As far as international climate politics go, it has been five minutes to midnight for about 20 years now. Even though global emissions of greenhouse gasses have continuously risen since the first United Nations climate summit, the core message has remained the same: Time is running out, but we can still manage things if we act immediately.
This might still be understandable as a political message. European advocates of stiff measures against climate change do not want to admit their enduring inability to get things moving, or to lend support to the fatalism that still threatens. But in a political field so strongly marked by science, it is surprising that – to stay with the same image – the hands of the clock have not moved further ahead.
How is that possible? The fact is that a few years ago, climate research established an emissions budget with which it is possible to determine with some precision how much more greenhouse gasses humanity can emit and still keep global warming at 2 degrees Celsius.
The negative-emissions concept is largely unknown to the general public, and many politicians concerned about the climate are somewhat clueless too.
The answer is astoundingly simple: through an debt mechanism, which would allow the remaining budget for fossil-fuel emissions could initially be exceeded by about 60 percent. The carbon dioxide debts would have to be paid back in the second half of the century in the form of “negative emissions.”
The term, which refers to taking CO2 out of the atmosphere permanently, is considered the direct opposite of CO2 emissions. The negative-emissions concept is largely unknown to the general public, and many politicians concerned about the climate are somewhat clueless too.
Admittedly, “negative emissions” sound like science fiction, but they are a fundamental element in the most recent report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The assertion that it doesn’t cost an impossible amount to save the planet is based on the utilization of complex technologies with which CO2 could be taken out of the atmosphere. The IPCC advocates the cultivation of quickly growing biomasses that extract CO2 from the atmosphere, the burning of the organic matter at power plants, and the separation and storage of the C02 that is thereby collected.
This technology, however, has scarcely been tested up to now. To attain the negative emissions that have been factored into today’s climate-economic models, it would be necessary to cultivate 500 million hectares of biomass – a surface one-and-a-half times as large as India. And the necessary capacities for transporting and storing the CO2 thereby withdrawn from the atmosphere would be enormous.
There are good reasons for considering this vision to be unrealistic. But the voluntary contributions to climate protection submitted by more than 160 countries before the Paris summit will result in the global 2-degree emissions budget being largely exhausted before 2040, according to the United Nations Climate Secretariat. Everything that we emit after that would have to be compensated for by negative emissions.
Climate researchers are aware of the problems, but up to now they have communicated them only with great caution. But this doesn’t promote climate protection.
European climate policy and the non-governmental organizations that up to now have always supported the IPCC consensus will ultimately have to make a decision. Either we must invest massively in research and development regarding technologies for withdrawing CO2 from the earth’s atmosphere, or we have to start making serious preparations for global warming of more than 2 degrees.
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