RSS – Myles Allen – Stocks, flows and myopia: the challenge of limiting cumulative carbon emissions
Myles Allen, Professor of Geosystem Science, Environmental Change Institute, School of Geography and the Environment and Department of Physics, University of Oxford
One of the central findings of the IPCC 5th Assessment is the cumulative impact of carbon dioxide emissions on climate, meaning only a finite stock of carbon can dumped in the atmosphere if we are to meet any given target for limiting overall anthropogenic warming. Current UK and, insofar as they exist, international climate policies still focus overwhelmingly on regulating the flow of carbon dioxide, or the rate of emission in 2030, 2050 or whenever. This mismatch between short-term policy goals and scientific reality is starting to have serious consequences, with measures such as emission trading schemes, carbon pricing and subsidies for renewables absorbing considerable political and actual capital despite offering no realistic prospect of controlling the overall emissions stock. The one technology that will be essential if we are to get net global emissions to zero, carbon capture and storage, is actively disadvantaged by the current policy framework.
I will argue that attempting to control cumulative carbon emissions through a framework of national or international goals for emission rates in specific years is hopeless. This does not mean the UNFCCC process, and the UK Climate Change Act, are useless: reducing emission rates over the next couple of decades is essential to buy time to solve the problem. But we need to recognise while these instruments may enable the solution, they are not, and never will be, the solution themselves. The only solution in the long term is to reframe the problem as one of industrial waste disposal: the fossil fuel industry itself must eventually be required to dispose of the carbon dioxide generated by the products it sells, meaning CCS on stationary sources with any residual emissions and remaining mobile sources being offset by BECCS or active air capture. If, as a result of this regulation, we have a smaller fossil fuel industry, so be it, but the industry will still be there: despite impressive recent price reductions, it remains vanishingly improbable that renewables will outcompete fossil energy, even with the added cost of carbon dioxide disposal, in all applications at any time in the foreseeable future. Nor, I will argue, do we have any right to require our grandchildren to rely on windmills rather than CCS, but by failing to build public confidence in CCS today, we are in the process of making that decision for them. Hence instead of talking about disinvestment and stranded assets, those concerned about actually solving the problem should focus on how the fossil fuel industry can be reformed with the minimum of economic trauma to place its activities on a climatically safe footing.
Further information about the speaker can be found here.