TK Arun

The discourse on climate change must change, from one that prescribes the reduction of fresh emissions of greenhouse gases to one that focuses on the removal of the accumulated carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. India must take the lead to bring about this paradigm shift in climate action. The rich world will resist it, and the institutions dominated by it will try to drown out the change in a flood of jargon, but India must persist. That is the only way global warming can be reined in while developing countries retain the space to grow and improve the desperately low standards of living of the bulk of their populations.

The latest reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) make this absolutely clear, if one looks at the data first and at their recommendations later.

Historical cumulative net CO2 emissions from 1850 to 2019 were 2400±240 GtCO2 (high confidence). Gt is, of course, Gigatonnes or a billion tonnes. C is for Celsius, the same as Centigrade. The carbon budget available to keep the rise in the average global surface temperature below 1.5 degrees C above pre-industrial levels is 500 GtCO2. That is if the world emits more than an additional 500 Gt of CO2, the rise in temperature would be greater than 1.5 degrees Celsius.

How much CO2 emissions a society is responsible for depends on many things, the climate (you require heating or cooling), the standard of living, and energy efficiency. This can be measured from the production point of view or the consumption point of view. China produces a lot of emissions because of its huge export industry. The exports are consumed by people in the ultimate export markets. So, what really matters is emissions generated on a consumption basis. North America has the highest per capita emission on a consumption basis.

Greenhouse gases have multiple sources. CO2 emissions come from fossil fuel combustion and industry, CO2FFI in the jargon is the largest. Then, there is CO2 from Land Use and Land Use Change, CO2LULUC. Other greenhouse gases include methane, three classes of fluorinated gases, and nitrous oxide.

The report, in its Summary for Policymakers, presents an illuminating table, comparing the per capita emissions of CO2FFI. It is 17 tonnes, on a consumption basis, for North America, less than half that level for Europe, at 7.8 tonnes, 1.5 tonnes for South Asia and 0.8 tonnes for Africa. Do people outside the rich world have a right to improve their lives? Of course, they do.

Improving living standards does mean consuming more energy, and raising the number of emissions. That means that the total consumption of the growing populations of Africa (1.3 billion at present), and South Asia (1.8 billion at present) will add hundreds of GtCO2 when their consumption-based emissions rise to present-day European levels.

The report contains another statistic: Based on central estimates only, cumulative net CO2 emissions between 2010 and 2019 compared to about four-fifths of the size of the remaining carbon budget from 2020 onwards for a 50 percent probability of limiting global warming to 1.5°C. Now, the pace of rising emissions has been coming down. Even then, the absolute amount of emissions have been going up. When something grows from 10 to 20 in five years, that represents an annual compound growth rate of some 14 percent.

Suppose, after attaining a level of 60, the growth rate for the next five years is just 7 percent. But in the first year, the addition would be 4.2, whereas the addition, in the first year, when the base was 10 and the growth rate was 14 percent, was 1.4.

So, slower growth of emissions does not help us make the remaining carbon budget last. If 80 percent of the remaining carbon budget was used up in 2010-19, how much would emissions growth have to be squeezed to get 20 or 30 years, instead of the five or 10 years that current trends of emission reduction would give us to use up the carbon budget to prevent rise above 1.5 degrees C, especially when the poor world seeks to improve its standard of living?

Right now, the average rise in global temperatures has been 1.1 degrees C. Already we can see the effects: unseasonal and relatively more vicious hurricanes, 20-year droughts in the American West, a famine-inducing drought in Madagaskar, flash floods in Kerala, Uttarakhand, China, and Germany, uncontrollable wildfires in California, Spain, and Australia, heatwaves in Canada, and Europe, snow in the Arabian desert. The consequences of temperatures rising to 1.5 degrees or even 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels can easily be imagined, even without the help of the IPCC reports.

Clearly, if warming has to be contained below 1.5 degrees C above pre-industrial levels, it is not enough to squeeze the pace of additional emissions and harm the growth prospects of developing countries. The existing stock of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has to be attacked, it must be sucked out and depleted. Climate action jargon calls this carbon dioxide removal (CDR).

Emission reduction is everyone’s responsibility. But what about CDR? Intuitively, it is primarily the job of the rich countries, which put the bulk of that carbon in the atmosphere in the first place. It will not be cheap, but they have to bear the cost, suck it up, and suck out the carbon from the air.

The International Energy Agency makes it clear that there is no single cost for CDR, it depends on how concentrated the CO2 being captured is, and what use can be made of it. Direct Air Capture is the most expensive, and that is what is required the most. Its cost can vary from $130 to $340 per tonne.

However, serious investment in CDR can reduce the cost and find new uses for the carbon recovered. The Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory reported a method to convert CO2 captured from the air into ethanol. A Canadian university found some way to take out carbon fiber from the captured carbon. If ways can be found to convert the captured carbon into graphene or as feedstock for a variety of organic chemicals, the commercial benefit could outweigh the commercial cost, while the environmental benefit remains just as high.

One California startup, in which Blood Diamond star Leonardo DiCaprio has invested, already produces synthetic diamonds of high quality. Suppose another startup can convert atmospheric carbon into poor quality diamond particles at a very low cost, we would solve not only the climate problem but also the shortage of sand/aggregate for making concrete.

The point is to make CDR the primary tool of climate mitigation, not emission reduction, and to designate CDR as the responsibility of the rich world. Once CDR is elevated to the level of the single, most-important means of saving the climate, enough research resources would pour into the sector and wonders would emerge. In shifting the burden of saving the climate from emissions reduction to CDR, India’s role is key.

First Published on Money Control, titled Carbon removal, not emissions reduction, to combat Climate Change, on 27 April 2022
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About the Author

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TK Arun is a Senior Journalist and Columnist based in Delhi.