Idea #1

Reducing Emissions is More Important than Reducing Fossil Fuel Combustion

by Mark Alan Hughes

This post argues that confusion over policy goals presents a significant risk with respect to our chances to mitigate climate change and advocates a clarifying commitment to reducing emissions rather than hydrocarbon combustion as an organizing policy principle.

Many people in the United States see reducing (as much as possible, and preferably to zero) the use of fossil fuels to be an intrinsically necessary means to mitigating climate change. But this chain of reasoning omits several links, and by doing so can be misleading and a barrier to democratic consensus among various policy options. A fuller representation of the chain goes like this:

The extraction, processing, delivery, and combustion of fossil fuels emit greenhouse gases (GHG) into the atmosphere, which in turn raises Earth’s global mean temperature over time (at a possibly accelerating rate), which in turn has essentially permanent (in human terms) impacts on ecosystems that produce our food and provide our inhabitable settlements. Being able to survive on Earth with food and shelter, and hopefully with much of our civilization intact and capable of future progress, is our ultimate goal.

Limiting the extraction and use of fossil fuels is not intrinsically necessary. It is only an instrumental means to stop adding more GHGs into the atmosphere. This is a crucial point. The instrumental means that matters more to our ultimate goal of surviving on Earth is that we stop adding more GHGs into the atmosphere. Here’s why.

According to the Global Carbon Project, the world in 2018 added a record-high 37.1 billion metric tonnes of CO2 from the use of fossil fuels. That helped drive the total concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere to another record-high level of 407 parts per million, which is 45 percent higher than the levels when the use of fossil fuels began the Industrial Revolution.

The insufficiency of reducing fossil fuel combustion as a means of reducing emissions was first established by the IPCC AR5 in 2013. The report presented 116 scenarios for reducing emissions at a rate consistent with meeting the 2C degree target, and 101 of them require some form of negative emission technology. Once negative emissions were established as necessary, the importance of reducing fossil fuel combustion became simply a function of how efficiently these negative emissions technologies could remove new emissions. In sum, reducing emissions is the key instrumental goal, not necessarily reducing fossil fuel combustion.

Negative emissions technologies, otherwise known as carbon removal, consist of configurations of technologies, business models, and regulatory frameworks that (1) capture CO2 at either a point source such as a smokestack or directly from the air, (2) isolate that captured CO2 from being released into the atmosphere either through a chemical transformation or by burying it in either geological or constructed formations, and/or (3) utilize the CO2 in other products or processes.

In theory, these technologies need not place any limit on burning fossil fuels. The emissions would be mitigated by the strategies to the degree that they perform as designed. Proving that performance is a critical issue, but that turns this into an instrumental debate about the costs and benefits of achieving a just and efficient reduction in GHGs into the atmosphere.

And in an ironic twist, progress on carbon removal will benefit from (indeed, is likely to require) a policy of internalizing the external costs of carbon-based fuels, either through a carbon tax or mandatory caps. Carbon removal is a kind of remediation mechanism that fossil energy companies could use to pay for compliance costs under climate change mitigation policy.

It may seem at odds with the ultimate goal of surviving on Earth, but policy solutions like geo-engineering and carbon removal that leverage policy mechanisms like a carbon tax to reduce GHG emissions while simultaneously increasing combustion of fossil fuels may well provide the most just and efficient pathway to achieving that goal, especially when coupled with goals such as ending global energy poverty and other UN Sustainable Development Goals.

For example, the Unites States has an enormous and growing natural gas infrastructure that delivers affordable and reliable energy and will always do so by adding GHG emissions into the atmosphere. Today, there is a “yes or no” debate over that asset, rather than an “under what conditions” debate, including the condition that all emissions from combustion be removed. An “under what conditions” debate is the only way to find the most just and efficient paths to meeting our goals. Justly and efficiently reducing emissions, not reducing fossil fuels, is the proper measure of that debate.

Mark Alan Hughes is a Professor of Practice at the Weitzman School of Design and the founding faculty director of the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy.