It is no understatement to claim that anthropogenic climate change presents an existential threat to our way of life. It is also no understatement to assert that without rapid and radical change this threat will manifest itself. Climate change occurs from the excess accumulation of greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere with carbon dioxide (CO2) as the dominant and as the longest lasting one. We emit CO2 from burning fossil fuels and other land use activity. Our inability as a collective to assign an externality to the entirety of our emissions results in the continued irrational discounting of the damages we are causing to future generations. Environmentalist Paul Hawken has accurately observed “we are stealing the future, selling it in the present and calling it GDP.” Indeed, a recent report showed how none of the world’s top industries would be profitable if they paid for the true cost of natural capital.
Granted, there has been some progress in the global decarbonization effort, but to date this has occurred on the fringes and in the absence of any enforceable targets to limit the total amount of atmospheric CO2. Corporations buy carbon offsets when it suits them. We improve supply chains and energy efficiency where it saves us money. We support “green” when it is in vogue or convenient. Investors divest from carbon intensive industry. We install, own and operate carbon free sources of energy where the policy is supportive or where the electricity grid can handle it. Mayors make climate commitments (like in 2007) that reflect what the global scientific community calls for, but are not held accountable when they don’t follow through. These are all important signals, but don’t change the fact that the great majority of the energy we consume is and for decades to come will be derived from fossil based sources. Real and systemic change is hindered (at best) by poor policies, embedded interests and carbon intensive infrastructure and (at worst) by deliberate misinformation and our collective greed. We are going deep, deep into debt, and leaving our children to foot the bill.
These are all important signals, but don’t change the fact that the great majority of the energy we consume is, and for decades to come will be, derived from fossil based sources.
While our children will certainly have a lesser debt to pay off if we are effective at decarbonizing as quickly as possible, there is no feasible scenario of climate success that doesn’t include negative carbon emissions. In other words, without the ability to affordably capture and permanently store previously emitted carbon back from the atmosphere, we cannot stop climate change. Carbon geoengineering has been painted by many in sustainability circles as a moral hazard. The argument goes like this: solutions that might allow us to undo the mess we have made (i.e. sequester previously emitted carbon dioxide from the atmosphere) will give emitters a license to continue to make a mess, and remove any incentives to find new ways to not make a mess (i.e. carbon free energy).
However, instead of considering negative carbon emissions as potentially undermining to the proliferation of carbon free energy, the climate change mitigation community at large should consider the portfolio of options that can permanently sequester carbon as an enabler and accelerant. When the world finally gets solving climate change right, then freely dumping CO2 to the atmosphere will become illegal. No emission can be left off the hook. The math is quite simple. For every ton of carbon we emit – in the past, present, and future – we are responsible for putting another one away. And we must pay to put that ton away.
Enter an important industry of the future: the carbon debt collector. Her north star is science backed metrics that point to a future where the world lives with desired CO2 levels. She can leverage the threat of paying for emissions to motivate emitters to reduce and replace emissions, and comply with their goals. She brings a long-needed stick to make it more enticing to eat – and profit! – from carrots (like investing in carbon free energy or energy reduction assets). She can use the aggregation of anything that can reduce, reuse, recycle, remove and replace carbon to help the debtor pay their dues. A revenue neutral carbon tax today would dis-incentivize emissions by requiring the emitter to pay a fee to the consumer/rate payer. A debt collection paradigm would directly assign the emission to the sink that can take care of it. If the debtor would rather not pay their dues, then they are better off reducing and stopping their emissions. Carbon geoengineering delivers a real and credible threat that leaves no emission off the hook.
Neither this world nor industry exists today. Without a value on the carbon externality we spend our climate credit cards like there is no limit. The problem is that there is a limit. With 410 parts per million of CO2 in today’s atmosphere we have already passed that limit. Volunteers who are acutely aware of the climate challenge can play an important role in seeding the debt collectors. As projects come online that can demonstrate the permanence and scale of their removal, volunteers can support them and even profit by owning a stake in future projects that will allow our children to clean up from our messes.
There is no one silver bullet to solving climate change but there are many silver buckshot.
There is no one silver bullet to solving climate change but there are many silver buckshot. The buckshot are complicated and messy. Different solutions will work differently in different geographies. They will all require careful and holistic environmental, social and economic accounting. Their effective deployment will require openness, verifiability, rules, incentives, and cohesive global planning. The carbon geoengineer will enable you to carefully plan, save, invest, and divest, to manage your carbon and pay back your debt. The real moral hazard is to not give this individual a seat at the table or prop up this industry until it is too late. At that point there will be a new type of climate financial planner. It will be the solar radiation management geoengineer who will advise you to go to Vegas and throw your entire life savings on red.
Christophe Jospe is founder of Carbon A List, an environmental consultancy that provides insights into innovations that can close the carbon cycle. You can click here to subscribe to his monthly newsletter.
The Forum for Climate Engineering Assessment does not necessarily endorse the ideas contained in this or any other guest post. Our aim is to provide a space for the expression of a range of perspectives on climate engineering.