The UN is new The IPCC report on climate change mitigation states that immediate and deep emission reductions are needed to limit global warming, along with removing carbon dioxide from the air in the future. Meanwhile, world governments are urging fossil fuel companies to drill for more oil and gas ASAP to offset sanctions on Russia. What the hell is going on here?
The task of the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) is not to conduct research or express opinions, but to evaluate the scientific literature. This primarily means work that was accepted in scientific journals before a deadline. In the case of this last report, that was October 2021.
Since then, wholesale prices of most fossil fuels have more than doubled. So what about the IPCC conclusions? Does Russia’s invasion of Ukraine make stopping climate change easier or harder? The answer depends a lot on how you frame the problem.
Using the “emitter responsibility” framework adopted by the IPCC – and by extension almost everyone else, including the world’s governments and corporations – climate change means that emitters must reduce “their” emissions. Sellers of the products that cause these emissions are mere spectators.
Under this framework, a period of high fossil fuel prices, which could be ushered in by the Russian invasion, has mixed implications. On the one hand, higher prices and a renewed awareness of the geopolitical risks of dependence on imported fossil fuels will increase incentives to invest in alternatives such as renewable or nuclear energy.
On the other hand, higher costs and inflation are putting pressure on public and private finance available for the transition, triggering a rush to increase fossil fuel subsidies for consumers (reportedly after the Glasgow Climate Pact) and to invest in non-Russian fossil fuels production and infrastructure.
Most worrying is that higher fuel prices could propel a tank through the delicate balance of incentives carefully designed (as in a Heath Robinson cartoon) to keep the impact of climate policy on consumers just under the political radar. Populists around the world are sharpening their sound bites.
There is another framework: “Manufacturer responsibility”. Of the fossil carbon we dig up or pump out, 99.9 percent goes into the activated carbon cycle, sustaining global temperatures for millennia. Ultimately, to halt climate change, we must safely and permanently “refossilize” all of the carbon dioxide we produce from fossil sources, either by putting it back underground or otherwise converting it back into rock.
Currently, we permanently dispose of less than 0.1 percent of the carbon we dig up. In order to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement, we simply have to increase this share to 100 percent over the next 30 years, which is a thousandfold.
Capturing carbon – and still making profits
Which brings us back to Ukraine. The invasion has exposed both the dangers of ignoring fossil fuel producer responsibility and the opportunity to embrace it. Who are the producers? Most of the fossil carbon dioxide comes from products manufactured and sold by fewer than 80 companies – all of which are doing reasonably well right now.
European wholesale prices for oil and coal rose by about $140 per tonne of carbon dioxide and natural gas produced last year by more than $350. That’s more than the cost of capturing all of the carbon dioxide and re-injecting it underground.
Companies have been capturing carbon dioxide at the source of about $60 per ton (2,204 pounds) of stimulus for decades and are already preparing to build plants to capture it from scratch for about $300 per ton ( 2,204 pounds) to build. So it can be done. The question is whether these plants can do it on a large scale to make a difference, and there’s only one way to find out: make them.
Of course, consumers still have a role to play: getting rid of all that carbon dioxide will inevitably make fossil fuels more expensive, so saving makes sense. And government regulation, like the idea of “carbon take-back,” is essential to making that happen. We certainly cannot expect the industry to do this out of the goodness of their hearts.
But at today’s prices, fossil fuel producers could prevent the products they sell from causing global warming and still make the same profits as they did a year ago. Instead, this gargantuan money machine increases investors’ and governments’ reliance on fossil fuel rents and funds exploration of new resources that we can’t unless we figure out how to stop using fossil fuels from causing global warming.
The IPCC cannot adopt this “producer responsibility” framing because it would imply a shift in emphasis in climate protection policy. The countries that export fossil fuels would certainly reject any such clarity because they would argue that they are working hard to reduce their own emissions and what happens to the fuels they export is someone else’s problem.
It’s like a chemical company volunteering to take care of its own factories’ ozone-depleting CFC emissions while arguing that CFCs do no harm as long as they’re sealed in an aerosol can, so that may be impossible for the responsible for ozone depletion caused by the products it sells.
The IPCC was instrumental in setting the framework of “emitter responsibility” 30 years ago. That was only half the truth then, and it is only half the truth now. Until we embrace the principle that everyone who produces or sells fossil fuels is responsible for removing all carbon dioxide produced by their activities and products, we will not stop climate change. And if we do that, we will do it. It is really that easy.
This article was originally published on The conversation by Myles Allen at the University of Oxford and Hugh Helperty at Queen’s University. Read the original article here.