We are pleased to present our first edited collection: ‘The Negative Emissions Gamble’.
Land and Climate Review was launched in autumn 2021 to look at the overlap and tensions between climate policy, land use and economic thinking and so it is not surprising that we have since built a body of work examining a now highly contested part of the climate conversation: the idea of greenhouse gas removal (also known as ‘negative emissions’).
Policy elites now appear increasingly willing to look beyond the emissions mitigation targets agreed as part of the Paris process. Geoengineering is back and gaining powerful advocates such as Lord Browne, the former head of BP and current chair of BeyondNetZero, who argues that it is already time for ‘Plan C’. Even former Greenpeace Executive Director, Kumi Naidoo, is now arguing that we no longer have time to choose between emissions mitigation and carbon removal.
But former IPCC Chair, Sir Bob Watson, in our leading article for this collection, sounds an alarm familiar to many, that ‘Net Zero has provided a licence for a “burn now, pay later” approach which has seen carbon emissions soar’. He acknowledges, despite this, that ‘given the lack of political will to significantly reduce emissions in the near-term, investigating the environmental, economic and social viability of negative emissions technologies is crucial.’ We hope this collection, which draws on a great deal of peer-reviewed work, contributes to the much-needed scrutiny which Watson and others call for.
The first step is to get the implications for land use clear – and here we immediately run into problems, with the recently published Land Gap Report estimating that government pledges already assume some 1.3 billion hectares of land can be set aside for carbon removal. That’s the same size as the world’s entire agricultural land base today. Something is not right. And you can listen to lead author, Dr Kate Dooley, explain more in our podcast with her, here.
A big question for the next decade will be how carbon removal technologies are funded – via private investment, public money, or through the sale of credits in markets? Our assistant editor, Bertie Harrison-Broninski’s, pieces on carbon removal technology reveal the likelihood that that train has already left the station. The volatile spot price for a tonne of carbon removed by direct air capture technologies currently trades at a $233, while companies as varied as Klarna, Shopify and Stripe have all reportedly paid over $2000 a tonne. Bertie speaks to many of the players involved – including those hoping to own the trading platforms – in ‘Silicon Valley’s Non-Existent Carbon Credits’. Another long-form piece in the collection takes a much closer look at how the carbon capture industry interacts with the world of integrated assessment modelling and finds that using direct air capture to meet the Paris Agreement targets would require as much energy as the whole world currently uses today. You can listen to our interview with carbon capture pioneer Dr Howard Herzog, here.
Other parts of the collection profile the more ‘natural’ end of the range of options put forward as negative emissions technologies. Dr Manish Kumar explains how biochar could cheaply turn India’s huge amount of agricultural waste – generally burned on small-holder farms – from a carbon source into a carbon sink. Our other assistant editor, Lauren Sneade, challenges assumptions around two commonly-touted negative emissions approaches: using wood in construction and afforestation. Both can cause problems if not done well. Lauren’s review of Rosetta Elkin’s Plant Life is well worth a read, untangling the politics of afforestation and revealing a song, redolent of Rachel Carson, to the rich biodiversity of so-called ‘barren’ drylands. With news just breaking of farmers in the Republic of the Congo being barred from their land thanks to a tree-planting scheme involving an oil major, the warnings raised in Lauren’s pieces couldn’t be more urgent.
On the theoretical side, Pamela McElwee, Professor of Human Ecology at Rutgers University explains why land use causes such difficulties for climate modelling and shows why the sector needs reform. While Hamburg University’s Amann Thorben explains the need for additional research into enhanced weathering – and its potential for carbon removal.
These are only highlights of the 22 pieces featured in the collection and written over the course of the last 12 months. We also publish explainers on IPCC and EU policy on carbon removals – the latter updated to include the European Commission’s much-criticised recent proposal for a carbon removals certification scheme. The whole collection can be found here.
Of course, the deeper question thrown up here by Watson and others, of what the alternatives to large-scale negative emissions would be, cannot go unanswered. Radical energy and material demand reduction – as well as the increasingly popular theory of ‘sufficiency’ – will be dealt with in an upcoming collection.
We hope you enjoy this collection and look forward to receiving your suggestions. We also take this opportunity to thank all of you who have supported this project so far, either as funders, contributors or readers.
Wishing you a Merry Christmas,
Edward Robinson and Alasdair MacEwen
Land and Climate Review