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On December 12, 2015, 195 nations—including the US—adopted the Paris Climate Agreement, finally promising to keep global temperature rise well below 2°C above preindustrial levels this century, with a further goal of keeping them below 1.5°C. Christiana Figueres, the UN diplomat who shepherded global climate talks from their post-Copenhagen standstill, remembers “5,000 people jumping out of their seats, crying, clapping, screaming, yelling, torn between euphoria and still disbelief.”

But that euphoria masked a hard truth. The plausibility of the Paris Climate Agreement’s goals rested on what was lurking in the UN report’s fine print: massive negative emissions achieved primarily through BECCS—an unproven concept to put it mildly. How did BECCS get into the models?

The story begins with the 2°C goal itself, a formal international climate target since 2010 (and informal since the 1990s). For years before Paris, climate researchers had warned that the 2°C limit was slipping out of reach—or was already unattainable.

Here’s why: As climate researchers have clearly (and tirelessly) linked temperature rise to increasing atmospheric CO2 concentrations, they can calculate back from a temperature target to the maximum amount of CO2 we can emit—our “carbon budget.” For a greater than 66 percent chance of staying below 2°C of warming, our CO2 concentration should remain under 450 parts per million.

In 2010, when the 2°C goal was adopted at a major conference in Cancun, Mexico, the carbon budget for 450 ppm, or 2°C, was formidably tight: Only a third was left—1,000 gigatons of carbon dioxide. Since humans were emitting 40 gigatons a year, the carbon budget would be easily blown before midcentury. This is the global accounting problem that a handful of specialized modeling groups began confronting in 2004, when the IPCC asked them to map scenarios in line with the 2°C goal. Essentially, how might we cut emissions without grinding the fossil-fuel-driven economy to an immediate standstill?

To tackle this problem, the groups used a tool called an integrated assessment model—algorithms that draw on climate, economic, political, and technical data to imagine cost-effective policy solutions.

Around the same time that Karlsson’s life changed via late-night Swedish television, Detlef Van Vuuren, a project leader of the Dutch modeling group IMAGE, came across the idea behind BECCS in the literature, looking at Obersteiner’s 2001 paper and work by Christian Azar and Jose Moreira. He was intrigued. In theory, by both producing energy and sucking CO2 out of the atmosphere BECCS could result in a path to 2°C that the global economy could afford.

The key was that BECCS resulted in negative emissions, which, in the carbon budget, worked like a negative number. It was like having a climate credit card: Negative emissions allowed modelers to “overshoot” the carbon emissions budget in the short term, permitting greenhouse gases to rise (as they were doing in reality) and then paying back the debt by sucking the CO2 from the atmosphere later.

“The idea of negative emissions became a deeply logical one,” Van Vuuren says.

The rationale behind negative emissions relied heavily on the work of physicist Klaus Lackner, who at the turn of the millennia was sketching schemes for CO2 removal on blackboards for his students at Columbia University. Lackner, who was working on carbon capture and storage (then intended for storing emissions from coal-fired power plants), was the first person to suggest the idea of direct air capture—pulling CO2 out of the air. At that time, Lackner’s idea of direct air capture, like BECCS, was just theoretical.

But Van Vuuren says that for the purposes of the models, BECCS could be said to exist, at least in its component parts. The IPCC had published a report on carbon capture and storage—and bioenergy just meant burning lots of crops. Some models did ultimately include direct air capture and another negative emissions technique, afforestation (planting lots of trees, which naturally absorb and store CO2 in the process of photosynthesis). But BECCS was cheaper because it produced electricity.

In 2007 IMAGE published an influential paper relying on BECCS in Climatic Change, and garnered much attention at an IPCC expert meeting. Other groups started putting BECCS into their models too, which is how it came to dominate those included in the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report (the one that prompted the BBC to call Karlsson).

The models assumed BECCS on a vast scale. According to an analysis that British climate researcher Jason Lowe shared with Carbon Brief, at median the models called for BECCS to remove 630 gigatons of CO2, roughly two-thirds of the carbon dioxide humans have emitted between preindustrial times and 2011. Was that reasonable?

Not for James Hansen, who wrote that reliance on negative emissions had quietly “spread like a cancer” through the scenarios, along with the assumption that young people would somehow figure out how to extract CO2 at a cost he later projected to be $140–570 trillion this century.

Anderson (of the India calculations) pointed out that the few 2°C scenarios without BECCS required CO2 emissions to peak back in 2010—something, he noted wryly, that “clearly has not occurred.” In a scathing letter in 2015, Anderson accused scientists of using negative emissions to sanitize their research for policymakers, calling them a “deux ex machina.” Fellow critics argued that the integrated assessment models had become a political device to make the 2°C goal seem more plausible than it was.

Oliver Geden, who heads the EU division of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, raised the alarm in the popular press. In a New York Times op-ed during the conference, he called negative emissions “magical thinking”—a concept, he says, meant to keep the “story” of 2°C, the longtime goal of international climate negotiations, alive.

For Van Vuuren and other modelers we interviewed, this criticism is misplaced. Integrated assessment models are not meant be predictive, they emphasize, because no one can predict future technology—or political decisions. Nor are they action plans. Rather, for Van Vuuren, the models are “explorations” meant to show the kinds of policy decisions and investments necessary to reach the 2°C goal. Given that, Van Vuuren sees a “worrying gap” between the reliance on BECCS in the scenarios and how few research programs and projects there are in the real world.

Whether the IPCC’s scenarios are political cover or research guides for policymakers depends on who you ask. But either way, this gap is undeniable. It can be explained in part by the fact that BECCS is a conceptual tool, not an actual technology that anyone in the engineering world (apart from a few outliers like Karlsson) is championing. At a recent meeting in Berlin, one climate researcher called BECCS “the devil child,” which got laughs; bioenergy and carbon capture have both met their share of criticism—bioenergy for displacing agricultural crops needed to feed people and carbon capture for, among other things, being perceived as diverting attention from the need for massive emissions cuts.

For that reason, in an article last year in Science, Anderson and Peters called relying on negative emissions “an unjust and high-stakes gamble” and a “moral hazard” that allows policymakers to avoid making tough emissions cuts right now. Replying in a letter, Klaus Lackner, the carbon capture pioneer, cautioned that their argument risked shutting down a necessary avenue of research. “If we had this conversation in 1980,” he says, it would have been different. Now, with our carbon budget blown, he argues, potential negative emissions technologies are “a life preserver.”

Here’s the hardest truth: Even if negative emissions debuted in highly crafted, impractical computer models, we now need negative emissions in the real world to keep the planet’s temperatures at safe levels.

Temperatures have already risen 1.2 to 1.3°C (or 2.1 to 2.3°F). Current carbon dioxide concentrations, meanwhile, hover around 406 ppm. According to Sabine Fuss and Jan Minx of the Mercatur Research Institute, our 1.5°C budget is more or less blown—a widely shared conclusion. (If you’re feeling morbid, you can check the Institute’s running carbon budget clock here). Without a drastic increase in international action on cutting emissions, they say, the carbon budget for 2°C will likely be blown by 2030.

So the question is, can negative emissions technology work in the real world, on a global scale? To explore that question, we visited the project in Decatur, Illinois, that modelers cite as evidence that BECCS actually exists., Site News current daily serving News today and the latest news about politics until News lifestyle and sport.

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