No time for false saviours

Will 2018 be the year when most people began to see climate change as a terrifying reality rather than an abstract concept? 

From the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) landmark report showing that we have just 12 years to keep global warming to a maximum of 1.5° Celsius, to the devastating heatwave which gripped the Northern Hemisphere this summer, the message is the same - the need for action has never been starker. 

And the longer we delay, the more we need to do. Scientists already agree that rapid carbon dioxide emission cuts will not be enough: we must also remove them from the atmosphere. They disagree however about the “saviour technology" proposed as a way of achieving them - Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS).  

The assumption behind BECCS is that because trees absorb carbon, if you burn them for energy and then capture and bury the emissions below ground, you actually remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. 

The truth, as always, is far more complicated.  

Putting our faith in BECCS - especially on a large-scale - is loaded with dangers and uncertainties: for people and nature. At worst it could even accelerate climate change. 

The first major drawback is the vast amount of land that BECCS would require.  

It’s been estimated that growing dedicated crops for BECCS would require 0.1-0.4 hectares of land per hypothetical tonne of carbon removed. Estimations differ, but one example which would only give us a 50 per cent chance of keeping global warming below two degrees would require the growing of biomass on a land area 1-2 times the size of India. This would have dramatic impacts on food, water and biodiversity, turning our landscapes into monoculture plantations. 

Another concern is that carbon capture and storage only captures emissions released from burning biomass, but emissions are released along the whole production chain: from the soil when a forest is logged, from the fertilisers used to grow the biomass, from transporting and refining the wood, and even from capturing and storing emissions.  What’s more, burning wood for energy is encouraged on the scientifically flawed assumption that it’s carbon neutral.  

Thankfully, however, a move away from the religion of BECCS appears near, since the IPCC report gives short shrift to the idea that we can geoengineer our way out of the climate crisis. 

So, what could work? 

The answer is surprisingly simple, and it builds on one of the great recent success stories in forest conservation: recognition that strengthening community land tenure is the most cost-effective way to protect forests, and the carbon they hold. 

A new scientific report commissioned by a group of NGOs including Fern underlines this: revealing that we can limit warming to 1.5C by combining deep emissions cuts with efforts to end deforestation, reduce meat consumption, improve agricultural practices, and restore natural forests.  

And those best-placed to protect and restore the forests on which the future of the planet depends are the Indigenous Peoples and local communities who live in and survive off them.

Last updated October 10, 2018

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