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Elusive ‘negative emissions’ must not distract from immediate action at Marrakesh

9 November 2016

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Ahead of the November 2016 climate convention in Marrakesh (COP22), Fern released ‘Going Negative – how carbon sinks could cost the earth,’ at an event hosted by the Commission’s DG for International Cooperation and Development (recording here).

‘Going Negative’ investigates negative emissions, the new climate fad, which refers to the removal of carbon from the atmosphere. Scientists claim that large scale negative emissions are necessary to have a chance of limiting warming to below 2° Celsius – even more so for 1.5° C. Simply: we are burning too much CO2 and national plans to reduce emissions are too little, too late. The author of the report, journalist Fred Pearce, warns that efforts to remove emissions already in the atmosphere cannot replace immediate reductions in new emissions. He also concludes that community consent and participation are the touchstones of success in achieving forest-based negative emissions.

The problem with more high-tech ideas about emissions’ removals is that no one is sure how to make them a reality. One option, ‘bioenergy carbon capture and storage’ (BECCS), is to capture carbon dioxide from energy plants and bury it underground. The scale on which this would be needed – an area of land the size of the US just to grow the biomass – would involve a land grab of a size never seen before: a human rights calamity, with major implications for food security and biodiversity.

As policymakers in Marrakesh start the work of implementing the Paris Agreement, it is essential that they recognise that enhancing carbon sinks by restoring natural forests – if done with full community consent and participation – could be a viable negative emissions technology. The EU could achieve this by making its land use and forestry (LULUCF) regulation more ambitious. But efforts aimed at ‘negative emissions’ must not be an excuse to delay driving down carbon emissions to zero as rapidly as possible. The UN Environment Programme has warned that the vast majority of countries’ emissions reductions targets are too low, putting us on a pathway of close to 3° C of warming. All wealthy industrial nations, including the EU, must urgently increase their targets for 2030 and 2050.

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