The magic of net zero
In a short story written by Zadie Smith, “The Embassy of Cambodia”, a character named Andrew, who came from Nigeria, had the following to say about the Nigerian government:
It’s like this bureaucratic Nigerian government—they are the greatest at numerology, hiding figures, changing them to suit their purposes. I have a name for it: I call it ‘demonology.’ Not ‘numerology’—‘demonology.’
Numerology is, of course, not a Nigerian government specialty. It is the intent of this article to demonstrate that numerology is very common, at least in the field of climate action. Numerology is, according to Wikipedia, “the pseudoscientific belief in a divine or mystical relationship between a number and one or more coinciding events.” It is akin to magic. Many of us might have experienced it first-hand without even knowing. We are exposed to scientific surveys and statistical numbers every day. A company might claim that their revenues grew 22 percent this year, or the stock market fell by 2 percent at closing, or our own body mass index (BMI) can be measured constantly to monitor our “health.” What is hidden behind the seemingly benign numbers is a bag full of magic tricks to deceive and distort. As the saying goes, “read between the lines.” Statistics has become numerology. In our increasingly information-saturated society, numbers play an important role: efficiently communicating an idea across. The same is true for climate change. We often see corporations and national governments report flying colours with beautiful photographs of nature on their emission reduction progress, but what is truly happening behind these numbers? Except for the experts, stakeholders, and investors, who have genuine interests in these numbers, many of us might take them at face value. But a closer look revealed much more. What is important isn’t about what is shown, but what is hidden.
However, these numerological tricks are only the tip of an iceberg. There are so many complex bureaucracies, initiatives, protocols, scientific and economic jargon, political and corporate interests going into these numbers, reports, and research that one would truly wonder, are we really meeting our climate action objectives, or are we lost in numbers?
This article, specifically the net-zero sections, is inspired by Professor James Dyke at the University of Exeter, and his and his colleagues’ essay on the problem of net-zero. In this article, we are going to take a very very long journey to understand the tricks of climate numerology. The journey is long because, well, we have made climate mitigation tremendously complex for ourselves. What is being suggested here is that the very foundation of our global climate mitigation effort is very much built upon a magic trick: net zero. Why is it a magic trick? Because it isn't what it seems, like a house of cards. It is also known by other names, like carbon neutrality. The names are beguiling, and so are the numbers underpinning them. But, before we try to understand net zero, we must first understand what is going on with the climate, and what future consequences we are facing. That way, we might appreciate how extraordinarily dangerous this magic trick is. To put it crudely, if we continue to let it fool us, we are quite surely heading toward unprecedented global destruction.
Setting the scene: Why reduce carbon emissions?
For many people, names such as climate change and carbon emissions can merely be names. Without a basic understanding of why we need to reduce global Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions, we might not be able to understand the significance and danger of these numerological tricks. So, why reduce emissions? (If you are already familiar with the big picture of climate catastrophes and carbon emissions, you can jump straight to the next section on net zero.)
There are many confusing terminologies around, not least for climate science. First of all, the atmosphere is warming. It warms on a yearly cycle, such as during the summer it gets warmer, and during the winter it gets colder. It also warms on a daily cycle, like during the day it gets warmer, and at night colder. These are natural. What is becoming increasingly alarming to scientists is the rise in global average temperature. This means, the summer still gets warm every year, but might get warmer still. However, because of the intricate, complex, and unpredictable nature of the climate, some places will experience harsher winters. The ocean might become warmer, because the ocean absorbs heat from the atmosphere, and that might lead to arctic ice melting, and consequent sea-level rise, resulting in disturbance and disappearance of coastline and island societies. The warmer ocean might also affect marine ecosystems, like coral bleaching and loss of breeding grounds for marine animals, which in turn affect our food production in the ocean, mostly the fish we consume. Weather conditions might become more extreme over time, with more severe storms, hurricanes, heatwaves, droughts, and so on. Freshwater resources might also become more scarce because of droughts, harder to access and more contaminated because of flooding, all of which threaten basic human survival. These are some of the effects of global average temperature rise, otherwise called “global warming” or “climate change.” Some of these effects are already irreversible due to human activity, and if global average temperature rise isn’t controlled, the effects will be catastrophic. And there are so many aspects of the climate even scientists are finding difficult to understand, because of the inherent complexity of climate systems. Literally, rainfall affects soil, soil affects plants and trees, and they in turn affect animals and ecosystems, and they in turn affect a million other things. There are so many moving parts and causes and effects within our climate systems that it would be virtually impossible to tell exactly what will happen in the future. In the big picture, however, warming is happening, and extreme weather is dawning. For a comprehensive review of the possible impacts of climate change, we can read the IPCC Sixth Assessment Report on climate impacts, adaptation, and vulnerability.
Children collecting water from a water hole in Puntland, Somalia, 2016. Makeshift water holes are dug to collect rainwater in drought years despite health risks, such as cholera. More severe droughts means life-threatening water scarcity, crops failure, hunger, and mass migrations for many Somalians. Two droughts in 2016 and 2018 shrank the primary pastoral economy of Somaliland by 70 percent.
Saharan dust storm surrounding Aigle, Switzerland. Due to the changing climate, arid lands are expanding globally, and this will lead to more intense dust storms in Europe, Asia, and the Mediterranean. Multiple historic dust storms had already swept through China, Europe, and the Middle East since 2017. Photo by Danyu Wang (Unsplash @dandandan0101).
A truck driving in a flooded street in Downtown Jacksonville, Florida, United States, after the effects of Hurricane Irma in 2017. Irma damanged about 90 percent of Antigua and Barbuda's buildings, rendered about 50 percent Barbuda residents homeless. The top four most intense Atlantic hurricane seasons are 1969, 2005, 2010, and 2020, becoming more severe and frequent. Small islands are disproportionately affected by tropical storms. Photo by Wade Austin Ellis (Unsplash @wadeaustinellis).
So, a global temperature rise is not good for humanity, because food cannot grow adequately with extreme climate conditions. Human housing and survival are called into question when natural disasters become frequent or when water resources shrink. There might be mass migration from climate-impacted areas to safer environments. Regional conflicts like wars and unrest could happen due to climate-induced human disasters. Climate change is a crisis that threatens human survival and livelihoods, which is the foundation of any human civilization.
To avert climate disasters, we must understand what caused them. Scientists have already pinpointed the cause: human-induced emissions of greenhouse gases, known by their acronym, GHG. The most well-known GHG is carbon dioxide, because it is the main driver behind climate change. Carbon dioxide has a warming effect on the atmosphere, because it absorbs infrared energy from the sun, and emits it equally in all directions. Half of that energy enters outer space, and the other half is emitted to the earth. The infrared energy that is reflected from the earth is also absorbed by carbon dioxide, and the same half/half situation occurs. Compare that to oxygen or nitrogen, which make up most of the air. They do not interact with infrared energy at all, due to their simple molecular structures. So infrared energy would simply pass through them unimpeded. With a higher concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, a large amount of infrared energy is essentially trapped within the big dome we live in, and we, as well as the entire ecosystem on earth, will feel the heat, or the harsher winters, severe droughts, drying freshwater, and so on. There are other GHGs, like methane, nitrous oxide, and water vapour. Carbon dioxide is the main driver of climate change also thanks to its ability to stay in the atmosphere for a very long time: 300 to 1,000 years, whereas water vapour, for example, comes down as rainfall quite frequently, and stays in the atmosphere for an average of 9 days.
And why is there a persistently increasing concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere? Enter fossil fuels. Fossil fuels are formed with organic matter being compressed and heated deep in the earth. What makes up organic matter? Plenty of carbon atoms. Burning requires oxygen. When fossil fuels are burnt, they release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, due to the chemical reactions between carbon and oxygen. What humanity has done since the industrial revolution is to excavate an extraordinary amount of fossil fuels, like coal, oil, and natural gas, and burn them. We burn them to produce energy, so we can power our cars, generate electricity, produce food on farms, ship our products all around the world, and basically do almost anything nowadays. We are extremely reliant on fossil fuels, because they are the bedrock of our industrial revolution, meaning manufacturing, transportation, and electricity. The industrial revolution is based on intensive energy consumption, and fossil fuels provided just that: energy. They used to be the key to progress. Now, they pose probably the single most challenging problem in human history. With a gigantic amount of fossil fuels burnt (about 136,761 terawatts-hour of energy consumed from 1800 to 2019), a gigantic amount of carbon dioxide (about 34.81 billion tonnes from 1800 to 2019) is released into the atmosphere. As a matter of fact, we are still emitting a lot of carbon dioxide, and we show no signs of stopping. The situation is urgent, because if we keep emitting as we do now, our climate trajectory is predictably disastrous. Think of all the above-mentioned extreme weather effects, but magnitudes more severe.
A child seen walking through a trash field in Nicaragua. Plastics account for the majority of global waste. Over 99 percent of plastics are produced with fossil fuels chemicals. About 40 percent of plastics are single-use, with a usage time of minutes and a decomposition time of centuries. Plastics dumped in the ocean are broken down to inhalable microplastics, found in Mount Everest, Mariana Trench, our drinking water systems, and the air. Photo by Hermes Rivera (Unsplash @hermez777).
That is the reason why we need to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. We keep emitting carbon dioxide and other GHGs into the atmosphere, and the atmosphere keeps getting warmer. What is important is to stop the warming so that we can avert catastrophic consequences. How do we stop the warming? We must stop emitting so much GHGs, right? Not quite. Humans are clever. We found ways to keep emitting a lot of GHGs like carbon dioxide, while finding ways to absorb them. If we can absorb as much as we emit, then it would mean that we have not emitted anything at all, right? Numerically, that is the case. In reality, it's a lot more complicated, as always. And, this is the most basic and far-reaching magic trick of climate numerology: net zero.
Why do we pursue net zero?
The idea behind net zero is simple. Don’t emit more than we absorb. But, how do we absorb? Can anything absorb carbon dioxide? Seek and you shall find. Forests actually absorb a great deal of carbon dioxide, and they are called carbon sinks, meaning that they “sink” the carbon (or carbon dioxide) so they are not in the atmosphere. How do they sink carbon? By photosynthesis. Trees and plants absorb carbon dioxide as part of their life activity, so places like the Amazon Rainforest store a gigantic amount of carbon. That’s good, isn’t it? Not really. The bad news is that the Amazon Rainforest is already emitting more carbon than it absorbs. How can that be the case? Well, if trees are healthy, they sink carbon. If they are dead, or burnt, they emit carbon dioxide. What's happening is that large areas of the Amazon Rainforest are cleared by humans with fire for agriculture, and the remaining forest might die as a result due to less tree coverage, which compounds the burning emission with emissions from deadwood decomposition.
Then let’s plant trees! That must work, mustn’t it? Not really. Trees take time to mature. The more mature a forest is, the more effective it absorbs carbon. And trees on average take a century to reach maturity. The question is, do we have that much time? And planting trees might also release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. If reforestation is human-induced, then we necessarily burn fossil fuels, like transporting young trees and people to a certain area to plant them. We must understand that any human activity is potentially carbon-intensive, since our tremendous reliance on fossil fuels. So, do we emit carbon in the short term by planting trees, exacerbating climate extremities that these forests we planted might not even survive to absorb enough carbon for us? This is what’s happening in the Amazon, where trees are dying because of droughts and sustained heatwaves. If a forest begins to die off, or is plagued by a high frequency of wildfire because of drier and higher temperature, like in California, it might emit more carbon dioxide than it absorbs. There are many more questions, such as whether planting trees might have the same observed effects as existing forests, since forests themselves are incredibly complex ecosystems, and one different element might impact its entire carbon-absorbing ability. Or, after we reforest a great deal of land around the earth, do we have enough farmland to produce enough food for our still-growing global population, when so many people in the world still remain hungry? A lot more questions are not yet answered, and scientists warn that reforestation might have an effect, but reducing the use of fossil fuels is much more important.
The Colorado Calwood fire in 2020. The American West suffered historic wildfires and damage in recent years. Argentina, Russia, Turkey, Greece, Italy, and Lebanon also had record-breaking wildfire in 2021-2022, largely due to drying conditions, heatwaves, and droughts. The fires in Siberia were so intense that the smoke reached the North Pole for the first time in all recorded history. Photo by Malachi Brooks (Unsplash @mebrooks01).
So, let’s reduce the use of fossil fuels! Hold on. It’s not that simple either. Since we are very reliant on fossil fuels, for our electricity, heating, and transportation for example, without them, our lives will be fundamentally different, unless we have other ways of generating energy. Do we have other ways? Yes. Are they reliable? Not really. We have nuclear energy, but it has potential nuclear pollution problems. Think of Chernobyl or Fukushima. We have renewable energy, like wind and solar, but they are unreliable, because the weather changes all the time. The sun might not be out, or the wind might not blow. As a matter of fact, because of the unreliable nature of wind energy, Europe experienced a historical price hike of electricity in late 2021, resulting in many people being unable to heat their homes during the winter. With the lack of wind, energy can only be produced with something else, like coal and natural gas, to generate heat for households. With a similar supply and a very high demand, energy prices soared. In November of 2021 in Spain, the price of electricity was six times more expensive than a year ago. To solve the price hike, many European energy companies went back to coal plants. Isn’t that counter-productive? For climate objectives, yes. But do we want to freeze? No.
The wind turbines of Rampion offshore wind farm by the coast of UK. Despite weak winds in 2021, the farm met its power generation target, unlike many others in Europe. As the largest wind producers, UK, Germany, and Denmark harnessed about 14 percent of installed capacity in the third quarter of 2021, compared to 20-26 percent on average in previous years. Photo by Nicholas Doherty (Unsplash @nrdoherty).
Yet, why are we freezing? Actually, as early as February of 2021, people of Europe already experienced extreme temperatures and weather, with record-breaking snowfalls and coldness. As explained in the previous section, human-caused climate change, induced by fossil fuels carbon emissions, will probably cause extreme weather conditions. Extreme means volatility, and that makes renewable energy like wind, solar, and even hydropower unreliable. Hydropower, which is electricity generated from flowing waters like rivers, has been traditionally reliable. With more frequent flooding and drought, when the river overflows or goes dry, the hydro dams cannot generate as much electricity. It just recently happened in South Africa’s Kwa-Zulu province, where heavy rainfall flooded a dam beyond capacity, making it unable to generate electricity, not to mention the flood has killed 259 people so far. Extreme and volatile weather leads to people’s need for stability, because many of us have been living a pretty stable life, and how do we produce stable energy at this moment? Fossil fuels. So, a vicious cycle is forming. With historical carbon emissions, the climate is warming, leading to extreme and volatile weather, leading to people’s need for stable energy, and leading us back to burning fossil fuels. Another example is China. The country has seen power cuts during the Fall of 2021 because of an energy crisis. Early 2022, coal plants were called back into full capacity to meet the demand for electricity, and criticisms were fired at the Chinese government for its proclaimed emission reduction agenda.
The question is, why do we require stable energy? Well, to do most of the things we want, like streaming a movie for example, requires a stable energy supply. For nice living conditions, like heating for the winter, and air conditioning for the summer, we also require a stable energy supply. Those who have lived in places with frequent power outages might procure their own stable energy supply with diesel-fueled power generators. All of the above is potentially intensive in carbon dioxide emissions.
So, back to our original question. Why do we pursue net zero? To put it very crudely, because our energy demand is enormous and growing. Because, quite simply, I like my car. I like my house. I like my computers that can display videos and music. I like my salmon that came from Norway, Chile, or Canada. I like my phones that have precious metals mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo, assembled in China, and shipped to my doorstep. I like fashionable clothes which produce wastewater and emit carbon dioxide through shipping and manufacturing. And all of these activities are not even the most fundamental aspects of living, like heating, cooling, and staple foods. The truth is, our global economy, which includes the food we eat, the things we use, and the waste we throw away, is so connected that we first of all transport everything across the world, and that already burns a lot of fossil fuels. Our electricity demand for our computers, phones and home appliances also shows no sign of stopping. We are energy-hungry. Many of us consume a lot of food and throw away more. We literally eat energy for fun. And that energy is produced predominantly with fossil fuels. In fact, about 64 percent of our electricity in 2019 came from fossil fuels, and about 84 percent of our total energy consumption (electricity, heating, and transportation) came from fossil fuels in 2019.
Containers at a port in Bukit Merah, Singapore in 2017. There are about 226 million containers, like the ones above, shipped each year. The global shipping industry contributes to about 3 percent of total GHG emissions, and about 90 percent of world products are transported by sea. In 2021, The Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore launched a $90-million decarbonisation fund. Photo by CHUTTERSNAP (Unsplash @chuttersnap).
So, it really comes down to this. We don’t want to forgo our current energy-intensive lifestyle, and we want to have a nicer climate, without so much flooding, cold snaps, hurricanes, heatwaves, droughts, and so on. We keep demanding energy, and we also do not want our children or grandchildren to face climate catastrophes like the breakdown of civilization, wars, mass migration, hunger, thirst, and so on. How can we accomplish that? How do we have both a stable supply of energy and a reduction in carbon emissions?
Net zero! Let’s absorb carbon from the atmosphere. That way, we can have both, right?
The magic trick of net zero
And again, it’s a lot more complicated. Any moment we reduce a complex situation to a simple equation, like absorbing carbon dioxide as much as we emit, there is bound to be complications. Actually, it is our persistent desire to keep our energy-intensive lifestyle that net zero could actually fool us into thinking: that’s a nice idea! Ideas can always be nice, but reality is not an idea, unfortunately. So, the first step to not be fooled by magic tricks: don’t let your desires blind you.
As Professor James Dyke and his colleagues already pointed out, the technologies that absorb carbon from our atmosphere are either virtually non-existent, or incredibly immature and costly to be considered a viable option. In essence, “too good to be true.” But do we take them as true? Oh yes we do. This is the crux of the problem, that we are relying on unpredictable, costly, non-existent, and experimental technologies to remove a gigantic amount of carbon from our atmosphere. In other words, to remove carbon we will, but we can’t.
So what are these technologies? There is the natural technology of trees, but as we have already explored, they are not viable due to their long maturity time, possible emissions of human-induced reforestation, and conflict of interests with agricultural land use. Forests definitely can help, but as we have it, deforestation is still happening at an alarming rate. From 2010 to 2020, we have a net loss of 4.7 million hectares of forests per year, which amounts to at least losing as large as 12 standard football fields (0.714 hectares) every single minute. Isn’t it counterproductive to clear forests at this juncture of climate change? Yes. But we continue to clear them, and the primary driver of deforestation is converting them for agricultural use, attempting to fulfil our gigantic appetite for meat (beef, chicken, etc), not to mention other “exotic” and “entertaining” foods. We are expanding our agricultural land worldwide, resulting in deforestation, which not only emits a great deal of carbon dioxide, but also eliminates the possibility of future carbon removal. This goes to show how much conflict reforestation is going to have with agriculture. Is there a way to not use so much land but also absorb emissions?
Cattle standing on a burnt part of the Amazon Rainforest. Forests are burnt in Brazil to make space for agriculture. About 40 percent of the Rainforest is replaced by savannah by 2020, mostly for raising cattle. A historic 2019 historic wildfire destroyed 7,600 square kilometres. Significant deforestation has led to drying conditions and droughts in the Amazon, making wildfires more possible. Photo from iStock by Getty Images.
Seek and you shall find. Let’s first look at direct air capture (DAC), as claimed to be increasingly important or “an absolute necessity” by the International Energy Agency (IEA) and US Department of Energy. What it does is to suck carbon dioxide directly from the air with innovative technologies, like solid DAC (S-DAC) and liquid DAC (L-DAC). The advantage of DAC is that it requires little land use. That's good news, right? So, how is it faring? According to a report by the IEA, global DAC facilities have absorbed about 0.01 million tonnes of carbon dioxide today. How much have we emitted till now? In 2021, up to 1.5 trillion tonnes of carbon dioxide since 1751. This means that direct air capture has absorbed about 0.0000000067 percent of world cumulative carbon dioxide emissions. But isn’t DAC about reaching net zero? As long as we can absorb as much as we emit, it’s good, isn’t it? In 2021, the operating capacity of global DAC is almost 8,000 tonnes per year. How much did we emit in the year 2021? 36.3 billion tonnes, almost 2.1 billion tonnes more than 2020 levels. The current capacity of DAC is 0.0000038 percent of the yearly emissions increase from 2020 to 2021, not to mention the yearly emissions in 2021. Of course, the capacity is projected to grow. How much does it need to grow? According to the same IEA report, in the IEA 2050 net zero scenario, 90 million tonnes per year needs to be captured by 2030, and 980 million tonnes per year by 2050. Compared to DAC capacity of around 7,700 tonnes per year in 2021, the global DAC capacity needs to grow by about 11,687 times by 2030, and about 127,271 times by 2050. These are ambitious if not astronomical targets. But, are they realistic?
Obviously not. What is required is to, in the next eight years, drastically increase the capacity of DAC facilities by about 11,687 times. Not only that, the technologies involved are still new and in the prototype phase for large-scale deployments. The only large-scale DAC facility is still in development, and might not begin working until the mid-2020s in the United States. Its capacity is up to 1 million tonnes per year, still at least 88 million tonnes short of the 2030 target if it actually works. Additionally, L-DAC technology requires a whopping 900 degrees Celsius to function, with S-DAC requiring 80 to 120 degrees Celsius. DAC is energy-intensive (sound familiar?) and also very costly at this stage. Removing 1 tonne of carbon dioxide might cost from $100 USD to $1000 USD. With large-scale deployments remaining a hypothesis, its future price is wildly unpredictable, and would only discourage investments from corporate sectors. And without intensive investments at this stage, it is not going to fulfil its planned capacity, since technological advancement is and has been intimately related to money. Water use is another issue. Removing 1 tonne of carbon dioxide might use from 1 to 7 tonnes of water, depending on climate conditions and technology. To remove 90 million tonnes per year in 2030 and 980 million tonnes per year in 2050 might result in an exorbitant amount of energy and water usage, crunching the already tight and increasingly volatile energy and water supply on Earth.
This is not the only bad news. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s latest report already confirmed that technologies like DAC, which are called carbon removal technologies, are now unavoidable for us to meet the climate targets set in the Paris Agreement. This means that humans have emitted so much carbon dioxide that we have to remove some of them actively from the atmosphere to limit global warming to an acceptable level. Essentially, we now must bet our future on unrealistic technologies. Are we willing to bet our future survival on something that virtually does not exist? Apparently, we are. And according to scientists, we don’t really have a choice now. Corporations, governments, and international organisations all are going head-on in this direction.
But wait, aren’t there other carbon removal technologies? They might work better, no? Like BECCS, or Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage, which means burning biomass for energy and then storing the carbon emissions permanently. The stated benefit of burning biomass (like plants and trees) is that they have already absorbed carbon dioxide throughout their lifespan, which essentially makes burning them “carbon neutral.” This means that they do release emissions, but it's the same amount they have already absorbed. On top of that, if we could store the carbon released from biomass “permanently,” we wouldn’t emit anything, but actually absorb carbon dioxide. This is what experts call “negative emissions.” That way, we could have the energy to maintain our lifestyle, and at the same time absorb carbon dioxide. What a win-win solution! Sounds good, doesn’t it? Only if it actually works. Does it? Not really. Its efficacy in climate mitigation has been controversial since its inclusion in the IPCC climate mitigation scenarios in the early 2000s. According to a recent report by the EU organisation Fern, BECCS poses six major problems, four of which are outlined below:
- It actually produces significant emissions, firstly because burning biomass isn’t actually carbon-neutral. The biomass must be grown exclusively for the purpose of being burnt to make it carbon-neutral. Otherwise, burning all the existing trees in the world would also be “carbon neutral.” Secondly, emissions are also produced through storage, transportation, and producing biomass (actually growing it), and like most human activity nowadays, they emit carbon dioxide already.
- It requires a huge amount of land. To think we can replace or abate our hunger for fossil fuels with biomass is immature. If we could burn wood and plants into our industrial revolution, we would have already done so. Fossil fuels are special because of their energy density, meaning with the same amount of fossil fuels, we generate a significantly more amount of energy than biomass. To replace or even abate our fossil fuels consumption with biomass would require so much land that poses danger for the increasing global population, who demands food grown from agricultural land, which is still expanding, and the expansion is clearing forests that can help remove carbon from the atmosphere in the first place. Competing with agricultural land use would also push up the price of food, leading to food insecurity and social unrest, like what is happening in Sri Lanka now, but imagine it happening more frequently and on an international scale.
- It requires a huge amount of water. Growing biomass for fuel is akin to growing it for food. Agriculture already takes up a gigantic amount of water use. With increasing water volatility, droughts, heatwaves, flooding, and heavy rainfalls, growing any kind of biomass becomes challenging by the year. Not to mention, water usage from BECCS would also compete with our drinking water, all of which comes from our already drying freshwater sources.
- It harms biodiversity. This might seem irrelevant in the context of carbon emissions. But it isn’t actually. Agriculture is already curtailed by the degradation of soil, due to monoculture, chemical supplements, and intensive agricultural practices. This mostly means planting the same thing in a large area of land repeatedly year after year. If we want biomass for fuel, we will want it quick and stable, and the only option is to grow the same kind of plant quickly and repeatedly, with the help of chemical fertilisers and pesticides. This leads to soil being poisoned and infertile over time, and that leads to people looking for new land to farm, and they often clear existing forests and natural reserves to do so. So we are back at problem 2. The production and transportation of these chemicals already emit a great deal of carbon, as stated in problem 1. But, without stable and efficient output, biomass cannot be considered a viable energy supply at all, in the context of our energy-intensive lifestyle of course.
The Hoover Dam on the Colorado River in the United States, with the dam-formed Lake Mead in the distance. The distinct white ring that shows above the water level of Lake Mead is called the “bathtub ring,” formed due to the minerals on previously submerged surfaces decomposing, a visually striking representation of the drying of the Colorado River. Photo by Kaylyn Mok (Unsplash @mhmkaylyn).
In summary, BECCS is another unrealistic carbon removal technology. Are we willing to bet on it for our future? Apparently so. Actually, in the IEA 2050 net zero scenario, BECCS’s capacity of carbon removal is much more significant than DAC. By 2030, BECCS is planned to capture 255 million tonnes of carbon dioxide per year, compared to 90 million tonnes per year by DAC. By 2050, BECCS is planned to capture 1,380 million tonnes per year, compared to 985 million tonnes per year by DAC (or 980 million tonnes according to the IEA report on DAC).
So, neither DAC nor BECCS offers any solace. With the slim chance that they do reach their capacity without immense complications for our food security and water security, they still cannot abate our energy demand. But wait, if we could capture carbon dioxide for bioenergy, why not do the same for fossil fuels? That way, we could keep burning fossil fuels, and emit nothing! That’s great isn’t it? It is actually a real thing, and it’s called carbon capture and storage (CCS) for fossil fuels. Enter “carbon-neutral” fossil fuels, which are so oxymoronic and self-contradictory, but with our enormous demand for energy, why not believe in it? But remember, desire is what blinds us from seeing reality. How realistic is CCS for fossil fuels actually?
The only running CCS facility for coal-fired plants in the United States was shut down in 2020, before being plagued by technical problems related to the carbon capture technology. It also missed its carbon capture target by about 17 percent, and was only designed to capture 33 percent of the carbon emissions from one of four units at the site. This is not the only discontinued CCS facility for fossil fuels plants. According to Geoengineering Monitor’s article, other discontinued projects include the Rotterdam CCS Demonstration Project and the Eemshaven Project in the Netherlands, the Antelope Valley Project and Sweeney Gasification Project in the United States, and the Belchatow Project in Poland. All these projects received a combined 593 million US dollars plus 291 million Euros in public funding. Many other continuing projects have been plagued by technical problems and demonstrated no efficacy in capturing carbon dioxide. CCS for fossil fuels is most strongly backed by oil and gas companies, and the reason is obvious: so they can continue burning fossil fuels and make money from them. The most pervasive use of CCS is actually storing carbon dioxide beneath oil fields to enhance oil extraction. The ability for CCS to be deployed at scale and cheaply is unproven. So, yes. Again, we are hedging our bets on another unproven technology for net zero.
And CCS for fossil fuels does not actually remove carbon from the atmosphere. It merely aims to keep burning fossil fuels carbon neutral. According to the IEA 2050 net zero scenario, BECCS and DAC are responsible for offsetting carbon emissions from difficult industries like aviation and heavy industries. What is meant by “difficult” is this: they are going to emit carbon no matter what we do. In other words, these industries are deemed “necessary” and “necessarily” burning fossil fuels. But the emissions from these industries should only account for at most 1.9 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide by 2050, which is then removed/offset by BECCS and DAC. So, carbon removal (or negative emissions) technologies are not very important compared to other measures in this “net zero” scenario. What is actually critical is decarbonising the global energy mix. According to Our World in Data, in 2019, 84.3 percent of the global energy mix comes from fossil fuels sources. This energy is not only for our electricity, but also for transportation and heating, which also use oil, gas, and coal. To decarbonise our energy, we can switch to more renewable sources, like wind and solar, which are likely to become increasingly unreliable. The development of long-term battery storage for electricity is needed in a volatile climate. We could also change our behaviours, such as switching off our energy-intensive habits, but the question really is, are we willing to do that? We could also, like the IEA net zero scenario shows, scale up the use of BECCS and CCS for fossil fuels to meet our enormous demand for energy. The risks of this scale-up have been explained above. This “net zero” scenario really means that “everything that hasn’t happened needs to happen perfectly, despite significant risks of them not happening or wrecking more damage on the world and climate,” meaning:
- Our behaviours in energy consumption will change slightly, specifically in the transportation sector, to reduce our energy demand by 37 ExaJoules in 2050. Our total energy consumption in 2020 is estimated to be 418 ExaJoules. That is a decrease of below 10 percent. And, that is assuming our energy demand does not grow from our 2020 levels, which is unlikely, with emerging economies and developing nations expected to consume much more energy in the future. The US Energy Information Administration predicts that, without significant policy and technology shifts, which are lacking currently, our energy demand will grow 50 percent by 2050, compared to our 2020 levels.
- BECCS will actually work on a very large scale, meaning it won’t positively emit carbon dioxide. The land use increase of BECCS will not affect agricultural production, push up food prices significantly, and destabilise ecologies (like deforestation) to exacerbate climate change.
- CCS for fossil fuels will actually work on a very large scale, meaning it actually will be carbon neutral, and its “permanent” storage of carbon dioxide will actually be permanent.
- DAC will actually work at scale. But its potential is insignificant compared to our energy demand, and it is probably the most unreliable technology for negative emissions.
- Renewable energy will be predominant and stable. That requires large-scale advancement and deployment of long-term battery storage, also called Long Duration Energy Storage (LDES), which is another nascent technology to be scaled up worldwide (yes, another). According to a report by the LDES Council, LDES deployments need to scale up to about 400 times by 2040, compared to its present-day (2020) levels. That would amount to 10 percent of all electricity generated stored in LDES. Present-day deployments are low, but gathering great momentum. It is not certain if the likely increase of volatility in wind, solar, and hydropower are taken into account.
So, what does “net zero” really mean? It means that we do not want to significantly reduce our energy consumption. It means that, due to our insistence on an energy-intensive presence, we have to switch to non-emitting and stable energy sources, which depend on nascent technologies to be deployed at scale at radical rates in a very short timeframe. It means that we live in the dream of “carbon-neutral” fossil fuels and bioenergy, without considering their potential impact on food, water and ecological security or their unrealistic plan of global deployment. This is the magic trick of net zero. Net zero doesn’t actually exist. It is a plan running in computer simulations, or what is called Integrated Assessment Models (IAMs). It is a magical number “zero” which somehow has divine correspondence to climate salvation. It requires the entire political, technological, social, and economic world to perfectly collaborate with each other, which has never happened in all of our human history. It promises everything: clean energy, enough energy, and a mitigated climate change, and it uses virtually non-existent technologies to back up that promise. It is not honest, because it desperately wants itself to work, so it doesn’t want to face the difficult truth: it doesn’t work. And, we really don’t have time for tests, experiments, or “growing momentum.” We only have time for immediate, proven-to-work, and effective action. And what is that? Reduce our energy consumption now. It is literally quite simple:
- Buy less things. Use less electricity. Don’t travel so much. Have more locally produced things and food.
- So we can burn less fossil fuels.
- Eat less meat, more plant-based foods. Diversify our diet options, and reduce food waste.
- So we don’t have to keep burning trees and clearing entire ecosystems to feed ourselves.
- Don’t destroy nature.
- So it can take care of us instead of destroying us.
This way, we actually reduce emissions. This way, we might really have a chance for a mitigated climate. Otherwise, we are most likely walking hand-in-hand into political, social, economic, and physical destruction, for which we are all responsible. The climate will still be here, just more extreme. Nature will still be here, just in a different form. We are the ones that need saving, and we are in our own way.
A semi-submersible oil drill during sunset on the Tenerife island, Canary Islands, Spain. Offshore oil discoveries and projects are still being initiated, despite calls to end the use of fossil fuels from climate scientists. Canada greenlighted an Equinor's oil project in Bay du Nord. Exxon announced its new 10 billion US dollars project in Guyana. The UK announced more licensing opportunities to drill in the North Sea. Photo by Maria Lupan (Unsplash @luandmario).
Net zero is (unfortunately) our foundation for climate action
Philosopher René Descartes, the one who proclaimed “I think therefore I am,” wrote in the same treatise that “the destruction of the foundations of necessity brings with it the downfall of the rest of the edifice.” Net zero is our foundation for climate action. And when net zero is seen as an illusion and collapses as a result, whatever we used to build on top of it collapses also. And we built a great deal on top of it. Every major corporation, national government, and city that pledged for climate action based their plans on net zero. They are all hopeful of the “dream” coming true way into the future, while the world is burning now. It doesn’t make sense. It isn’t rational. But it becomes completely rational when we understand that, it isn’t really climate mitigation that net zero is concerned about. It is our greed for energy, hence our unprecedented convenience, affluence, power, and wonder that net zero is concerned about. We invented net zero, and it will only serve our wish. Net zero is not the villain. There is no villain in this story. There is only us, who are doing exactly what we want to do.
Therefore, to face net zero, to actually understand it, is akin to understanding ourselves. The long journey here that we have taken to understand the concept of net zero leads to nothing other than us. Net zero shows that we are stubborn, unwilling to let go. It shows that we are so often blinded by our own desire, that we cease to face the fact, the actual, the real. It shows that we are quite capable of doing tricks on ourselves. It shows that we still think interfering with nature can somehow save us, when climate change is literally a cautionary tale of intense human interference with natural processes. It shows that humanity has become, or has always been, a species living on the empty promises of a thousand tomorrows.
The solution is simple. Reduce emissions dramatically, now. What is stopping us is merely our desire for more.