stored underground or under the seabed.

In other words, BECCS would act as a carbon sink, much like the world’s oceans. But at the scales required, an amount of land the size of the continent of Australia would be needed, thus potentially competing with food production. So, the Potsdam researchers wanted to assess how to reduce BECCS if other decarbonizing scenarios were adopted.

They considered six: ascetic lifestyle changes, a rapid electrification of the economy and stricter energy efficiency including greater recycling of steel. Other scenarios include a focus on non-CO2 GHG emissions like methane, encouraging “sustainable intensification” and controlling the world’s population.

The scenarios reduced the amount of BECCS needed by varying degrees, but when taken together, they all but eliminated the need for BECCS.

Some of the options in the different scenarios could be achieved with some political heavy lifting, and others with a few policy tweaks. But a number of them may be no easier than implementing BECCS.

The renewable electrification option includes a leading role for solar and wind, which are clean but intermittent. To achieve this, the scenario assumes that the intermittency problem is somehow solved—a problem that has yet to be overcome despite decades of work and investment.

The healthy lifestyle option, particularly eating less meat and adopting more active modes of transport such as cycling, is already being embraced by some. But for many others such an approach might seem hair-shirted, and the authors themselves concede that it would take a radical shift in values for it to be adopted globally.

Lab meat may one day be an innovation success story, but consumers will have to be won over on taste to make it more than a niche product, and so far the flavour is close but not quite there. And boosting yields via GMOs already faces considerable social licence barriers.

None of this is to suggest that any one of these options is impossible. But the analysis does remind us that to avoid incredibly challenging scenarios such as BECCS, the alternatives are likely no less incredibly challenging.

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