Net Zero Carbon Emissions—A Trap?

You’ve got to read this article:

• James Dyke, Robert Watson and Wolfgang Knorr, Climate scientists: concept of net zero is a dangerous trap, The Conversation, 22 April 2021.

By “net zero” they mean the idea that by cutting carbon emissions and introducing technologies that suck carbon dioxide from the air, we can reach net zero carbon emissions by around 2050 and stay below 1.5° warming.

This idea is built into the Paris Agreement. They’re saying this idea, especially the 2050 deadline, is mainly a way to keep business as usual going for a few more decades, to get politicians would sign the Paris Agreement. And they’re saying it won’t really work, since we have no plausible scheme to suck enough carbon dioxide from the air.

I wrote earlier about how we could suck a lot of CO2 from the air:

Can we fix the air?

The heavy lifting in these schemes is done with plants. Planting trees helps, and improving agriculture helps, but the National Academy of Sciences thinks creating biofuels and then capturing the CO2 they emit when burned could be even bigger. The acronym-loving experts call this BECCS: bioenergy with carbon capture and storage.

Right now, people involved in the Paris Agreement tend to think our only hope is an “overshoot scenario” where we put shitloads of carbon dioxide into the air before 2050 and then suck it up later. The authors of the article I want you to read say this is folly.

Who are these folks, anyway? James Dyke is a senior lecturer in Global Systems at the University of Exeter. Robert Watson is a professor emeritus in Environmental Sciences at the University of East Anglia. And Wolfgang Knorr is a senior research scientist in Physical Geography and Ecosystem Science at Lund University.

Since you may not read the link, even though the fate of civilization hangs in the balance, let me quote a chunk of what they say.

If we had acted on Hansen’s testimony [in 1988], we would have been able to decarbonise our societies at a rate of around 2% a year in order to give us about a two-in-three chance of limiting warming to no more than 1.5°C. It would have been a huge challenge, but the main task at that time would have been to simply stop the accelerating use of fossil fuels while fairly sharing out future emissions.

Four years later, there were glimmers of hope that this would be possible. During the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio, all nations agreed to stabilise concentrations of greenhouse gases to ensure that they did not produce dangerous interference with the climate. The 1997 Kyoto Summit attempted to start to put that goal into practice. But as the years passed, the initial task of keeping us safe became increasingly harder given the continual increase in fossil fuel use.

It was around that time that the first computer models linking greenhouse gas emissions to impacts on different sectors of the economy were developed. These hybrid climate-economic models are known as Integrated Assessment Models. They allowed modellers to link economic activity to the climate by, for example, exploring how changes in investments and technology could lead to changes in greenhouse gas emissions.

They seemed like a miracle: you could try out policies on a computer screen before implementing them, saving humanity costly experimentation. They rapidly emerged to become key guidance for climate policy. A primacy they maintain to this day.

Unfortunately, they also removed the need for deep critical thinking. Such models represent society as a web of idealised, emotionless buyers and sellers and thus ignore complex social and political realities, or even the impacts of climate change itself. Their implicit promise is that market-based approaches will always work. This meant that discussions about policies were limited to those most convenient to politicians: incremental changes to legislation and taxes.

I’m not sure how much the problem is one of modeling. It could be that if enough powerful people want to keep on with business as usual going, it’ll happen no matter what. But we could argue that the modelers are complicit if they don’t speak out. And indeed that’s one of the main points of this article!

Anyway, continuing:

Around the time they were first developed, efforts were being made to secure US action on the climate by allowing it to count carbon sinks of the country’s forests. The US argued that if it managed its forests well, it would be able to store a large amount of carbon in trees and soil which should be subtracted from its obligations to limit the burning of coal, oil and gas. In the end, the US largely got its way. Ironically, the concessions were all in vain, since the US senate never ratified the agreement.

Postulating a future with more trees could in effect offset the burning of coal, oil and gas now. As models could easily churn out numbers that saw atmospheric carbon dioxide go as low as one wanted, ever more sophisticated scenarios could be explored which reduced the perceived urgency to reduce fossil fuel use. By including carbon sinks in climate-economic models, a Pandora’s box had been opened.

It’s here we find the genesis of today’s net zero policies.

That said, most attention in the mid-1990s was focused on increasing energy efficiency and energy switching (such as the UK’s move from coal to gas) and the potential of nuclear energy to deliver large amounts of carbon-free electricity. The hope was that such innovations would quickly reverse increases in fossil fuel emissions.

But by around the turn of the new millennium it was clear that such hopes were unfounded. Given their core assumption of incremental change, it was becoming more and more difficult for economic-climate models to find viable pathways to avoid dangerous climate change. In response, the models began to include more and more examples of carbon capture and storage, a technology that could remove the carbon dioxide from coal-fired power stations and then store the captured carbon deep underground indefinitely.

This had been shown to be possible in principle: compressed carbon dioxide had been separated from fossil gas and then injected underground in a number of projects since the 1970s. These Enhanced Oil Recovery schemes were designed to force gases into oil wells in order to push oil towards drilling rigs and so allow more to be recovered—oil that would later be burnt, releasing even more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Carbon capture and storage offered the twist that instead of using the carbon dioxide to extract more oil, the gas would instead be left underground and removed from the atmosphere. This promised breakthrough technology would allow climate friendly coal and so the continued use of this fossil fuel. But long before the world would witness any such schemes, the hypothetical process had been included in climate-economic models. In the end, the mere prospect of carbon capture and storage gave policy makers a way out of making the much needed cuts to greenhouse gas emissions.

When the international climate change community convened in Copenhagen in 2009 it was clear that carbon capture and storage was not going to be sufficient for two reasons.

First, it still did not exist. There were no carbon capture and storage facilities in operation on any coal fired power station and no prospect the technology was going to have any impact on rising emissions from increased coal use in the foreseeable future.

The biggest barrier to implementation was essentially cost. The motivation to burn vast amounts of coal is to generate relatively cheap electricity. Retrofitting carbon scrubbers on existing power stations, building the infrastructure to pipe captured carbon, and developing suitable geological storage sites required huge sums of money. Consequently the only application of carbon capture in actual operation then—and now—is to use the trapped gas in enhanced oil recovery schemes. Beyond a single demonstrator, there has never been any capture of carbon dioxide from a coal fired power station chimney with that captured carbon then being stored underground.

Just as important, by 2009 it was becoming increasingly clear that it would not be possible to make even the gradual reductions that policy makers demanded. That was the case even if carbon capture and storage was up and running. The amount of carbon dioxide that was being pumped into the air each year meant humanity was rapidly running out of time.

So then people turned to another method—in theory, that is, not practice. This was BECCS: bioenergy with carbon capture and storage.

With hopes for a solution to the climate crisis fading again, another magic bullet was required. A technology was needed not only to slow down the increasing concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, but actually reverse it. In response, the climate-economic modelling community – already able to include plant-based carbon sinks and geological carbon storage in their models – increasingly adopted the “solution” of combining the two.

So it was that Bioenergy Carbon Capture and Storage, or BECCS, rapidly emerged as the new saviour technology. By burning “replaceable” biomass such as wood, crops, and agricultural waste instead of coal in power stations, and then capturing the carbon dioxide from the power station chimney and storing it underground, BECCS could produce electricity at the same time as removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. That’s because as biomass such as trees grow, they suck in carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. By planting trees and other bioenergy crops and storing carbon dioxide released when they are burnt, more carbon could be removed from the atmosphere.

With this new solution in hand the international community regrouped from repeated failures to mount another attempt at reining in our dangerous interference with the climate. The scene was set for the crucial 2015 climate conference in Paris.

As its general secretary brought the 21st United Nations conference on climate change to an end, a great roar issued from the crowd. People leaped to their feet, strangers embraced, tears welled up in eyes bloodshot from lack of sleep.

The emotions on display on December 13, 2015 were not just for the cameras. After weeks of gruelling high-level negotiations in Paris a breakthrough had finally been achieved. Against all expectations, after decades of false starts and failures, the international community had finally agreed to do what it took to limit global warming to well below 2°C, preferably to 1.5°C, compared to pre-industrial levels.

The Paris Agreement was a stunning victory for those most at risk from climate change. Rich industrialised nations will be increasingly impacted as global temperatures rise. But it’s the low lying island states such as the Maldives and the Marshall Islands that are at imminent existential risk. As a later UN special report made clear, if the Paris Agreement was unable to limit global warming to 1.5°C, the number of lives lost to more intense storms, fires, heatwaves, famines and floods would significantly increase.

But dig a little deeper and you could find another emotion lurking within delegates on December 13. Doubt. We struggle to name any climate scientist who at that time thought the Paris Agreement was feasible. We have since been told by some scientists that the Paris Agreement was “of course important for climate justice but unworkable” and “a complete shock, no one thought limiting to 1.5°C was possible”. Rather than being able to limit warming to 1.5°C, a senior academic involved in the IPCC concluded we were heading beyond 3°C by the end of this century.

Instead of confront our doubts, we scientists decided to construct ever more elaborate fantasy worlds in which we would be safe. The price to pay for our cowardice: having to keep our mouths shut about the ever growing absurdity of the required planetary-scale carbon dioxide removal.

The article goes on, but you get the point if you’ve read this far. Even the so-called experts on climate change are complicit in painting a rosy scenario about what will happen if we do what the Paris Agreement asks.

I’m interested to see if any climate scientists step up to argue against this article—or, for that matter, agree with it.

39 Responses to Net Zero Carbon Emissions—A Trap?

  1. The answer is the same as it’s been for a long time, and that’s quickly transitioning to technologies that produce electricity from things that don’t produce carbon dioxide emissions – the best bet being nuclear power; putting an end to commercial aviation for the most part, same case for over-the-road trucking and commuter travel by auto, and moving that over to electric-powered trains powered by nuclear generated electricity. Mechanized industrial agriculture is another thing to be looked at, perhaps smaller farms using non-petrochemical fertilizers and so forth might serve better, local dairies and market farms producing food on a local basis, so that food doesn’t travel more than a few miles. The concept of in- and out-of-season would come back as well.

    And then there’s population, and population increase will cause trouble – – but perhaps the mass vaccination campaign will take care of that, if the SARS-CoV-2 vaccines have the same outcome as the SARS-CoV-1 vaccines did. But population growth has to be stopped, that’s the big driver for all of this.

    • Wolfgang says:

      While the things you propose are mostly logical, they will never happen. Putting an end to commercial aviation? Never. People will rather tolerate the loss/relocation of coastal towns. And while nuclear power appears CO2 neutral, it isn’t. All the surrounding construction work is energy intensive, and then there is also not enough uranium around to be a real long-lasting solution. I agree on population control. That really is a major point which is not even discussed. Also there is really big potential in just energy saving. If fusion reactors turn out to work, and energy becomes less of a bottleneck, it might be feasible to remove CO2 actively and in large amounts from the atmosphere. Other than that I think genetically modified microorganisms could do the job on a global scale. Or some lucky chemist, who finds out a way to use CO2 from the air for large scale synthesis of organic chemicals currently taken from oil and its products. Overall, I am rather pessimistic though. I think mankind will learn to live with the problem rather than solve it. At least for any time soon.

      • Giampiero Campa says:

        “Putting an end to commercial aviation? Never.”

        Right. In other words, while I think we can be optimistic about de-carbonizing the grid, and electrifying a large part of land-based transport and buildings (these are all things that seem set to happen, at least eventually, and will probably even save money in the long run), the problem (as i see it) is that we might not be able to find technologies to achieve zero emission in some sectors like shipping, air travel, construction or agriculture at a bearable cost. Even shifting to plant-based meat.

        What that means is that in some way negative emissions have to be part of the plan, if we want to stabilize the CO2 in the atmosphere, let alone reduce it. That probably means trees and plants rather than active carbon capture from the air. To what extent i don’t know, but it does make the messaging harder.

        • There are already electric planes.

        • Giampiero Campa says:

          Absolutely there are electric planes! Many companies are successfully producing them already and more are coming down the road.

          In general they just trade off range for carrying the batteries. Which is actually OK as many flight are not long range.

          But then again some flights are long range and carry many passengers. Batteries just won’t work in those cases. You can certainly thinking about creating lightweight fuels from clean electricity and carbon extracted from the air, but then when you consider the economics of it you have to wonder if it’s just better to capture that amount of carbon from the atmosphere and store it.

        • John Baez says:

          Electric planes will work for some purposes, but we can also say: if you suck some carbon from the air (e.g. using plants), and convert it into fuels (e.g. using plants, which can make various kinds of oil), then you’re allowed to burn that fuel in airplanes and return that carbon to the air.

          Of course the “you” here is not one person or firm, but the overall system: we could allow the use of biofuels for certain purposes that we’re unable to electrify (yet).

    • Forget nuclear power. While it might help to some extent with carbon-dioxide emissions, it has other problems, such as long-term safe storage. Not worrying about that because it is a problem far in the future is about the same as not worrying about AGW if one will be dead before having to suffer from it.

      Also, while some opposition to nuclear power is misguided, most of it is not. Even if all of it were, getting those people on board would help more than it hurts.

      • John Baez says:

        The problem of safely storing nuclear waste is utterly microscopic compared to the problem of safely storing the pollution from coal. Nuclear power has already saved about 1.8 million lives. And did you know how many people died in the Fukushima disaster? About 20,000 died from the tsunami itself. About 1800 died from side-effects of the evacuation. Estimates of how many will die from the slightly increased amount of radiation range from 0 (the World Health Organization) to hundreds. The number of people who are actually known to have died from radiation released at Fukushima: 1. For a disaster that killed 20,000 people in other ways, I think this is pretty damned good: thousands of lives would have been saved if the evacuation hadn’t been so overdramatic.

        Even so, newer, safer fission reactors are under development. The big problem with nuclear power is that many people who care about environmental problems have become scared of it, thanks to misguided propaganda. Thus, few of the people who should support nuclear power actually support it. Realistically, the only places where nuclear power can be developed fast enough to do much good are places that haven’t been blitzed by that propaganda.

        • I don’t dispute the numbers, but the potential danger is much larger, for example terrorist targeting nuclear power plants. And for such a microscopic problem, there is still no long-term storage solution for nuclear waste.

        • John Baez says:

          It’s been estimated that coal caused 8.7 million deaths in 2018, so even if this is off by a factor of 8, I’d need to see terrorist attacks causing a millions deaths a year by taking advantage of nuclear power plants before I’d concede that the danger of nuclear power is greater.

          As for storage of nuclear waste, we know what to do: put the stuff in a carefully constructed sealed container, put that in a carefully constructed sealed container, put that in a carefully constructed sealed container, put that in a deep mine shaft in a geologically stable location, guard it, and visit it periodically to check on it. After a few thousand years we may either have died out or have developed our technology to the point where the radioactive material is considered a useful resource.

          Here’s how we store the waste from coal: we spread it throughout the atmosphere in the form of fine particles, and let people breathe them and get lung disease. That’s a big part of why coal kills millions of people each year!

          A terrorist could take over a power plant and threaten to burn coal in it, spewing out pollutants that would kill thousands of people. And our response would be “Haha, don’t bother—that’s just what we already do.”

        • nad says:

          @Philipp Helbig

          It seems John had already forgotten that the living space of about 30 million people was at stake when there was the Fukushima nuclear power plant accident. Back then (yes directly after the accident!) he also doubted the severeness of Chernobyl.

          Likewise in his above comment he doesn’t seem to be aware of Chernobyl wild fires and their consequences and that they are ravaging until now. Fukushima water pollution is also still happening. I don’t have the time to comment much further on this in contrast to John as it seems.

        • John Baez says:

          Anyone interested in whether I “doubted the severeness of Chernobyl” should read the conversation linked to: Nad suggested there were about a million deaths due to Chernobyl, and I pointed out that more realistic estimates are much less. But Chernobyl is certainly a great example of how not to design or manage a nuclear power plant.

        • nad says:

          Yes please read the conversation. The approx. 1 million deaths number I mentioned there comes from the 2007 publication of the New York Academy of Sciences: Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment.
          From Wikipedia:

          The book presents an analysis of scientific literature and concludes that medical records between 1986, the year of the Chernobyl disaster, and 2004 reflect 985,000 premature deaths as a result of the radioactivity released. The literature analysis draws on over 1,000 published titles and over 5,000 internet and printed publications, primarily in Slavic languages (i.e. not translated in English), discussing the consequences of the Chernobyl disaster.

          “primarily in Slavic languages” actually suggests that one should check, how many premature deaths in “western” countries like Germany had been included in this count.

          I don’t know if you are aware of the fact that WHO and International Atomic Energy agency (IAEA) are not working independently of each other. So much to your “realistic” estimates.

          But Chernobyl is certainly a great example of how not to design or manage a nuclear power plant.

          No technological solution will be 100 % safe. But in contrast to fatalities to e.g. coal a nuclear disaster may make regions uninhabitable for centuries.

          Nuclear power should not be largely installed within our given world-economic system, especially not given that there still may be other options to solve the energy problems.

        • John Baez says:

          People should read the whole Wikipedia article that Nad links to, concerning that 2007 publication of the New York Academy of Sciences.

        • nad says:

          Oh yes please read. And also the WHO publication: “Health Effects of the Chernobyl Accident and Special Health Care Programmes” (2006)
          I cite from the WHO publication p.3:

          A majority of the studies completed to date on the health effects of the Chernobyl accident have been of the geographical correlation type (also called ecological studies), which compares average population exposure with the average rate of health effects or cancer incidence in time periods before and after the accident. As long as individual dosimetry is not performed, no reliable quantitative estimates of impact on health can be made. The reconstruction of individual doses is a key element in future research on health effects related to the Chernobyl accident.

          So do I get this right? I understand the above as that “ecological methods” like Mortality Displacement are considered to be an “quantitative estimate” that is “not reliable”?

          I am very indebted to the Chernobyl Liquidators and all those who helped to prevent further damages and I think talking away possible damages due to nuclear power is not only dangerous for future generations but is also deeply wrong in respect of all efforts that had been made to prevent the worse.

        • fredkintanar says:

          I think the problem with nuclear is the slow pace of roll out. China aggressively supports it, but it will only play a small role until 2050, and certainly won’t be able to replace the coal plants that need replacing (before their end of useful life) in the next decade or two. Given the demonstrated engineering capacity of China in rolling out high-speed rail, I don’t think any other country will come close to their pace with nuclear.
          The international community has to find a way to stop burning fossil fuels within a decade or two, and start addressing other sources of greenhouse gas emissions like cement, steel and agriculture. Nuclear (including small modular reactors), and negative emission technologies may scale up to be useful in the 2070s timeframe, but the world has to solve the emissions problem before that. I’m not even sure if green hydrogen or liquid air grid-scale energy storage can scale up in time to prevent tipping points like thawing permafrost (and methane release) and melting glaciers that will take centuries or millenia to come back. And the technologies for green hydrogen and liquid air storage are mature, with ongoing production capacity in many countries for other industrial use cases.
          I understand that peak coal was 2013, but peak oil and peak gas are still far away. An in fact, many new coal plants are in the production pipeline, and also natural gas plants. I wish the world would put in the carbon pricing to make those projects uneconomic, but it would probably have to come up with a massive energy investment fund to plug the gaps in energy supply that those plants were intended to fill. It would be nice if the investment fund could propose a counter-investment to every planned fossil fuel plant, and build something on the planned sites to ensure that they never get built.

  2. Simon Burton says:

    ” It could be that if enough powerful people want to keep on with business as usual going, it’ll happen no matter what. ”

    I don’t subscribe to this thinking. It looks to me like no-one is in charge. Or rather, everyone is in charge. Every person is now King Louis XVI.

    The global political-economic structure is a worldwide message passing algorithm, similar to belief propagation ( This class of algorithms are powerful and robust, but tend to fail (or get stuck) in the presence of loops. One manifestation of this is corruption of political and economic systems. Other manifestations include asset bubbles, and herding behaviour in general.

    • John Baez says:

      It looks to me like no-one is in charge. Or rather, everyone is in charge. Every person is now King Louis XVI.

      When nations were signing treaties at Kyoto, Rio, and Paris—which is what I was talking about in the remark you quote—many of them only felt able to commit to actions that “the business community” would accept. For example, this is why they couldn’t agree on a carbon tax. Now, you could argue that “everyone” is against a carbon tax, but I don’t think that’s right. I think some big companies have a lot to lose from a carbon tax, even though a lot of poor people would benefit from it.

      I don’t think these poor people can say, with King Louis XVI, “L’état, c’est moi”.

  3. davidwlocke says:

    Earth is a spaceship. We were warned long ago. We watch Star Wars and never ask ourselves, how much do these people pay for air? Or, with these carbon-capture schemes, who pays for them. And, who do we pay? Who will rule our lives once we pay?

    Climate change was known to the oil industry for a long time. They paid for debates. They paid for the research, aka the search for another continuous income stream. So at last, they found one.

    Now, they pay us to buy gasoline at costs while prices should be falling. They could charge $5 a gallon while subsidizing the buyers with a $4 kickback. All of this, just another continuous income stream.

    Drilling the moon showed us that they didn’t want to do that for scientific purposes. They are drillers, so they drill.

    Somehow the impossibility of perpetual motion schemes reminds us that all systems face the constant insistent reality of friction. And, once economics supplants human considerations with dollar considerations, all is lost.

  4. John Beattie says:

    The linked article says, among other things, that carbon sequestration is an economic non-starter. I am actually quite glad of that: if we could sequester carbon, there would be far too great a chance of over-shooting and depleting the proportion of atmospheric CO_2 too far.

    This is a side remark. On the substantive point, I agree with all four remarks above.

  5. Ishi Crew says:

    I see many papers these days (i just look at title, abstract, etc.— not the details) which propose all kinds of BECCS–many of which are peer reviewed and about well funded research.
    I think some of these are ‘possible’ but are neither the ‘entire’ nor ‘desirable’ solution.

    this is just an anecdote or ‘case study’. its about why BECCS even if possible may be ‘undesirable’ for some.

    Since I am unemployed an old family friend was suggesting that I get a drivers license and help him run his family taxi/tourist business. .

    He lives in an ‘exurb’ and so has to drive 80 miles round trip just to get to his clients—many of whom have flown from 1000s of miles away to ‘see the tourist sites’.

    The idea is you can understand the USA and democracy in a 2-3 day visit. Most of the business is more driving around downtown—see some museums, government buildings, etc. Then you drive 40 miles home.
    Some of the tourists also visit their children who are under/graduate students in local universities.

    I wouldn’t call him a ‘powerful person’—do powerful people work and maintain tourist vans and taxis?
    He also supports widening the highway that he drives on from 8 to 10 lanes. (And he’d like another one which is a long time political dispute–it would go through a national park but he says it would make his commute easier. )

    I think he also considers himself an environmentalist and is a vegetarian and ‘meditates ‘ maybe for an hour 2 times a day before and after work.

    (He is also ‘anti-science’ –he’s a ‘spiritual person’ and says sceintists are trying to take over the world–though is also into wide screen tv’s, and totally connected to the internet for his business etc.
    his spiritiual teacher claimed in books to have solved all the problems of physics that confused scientists,)

    i got into a few issues when i was a guest at his house for reading science papers–i was told these were unnecessary and distracting.

    i also refused the job offer. i’d rather read papers and be outside than drive 100 miles every day. )

    He lives in a sort of ‘semi-rural enclave’ though its gradually turning into something like suburban LA which he dislikes—-more highways, new suburbs and maybe floods, hurricanes, and fires, and also now quite a bit of crime..

    many people want to live in a ‘stress free rural enclave’. even places in appalachia are turning into surburban ‘rural enclaves’ i used to live for a while in a few of those areas. i dint have a car , phone, or internet either–phone was 3 miles away, internet was 10 miles away so if wanted to use those i’d get a hike and bike ride. .

    it was possible to get a phone line to where i was but i never took the opportunity. i didnt realy want any phone calls nor trucks driving in there. .vehicles could stay a couple miles away. i didnt want the noise.

  6. mitchellporter says:

    Perhaps a more interesting thing to read is the start of the IPCC’s chapter on economic impacts, which has just been called to my attention.

    Click to access WGIIAR5-Chap10_FINAL.pdf

    specifically where it asserts most costs of climate change are small.

    Thanks to Covid, we all now have intimate experience of the enormous side effects that come with a society-wide emergency response.

    Such measures have been countenanced with respect to climate change too, because the alternative is supposed to be disaster. The “critics of net zero” who are quoted in this post are among such advocates.

    So why is the disaster invisible to the IPCC’s economists?

    • John Baez says:

      Small until when? What time frame are they discussing, and what’s the assumed amount of global warming? (I could look it up, but since you raised this issue you probably know already.)

      Recall this quote from the article I’m discussing:

      But dig a little deeper and you could find another emotion lurking within delegates on December 13. Doubt. We struggle to name any climate scientist who at that time thought the Paris Agreement was feasible. We have since been told by some scientists that the Paris Agreement was “of course important for climate justice but unworkable” and “a complete shock, no one thought limiting to 1.5°C was possible”. Rather than being able to limit warming to 1.5°C, a senior academic involved in the IPCC concluded we were heading beyond 3°C by the end of this century.

      • mitchellporter says:

        The executive summary says nothing concrete about timescales. Perhaps the most salient remark is “Estimates vary strongly with the assumed damage function and discount rate”.

        I’ve never looked at the economic section of the IPCC report, only the physics. The economic section is surprisingly anodyne. Presumably it reflects a debate about whether the projected changes are livable or catastrophic.

    • John Baez says:

      Without knowing anything about the assumptions that go into these estimates (guesses), it’s hard to say much about them. I looked further at the report you’re talking about, and I see that instead of trying to do an independent analysis they are reviewing lots of results from the literature, which of course will be based on different assumptions.

      For example, I was interested in the economic effects of the North American megadrought, and I all I saw was this:

      Water resource-related climate change impacts on the U.S. economy measured as cumulative undiscounted welfare changes over the 21st century range from plus US$3 trillion for wet scenarios to minus US$13 trillion under dry scenarios (in US$2000; Henderson et al., 2013).

      So I’d have to read the paper by Henderson et al to see how they got their (frankly not very useful) estimate. The most interesting thing would be to see if Henderson et al knew about the North American megadrought.

  7. ecoquant says:

    Thanks for posting this, John. Very important. But I think people are misestimating where this is really heading.

    I’ve moved sharply away from focussing upon the geophysical and oceanographic literature in the last two years, including that on climate, and moved (1) towards monitoring how the as yet limited energy transformation away from fossil fuels is going, and (2) paid close attention to the signals and research in biology relating to climate ecology and phenology, particularly of strong signals from migration of plants.

    On the latter, the signals of change are strong, and there’s continuing emphasis upon how nonlinear changes in ecosystems can be when interdependent species don’t adapt at the same rates. Part of the ripple of extinctions we are seeing are due to direct human effects, but there are many more because taxa which birth and grow young and expect food to be there at a certain time have found their food has anticipated warming and already moved north before their young are ready. There is also interesting work just beginning trying to estimate what an equilibrium biosphere at +4C (global mean, much warmer on land) might look like.

    On the former, it is heartening because there are no direct technological or financial obstacles to achieving such a transformation, and, when the playing field is fair, zero Carbon energy is the obvious choice. And little known to most, the engineering to make this a consistent, steady supply of energy is already known. But, also on the former, it is incredibly disheartening because, even though people claim they want zero Carbon energy, in fact, when it comes to implementation, they do not.

    And I do not include primarily anti-Green New Deal Republicans here. I primarily include people who “get” or say they “get” climate disruption, and environmentalists, and progressives. People say they want zero Carbon energy, but they do not want land based wind turbines. They want offshore wind, with qualifications, but they don’t want new transmission lines. They don’t want new hydropower and when they do they don’t want transmission lines. They want solar but they don’t want to cut down private forests to site utility scale projects, and they don’t want to convert agricultural fields or golf courses to the use. They don’t want large battery storage installations.

    People argue “Put it on the rooftops and parking lots first” but that requires either strong incentives for doing it or government mandates and dictates. There already are strong financial incentives for PV on rooftops, parking lots, ground mounts, including the rejuvenated 26% federal ITC. People don’t see it or don’t respond to it. They oppose ground mounts “because it changes the character of the neighborhood” even when these are being sited on private property. And mandates? Really? People will accept government directing them to put PV on roofs and parking lots?

    Moreover such non-utility scale projects are more costly per kWh generated, are more difficult and expensive to integrate into the grid, and can’t be permitted and built fast enough to support growing EV demand and eventually air source heat pumps.

    And environmentalists don’t see the contradictions. Compared to solar, land based wind impacts upon forests are tiny because they need less land, putting their generation up in the sky. Y’might need a wider access road to build a wind farm, but once there, a thin access road is all that’s needed to maintain, and the trees near the bases can grow back because these are so tall. But people say they don’t want to look at them and accuse them of causing them heart attacks. (I’m serious. I heard that at a town meeting.)

    And nuclear is not only unpopular, while it is a stable and safe source, it is incredibly expensive, even the new Terrapower and Nuscale reactors. And it can’t be rolled out fast enough. Plus there are questions of interoperation with variable generation.

    Where we are going is we not only won’t stop warming at +1.5C global mean, but +2C is improbable, so we’re talking about +3 or more.

    So, what will happen? I hate it, but solar radiation management or “albedo hacking” seem like they are in our future. People haven’t thought about that enough. It is a horrible technology. I only mention it because compared with everything else, including energy transformation, it’s relatively cheap. But if anything is a deal with the Devil, that certainly is.

    You might think I exaggerate there, but (a) once begun, SRM can never be stopped, not even for a war or a world economic depression or a global pandemic, (b) we don’t really know how well or uniformly it works, or if it might not have untoward consequences, like ending monsoon rains, (c) it does zero for ocean acidification, and (d) it might destroy the ozone layer. But, yeah, it’s cheap.

    So, yeah, it’s late, but that’s been known for a long, long time. Yeah, trees can’t help enough, but that’s been known in the ecological literature since 2014. And, yeah, “net zero” is an accounting game where, as Professor Kevin Anderson likes to say, fat people are paying thin people to diet for them.

    • John Baez says:

      Here’s an article on how some environmentalists are slowing down solar and wind projects:

      • Patrick Whittle, Clean megaprojects divide surprise group: environmentalists, Washington Post, 3 May 2021.

      A quote:

      In Maine, a $1 billion hydropower electricity transmission corridor called the New England Clean Energy Connect would cut through sparsely populated western woods where moose reign as the state’s iconic creatures. Environmental groups disagree about whether the 145-mile (233 kilometer) corridor comes at too high a cost in loss of trees and wildlife habitat.

      A grassroots group, Say No to NECEC, calls the project an “unmitigated disaster” for Maine. But Conservation Law Foundation, a leading environmental group based in Boston, praised the fact that the project would reduce fossil fuel reliance in New England.

      “There are going to be hard choices that are going to need to be made as we try to address the climate crisis,” said Sean Mahoney, the foundation’s executive vice president and director of its Maine Advocacy Center.

      And there are many other examples.

      • Thanks for the article. I only read your extracts – I get the gist, though, I think: scientists are complicit in the greenwash that suits governments because it means business can go on more or less as usual. We have a fundamental problem here. Scientists do indeed need to speak out, but I’d suggest that changing the frame of reference would help. Talking about a climate emergency, for instance, is polarising: there are still people who don’t believe that we’re heading for the stick part of the hockey stick curve. Exponential growth isn’t something we understand easily and unless you’re getting sick, or you can see the smog, you don’t worry too much about air quality. (Fang Fang frequently mentions how shit the air quality is in Wuhan, by the way, which means lots of people were more likely to get sick with the virus, having compromised respiratory conditions to begin with, but that’s another story.) What people can see more easily than atmosphere is terrestrial fragmentation of systems – biodiversity loss, pollution, and so on. There’s a third element – the polarisation of attitudes – that I think needs to be included in the same metric. Let’s call all this “the ecological emergency” (Tim Morton’s phrase but he means something slightly different). And in considering this, consider how we respond to the emergence into our own awareness of the fragmentation of systems, internal and external, the integrity of which we require for our own survival. If we consider the ecological emergency, we avoid the kind of conflict you describe here: “Environmental groups disagree about whether the 145-mile (233 kilometer) corridor comes at too high a cost in loss of trees and wildlife habitat.”

        As to the nuclear question, there is the problem of attitude fragmentation again. How do we address this? As a non-dualist, I’d say we change nothing if we don’t change the self. The first thing, then, is to look at our own attitude: dialectical discussion is no longer useful. We need to realise, fast, that there’s no ‘us’ over here as the saints and ‘them’ over there as the sinners. We are all on the spectrum of cooperation and competition, exploitation and altruism. What if we changed the way we talk about this and really looked for common ground? What if we realise that this is the most important conversation we are ever going to have, this conversation about how each of us, individually, can contribute to the future of the species, and in particular to its capacity to curb its apocalyptic powers and work to generate a world view that sees us as a part of rather than apart from the rest of existence.

        I won’t go on. I’ve contributed to a book: Urgent Matters, philosophy as practice in the ecological emergency, which I would be very interested for you to read and comment on when it comes out in a couple of months. Thanks, as ever, for your work. All of you.

        • ecoquant says:


          What people can see more easily than atmosphere is terrestrial fragmentation of systems – biodiversity loss, pollution, and so on

          I know my thought is a bit heretical, but there is a perspective which suggests the fragmentation and biodiversity loss is simply an dynamic which is moving away from the ecological structures people have long known and quite possibly depend upon for ecological services. In fact, it’s not like Earth or its ecosystems are being sterilized, it’s that there’s a rotation in make-up going on, driven by human disturbance and pollution. While the language and attitude regarding “invasive species” is established, even in some law and regulation, there is another perspective which suggests these species are simply those which can thrive in a human-disturbed and human-polluted biosphere.

          It could be we don’t like and won’t like where these phenophase changes equilibrate, but it is an ecological equilibrium.

          One of the best sources for this new thinking is urban ecology and botany, and the study of weeds. An article which discussed this is Professor Peter Del Tredici’s “The flora of the future.”

        • John Baez says:

          Jan wrote:

          It could be we don’t like and won’t like where these phenophase changes equilibrate, but it is an ecological equilibrium.

          I’m fascinated by invasive species: are they “bad”, “inevitable”, both, or neither… and more deeply, how can we think about these things, and what should we do about them? Does biodiversity have a value even when it involves species that would be out-competed by other species were they to be introduced into that ecosystem? And if so, exactly why, and how much?

          I plan to think about these things more as soon as I retire, next month!

        • ecoquant says:


          Congrats on your retirement! As a colleague and friend told me when I announced mine, “Your teeshirt with assorted stains on it will be arriving in the mails.”

          Regarding biodiversity, not all increases in biodiversity are good. Particular communities of mycorrhizal fungi cooperate with trees to sequester the bulk of Carbon in soils as forests become old growth:

          Ullah, S., B. Muhammad, R. Amin, H. Abbas, and M. Muneer. “Sensitivity of arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi in old-growth forests: Direct effect on growth and soil carbon storage.” Appl. Ecol. Environ. Res 17 (2019): 13749-13758.

          Unfortunately, as reported recently in

          Tatsumi, Shinichi, Shunsuke Matsuoka, Saori Fujii, Kobayashi Makoto, Takashi Osono, Forest Isbell, and Akira S. Mori. “Prolonged impacts of past agriculture and ungulate overabundance on soil fungal communities in restored forests.” Environmental DNA (2021).

          if land has been used for agriculture or grazing for extended periods, the fungi in soils diversify and even once new forests are established the arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi have difficulty getting re-established. Such forests won’t sequester Carbon in soils well for a long time. Forests apparently need low fungi biodiversity soils in order to stock Carbon well there. This may explain why old growth forests per hectare are better at sequestration in soils than young ones.

          Luyssaert, Sebastiaan, E-Detlef Schulze, Annett Börner, Alexander Knohl, Dominik Hessenmöller, Beverly E. Law, Philippe Ciais, and John Grace. “Old-growth forests as global carbon sinks.” Nature 455, no. 7210 (2008): 213-215.


        • John Baez says:

          I look forward to my stained T-shirt.

          Here you are talking biodiversity not being good, for some goal that we humans have formulated, namely carbon capture. Clearly there are lots of goals we have where biodiversity counts as not good: e.g. agriculture is about deliberately reducing the biodiversity on a plot of land to increase production of certain species we want. What I’m mainly interested in is when and how biodiversity is “good for the ecosystem itself” — and especially, what the quoted phrase even means.

          In your example one can claim increased biodiversity in the short term leads to more CO2 in the air and thus reduced biodiversity in the longer run. There must be other examples like this.

        • ecoquant says:

          Here you are talking biodiversity not being good, for some goal that we humans have formulated, namely carbon capture.

          Well, yes, that’s an interesting aspect, but old growth forests are climax ecosystems in many other respects, and offer ecosystem services to many other creatures. In addition to be susceptible to disturbance by people, they are susceptible to wildfires, assuming conditions are dry enough.

          Alliaria petiolata also reduces biodiversity by inhibiting ectomycorrhizal fungi via leakage of allelochemical benzyl isothiocyanate. That isn’t deleterious to A. petiolata because it’s one of the species which does not form mycorrhizal associations, as all the Brassicaceae. This earns the species much dislike and even hatred by the “let’s keep everything as it is” crowd. But it also earns it membership in Dr Peter Del Tredici’s list of “flora of the future” , e.g., per 2nd edition of Wild Urban Plants of the Northeast it’s hardy enough to spread on its own, deer do not eat it, and it thrives with increased levels of soil Nitrogen, due to atmospheric deposition and fertilizer runoff.

          There’s no evidence increased CO_{2} is intrinsically bad for floral biodiversity. It might increase it. What can be said for sure is that equilibrium populations of platns will be different. To the degree fauna depend upon certain plants, they will be different, too.

  8. ecoquant says:

    Ooops, in the reference to Brassicaceae, above, I neglected to insert its link. Here it is. Garlic mustard is edible and, in 18th century U.S., was cultivated. It’s relatives in Brassicaceae are too: broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, kale, collards, turnip, Chinese cabbage, rapeseed, common radish, horseradish, and crucifers. It’s odd that one member of this family is singled out because of its success.

    For example, the caterpiller form of Pieris rapae is a pest of these commerical crops. However, such larvae feeding upon Alliaria petiolata die because it is toxic to them.

  9. One important thing that we may need to think about: the production of low quality items. The world is producing useless things and the factories are producing ugly things … It is the trend to make factories produce low quality products to increase the demands … I think we need to control quality and get back to high quality products that live long … It was like this in the past but producers found that the consumption would be low.

    Second, we need to depend on electricity. It is something so easy to do …

    • ecoquant says:

      Sturgeon’s Law:

      In 2013, philosopher Daniel Dennett championed Sturgeon’s law as one of his seven tools for critical thinking. “90% of everything is crap. That is true, whether you are talking about physics, chemistry, evolutionary psychology, sociology, medicine—you name it—rock music, country western. 90% of everything is crap.” Its re-introduction to a modern audience received a positive reception, according to Dennett.

  10. Nobody 101 says:

    It’s been a while since you last posted on carbon capture, but I’ve just seen a new highly efficient method has been described in a paper in Nature Energy

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