A Hill Times opinion article by PICS executive director Sybil Seitzinger. Published Nov. 29, 2019.
Even if we manage to replace fossil fuels with clean-energy generation for transport, buildings, and industry alongside huge strides in energy conservation, there remain major sources of emissions for which no true mitigation measures yet exist.
Negative-emissions technologies, while once an outlier among climate-change solutions, will undoubtedly be on the negotiating table at COP25 in Madrid, as nations wrestle with how they will meet—let alone extend—their commitments.
NETs are systems that remove and sequester carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Despite debate over the effectiveness, impact, and cost of various NETs, they are gaining traction as a climate-change mitigation tool, as it becomes more apparent that we need them.
Climate scenarios that keep global warming within the two degrees Celsius upper limit of the Paris Agreement rely on large-scale CO2 removal and sequestration. Staying within the lower limit of 1.5 Celsius will require net-zero emissions by mid-century.
This huge challenge resonated throughout Canada’s 2019 general election.
“That means not putting any more carbon emissions into the air than we take out,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said during the election campaign. Then-environment minister Catherine McKenna also echoed his remarks. Fortunately for the Liberals, they are now well placed, at least politically, for delivering on that promise, with the NDP and the Greens having the same carbon-neutrality goal by 2050. The Bloc Québécois is also pushing for the 1.5 C ceiling.
What is much less certain, is how they plan to do this. Even if we manage to replace fossil fuels with clean-energy generation for transport, buildings, and industry alongside huge strides in energy conservation, there remain major sources of emissions for which no true mitigation measures yet exist. These include cement and steel production, livestock farming, particularly methane from cows, and the fast-growing aviation sector plus a myriad other hard-to-decarbonize services that we rely on. The hope is that NETs can neutralize those emissions, but how realistic is that as a rescue plan?
Ottawa may well be looking to forestry replanting and expansion, given it is the most straightforward and least expensive option for removing atmospheric CO2 through photosynthesis, and then sequestering that carbon. While worthwhile as a NET tool, however, it would be a mistake for Canada to rely mainly on forests.
The wildcard at play is forest fire, which under a warming climate will occur more intensely and more often due to hotter, drier summers. Wildfire can wipe out the gains from forestry, as we know too well here in British Columbia after losing more than 1.2 million hectares of forest in the summers of 2017 and 2018.
In 2017, BC’s forest fires released the equivalent of 176 million tonnes of CO2—more than 2.5 times the province’s total emissions (64.5 million tonnes CO2e) for that year.
We need NETs that store carbon, permanently. The Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions recognized this need with the launch of our new international NET research project “Solid Carbon,” which aims to turn CO2 into rock. The vision is to extract CO2 directly from the air, then using deep-ocean technology powered by ocean-based wind and solar energy, inject the CO2 into the subseafloor basalt, where it mineralizes into solid carbonate rock. Most of the planet’s basalt (volcanic rock) is in the ocean. Unlike other NETs that store CO2 as a gas underground, this solid form would make it a truly permanent solution.
The project is being led by Kate Moran, president and chief executive of Oceans Network Canada, a University of Victoria initiative, in partnership with other faculty from UVic, University of British Columbia, and other researchers from Canada, the United States, and Europe. If this ambitious made-in-Canada project proves feasible, oceans around the world could be home to floating platforms that house this NETs solution.
We need to pursue and invest in these potential game-changers for both combating climate change and for being leaders in the emerging low-carbon economy. However, while NETs offer great hope, hope is not what we should rely on in 2019.
As world leaders and delegates gather at the UN summit, nations must collaboratively focus on drastic reductions in carbon emissions across our towns, cities, businesses, industries, and trade, alongside full adaptation to the changing climate. NETs have the potential to assist our journey to carbon neutrality, but ultimately, are just an add-on to what needs to be a seismic shift from fossil fuel to emissions-free energy generation, and not an excuse to slow down.
Sybil Seitzinger is the executive director of Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions, and a board member of the Pan-Canadian Expert Collaboration.