The IPCC to humanity: We can’t wait for carbon dioxide removal to save us

The latest climate report, dubbed an “atlas of human suffering,” also warns that we need to cut carbon with the tools we have rather than waiting for a silver bullet.

Sign that says "There is no Planet B"

The IPCC's report shows we need to act right now.

Photo: Markus Spiske/Unsplash

Do you like having a habitable climate? If so, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has a few tips on how to keep it that way.

The world’s leading body of climate scientists dropped its latest report on Monday. There’s no shortage of bad news in it, including the fact that current climate policies could still result in up to nearly 30% of all species being wiped off the face of the Earth, and up to $12.7 trillion (yes, that’s a T) in coastal assets is at risk of inundation by the end of this century under a middle-of-the-road scenario. As your friendly climate correspondent, I would normally keep going down that road. But not today, Satan.

Instead, I want to talk about the good parts of the IPCC. Well, “good.” The report shows that we still have a choice to address climate change. Importantly, it lays out that we also have the technology needed right now — and that if we wait for some silver bullet that venture capital is increasingly investing in, we could face serious harm.

This iteration of the IPCC focuses on how to adapt our entire world for a new climate. That includes the energy system. It finds that we can not just reduce the impacts of climate change by investing in renewable and decentralized energy systems by cutting carbon pollution, but we can also reduce society’s vulnerability to climate change.

There are already myriad examples to point to, from Puerto Ricans with rooftop solar who had power after Hurricane Maria to some Tesla owners using their cars to stay warm during last year’s Texas blackouts. (Both those disasters also show the vulnerabilities of a fossil fuel-powered grid.) These types of distributed power systems are just the tip of the iceberg. The IPCC also references microgrids, basically self-contained grids that can power neighborhoods, as another tool that can keep the lights on and reduce air pollution, particularly in disadvantaged communities.

These are not exactly splashy solutions, though no shade to solar panels. Instead, we’ve seen an increasing interest, particularly among venture capitalists, in carbon dioxide removal. The full 3,675-page report notes that all the scenarios the IPCC runs where we limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) — a target that’s crucial to the continued existence of small island states and millions of other people around the world — require some form of carbon dioxide removal to stabilize the climate. However, the report warns of “trade-offs” and the risk of maladaptation if we put too many eggs in the carbon removal basket.

There are lots of ways to suck carbon dioxide from the sky. Planting trees and growing kelp are some of the more natural ways to do it. Other options focus on new, unproven technologies that pull the climate pollutant from the air. While we need to figure out how to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere at scale, the report shows there are a few pitfalls.

Marc Benioff has pushed the idea of planting 1 trillion trees. I love forests as much as the next person — I was a freaking park ranger — but figuring out where to put those trees is a whole other story. Tree planting at the scale needed to reduce carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere could mean turning farmland into forests, which would have an impact on food security. If the past is any prologue, it’s not like the world has a great track record of ensuring burdens are shouldered equitably, meaning that a tree-planting program could fall on the Global South.

There are also questions on what exactly all those trees would look like; would it be a monocrop focused solely on sucking up carbon dioxide that kills local biodiversity? Would local communities get a say in what gets planted? These are big questions, ones the world needs to collectively answer before pursuing what’s essentially a planetary terraforming experiment.

Any kind of solution like that is years — if not decades — away. The report also shows we need to act right now, and that doing so with the technology we have will pay dividends by reducing the effects of climate change and improving resilience to the more violent weather already in the pipeline.

The real world offers a similar lesson. Oil and gas have become a central discussion as the world grapples with the Russian war against Ukraine. Europe is hooked on Russian gas, and sanctions against the petrostate have so far skirted the industry. Reducing dependence on fossil fuels isn’t just good for the climate; it can also help improve resiliency and curtail the power of Russia and other authoritarian states that have oil-dependent economies. As if we needed another reason to kick fossil fuels to the curb.


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