This is the view of Kevin Anderson, Professor of Energy and Climate Change at the University of Manchester and Deputy Director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, who gave the 2017 Gordon Goodman Memorial Lecture. Below are five takeaways from the lecture and panel discussions.
Anderson used the metaphor of “mitigation on methadone”, meaning that we are relying on negative emissions technologies (NETs) as a substitute for genuine mitigation of carbon emissions. NETs are currently part of the strategy underpinning the Paris Agreement, and Anderson argued that over-reliance on them can result in societies doing too little to decarbonize, and hence overshooting their carbon budgets and running the risk of unwanted social-ecological impacts.
In the first panel discussion Clarisse Kehler Siebert, SEI Research Fellow, challenged the audience, suggesting that adaptation and mitigation haven’t always gone hand-in-hand, and that adaptation in the early days was treated with scepticism by academia and the climate policy sphere. “Mitigation was the preferred and the only morally accepted response to climate change. Mitigation was plan A and adaptation was the copout. It was talked about as a moral hazard, just like we talk about NETs today,” said Kehler Siebert.
Anderson responded that policy-makers are already relying on NETs without being fully aware of what they entail and what the outcomes and impacts would mean for the wider society.
Victor Galaz, Deputy Director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre, pointed out how far NETs could have advanced if a bigger effort had been made in the early 90s to drive them forward. The lack of investment and science around NETs has resulted in a poorly developed NETs portfolio. Anderson’s view was that rather than developing NETs back in the 90s there should have been substantial investment in low-carbon energy resources and technologies – the problem is that we did neither.
According to Anderson, for Sweden to contribute to reaching the 2 degree target, it must decarbonize entirely before 2035. But Sweden’s recently passed climate law sets the goal of full decarbonization later, by 2045, which is not in line with achieving the 2 degree target. Anderson reminded the audience that it is still much easier for countries like Sweden, which is a frontrunner in climate mitigation, to decarbonize than it is for people in low-income regions to deal with climate impacts.
Teresa Anderson of ActionAid International explained that some NETs imply displacement of problems from north to south, for example the technology of BECCS (which combines bio-energy with geological carbon capture and storage). Because this method is one of the negative emission technologies proposed in the Paris Agreement, it is assumed that large tracts of land should be made available for growing crops for bioenergy.
“We have learnt from the biofuel land-grab experience in the last decade that biofuels can drive conflict for land, ecosystem destruction, hunger, and rising food prices. Sweden really has the opportunity to step it up massively and pioneer solutions for decarbonization that are already out there and push other countries to do the same. There is genuine potential for leadership and action and it can be a real game changer in the international community”, said Teresa Anderson.
She echoed the view of other panellists and asked, if Sweden doesn’t make this effort, which countries will?
Some in the audience argued that there will always be losers in a decarbonized society, for example in the private sector, and asked what could be done to incentivize companies. Eva Blixt, Research Manager at Jernkontoret (the Swedish steel producers’ association) said that Jernkontoret and the industry had for many years been reluctant to change their old ways of doing things and embrace new visions, but that eventually the shift in society and push from the public had made them pursue a new trajectory.
For the past two years Jernkontoret has been working with co-creation processes with academia and policy-makers, with the aim that by 2050 all their production should benefit society. Blixt said that this co-creation is making Jernkontoret understand what decarbonization and sustainable business mean for the steel industry.
“We are not only talking about it but we actually talk and do. I would argue partnership is the new leadership,” Blixt concluded.
Read SEI researcher Sivan Kartha’s work on the topic of negative emissions technologies:
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