The level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is too high; we are currently at over 500ppm CO2e. Worse still, global emissions continue apace. This is in part due to the inertia in our societies and the resulting lack of pace of a transition away from fossil fuels for our energy. However, it is also due to the right and just increases we are seeing in living standards of many people across the world.
Global challenge to achieve a just transition
We, therefore, have a significant global challenge. We need to ensure we bring greenhouse gas levels down even from their current levels, whilst continuing to support societies globally as they seek to improve living standards.
One of the most appealing pathways for this is a rapid transition to a zero-emissions society, with resources shared so that everyone benefits. This would of course be wonderful and is the ambition of many visionaries. However unlikely this may appear, more importantly, it is not clear that even this scenario would be sufficient to preserve many ecosystems on the planet. We are already at 1.2C of average warming and changes being observed are more severe than most models have predicted. The severe weather events in British Columbia and the northwestern parts of the USA, and Western Europe, are perhaps the most recent higher-profile incidents.
The problem we face lies not in the future, but of the here and now as a result of our previous emissions. Tackling this will require the deployment of negative emissions technologies – technologies or approaches which take greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere.
Eliminate emissions not excuse them
A further challenge is that the development of negative emissions technologies has come under criticism because of the potential risk that emitters may use them as an excuse to keep emitting. Whilst this argument is indeed one which we need to grapple with, it, unfortunately, doesn’t help us solve the problem that current levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are simply too high.
We, therefore, need to think very carefully about how we develop approaches to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. These approaches need to be scalable, and also deployed so that they are acceptable to and supported by civil society at large.
Bring all stakeholders to the table
This requires engagement with the public from all sectors; from those who are going to be most affected by and least able to adapt to climate impacts, to those who are more able to provide the requisite financial support to enable deployment of different solutions. Not forgetting policymakers across the world who will need to provide the necessary frameworks and agreements.
Target is not net zero but negative emissions
There is as yet no silver bullet in terms of a greenhouse gas removal technology. In a way, this is a positive thing because each and every community will need to decide how they wish to participate in the transition to, not just a net zero emissions economy, but a negative emissions one.
Tackling climate change is a global problem, and as with most things which are global, there will be differences in how best to solve this depending on many factors such as resources, cultures, and values.
All of these need to be respected, and it is by collaborating that we may be able to, first develop the appropriate technologies and approaches for different parts of the world, but also, second, to deploy them in ways that support the global array of local communities.