Land-based negative emissions: risks for climate mitigation and impacts on sustainable development

Abstract

This paper focuses on the risks associated with “negative emissions” technologies (NETs) for drawing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through photosynthesis and storing it in land-based sinks or underground. Modelled mitigation pathways for 1.5 °C assume NETs that range as high as 1000 Gt CO2. We argue that this is two to three times greater than the amount of land-based NETs that can be realistically assumed, given critical social objectives and ecological constraints. Embarking on a pathway that assumes unrealistically large amounts of future NETs could lead society to set near-term targets that are too lenient and thus greatly overshoot the carbon budget, without a way to undo the damage. Pathways consistent with 1.5 °C that rely on smaller amounts of NETs, however, could prove viable. This paper presents a framework for assessing the risks associated with negative emissions in the context of equity and sustainable development. To do this, we identify three types of risks in counting on NETs: (1) that NETs will not ultimately prove feasible; (2) that their large-scale deployment involves unacceptable ecological and social impacts; and (3) that NETs prove less effective than hoped, due to irreversible climate impacts, or reversal of stored carbon. We highlight the technical issues that need to be resolved and—more importantly—the value judgements that need to be made, to identify the realistic potential for land-based NETs consistent with social and environmental goals. Given the critical normative issues at stake, these are decisions that should be made within an open, transparent, democratic process. As input, we offer here an indicative assessment of the realistic potential for land-based NETs, based on a precautionary assessment of the risks to their future effectiveness and a provisional assessment of the extent to which they are in conflict with sustainable development goals related to land, food and climate.

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Fig. 1

Notes

  1. 1.

    Note that soil carbon sequestration is excluded from modelled pathways due to scientific uncertainties, and so we do not include it here as a common NET option.

  2. 2.

    The United Nations SDGs are explained here: http://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/sustainable-development-goals/.

  3. 3.

    This paper is based on research originally presented in a working paper, available here: https://www.sei-international.org/mediamanager/documents/Publications/Climate/SEI-WP-2016-08-Negative-emissions.pdf.

  4. 4.

    Net carbon uptake in living biomass peaks at around 50–70 years in mature forests, although studies show mature forests continue to sequester carbon in soil and dead organic matter after living biomass saturates (IPCC 2014).

  5. 5.

    Note that carbon capture and storage combined with fossil fuels cannot lead to negative emissions. Negative emissions are only possible with CCS combined with bioenergy, providing the carbon sequestered exceeds the net life-cycle carbon released from the land conversion, feedstock growth, harvest, transport, processing and usage of the bioenergy, including any ancillary fossil fuel use (See: Searchinger and Heimlich 2015).

  6. 6.

    This carbon sink potential is in addition to “other natural processes on land (that) remove approximately 25% of the carbon emitted each year” (Houghton et al. 2015, p. 1023).

  7. 7.

    Reforestation here refers to reforesting historically deforested lands, while afforestation refers to establishing forests on landscapes that do not naturally support forests, likely requiring even greater nutrient input. It is worth noting that, while there are many different definitions of forests at international and national levels (i.e.: FAO, UNFCCC), “there is no internationally agreed definition of what a forest is, and the understanding of this term is highly context-specific” (CBD 2012, p. 5).

Abbreviations

BECCS:

Bioenergy with carbon capture and storage

GHG:

Greenhouse gasses

HANPP:

Human appropriation of net primary production

HWP:

Harvested wood products

IAM:

Integrated assessment modelling

NETs:

Negative emissions technologies

NPP:

Net primary production

SDGs:

Sustainable development goals

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Dooley, K., Kartha, S. Land-based negative emissions: risks for climate mitigation and impacts on sustainable development. Int Environ Agreements 18, 79–98 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10784-017-9382-9

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Keywords

  • Negative emissions technologies (NETs)
  • Ecosystem restoration
  • SDGs
  • Equity
  • Sustainable development