How we get to Net Zero – decarbonize fossil fuels

I must confess to a liking for practical, focused, elegant solutions – even to big problems like global warming. 

Photo by Callum Shaw on Unsplash

And so when Myles Allen says that fossil fuel companies should be decarbonizing the fuels, it is such a clear and practical idea. Much easier to grasp than that rather vague phrase about ‘decarbonizing the economy’ (although fossil fuels are not the only source of the emissions that are warming our climate – agriculture contributes a fair amount, too).

It is a solvable problem if we get the industry to clean up its waste, he says. To get to net zero, any industry that puts CO2 into the air should have to demonstrate how it is going to mitigate those emissions and include the costs as part of the cost of the product. People should not be allowed to sell products that contribute to global warming, he says. But this is not how we think about the problem – so we have to change how we think, and that does seem to be happening.

“The only real alternative to stop fossil fuels causing global warming is to decarbonize them,” he says. ‘What it means is….one ton of carbon dioxide has to be safely and permanently disposed of for every ton generated by the continued use of fossil fuels.”

And because we as consumers can’t do this, “the responsibility has to lie with the companies that are producing and selling the fossil fuels themselves.”

Their engineers have known how to do it for decades, he says – by capturing the CO2 at source or capturing it from the air and then burying it underground where it will stay permanently. But this is expensive, which is why they don’t do it now. (Although to be fair, there is a market for the decarbonized carbon dioxide, which we can use to make things like aviation fuel that don’t emit carbon.)

It is an idea that cuts through the fog that often surrounds climate change discussions –  make oil and gas companies progressively decarbonize themselves with the aim of reaching net-zero emissions by 2050.  It’s a different idea than saying that governments should solve the problem or that individuals should change their behaviour – it is focusing on making those who caused the problem be the ones who fix it and, he says, their engineers know how to do it.

He argues that the industry has the infrastructure to do it, it is still a profitable industry, and cleaning up the atmosphere really is part of the cost of producing their product – as it increasingly is for so many other industries.

Requiring fossil fuel companies to decarbonize their products will probably make oil and gas more expensive to buy, but that’s likely to encourage people to find more sustainable alternatives such as electric vehicles, and solar and wind power. It would create a carbon dioxide disposal industry that is as big as today’s fossil fuel companies and, if developing countries use decarbonized fossil fuels, their development won’t be unfairly constrained.

Not only would it make the companies who are responsible for the problem pay the costs, rather than the taxpayer or philanthropy having to shoulder the cost, but it would grow another industry that will be key to achieving sustainability. 

So his Carbon Takeback policy seems entirely sensible to me. Evidently it did as well to a group of young engineers working at an oil and gas company he was speaking with recently. They thought it was entirely practical, as long as the whole industry was required to do it.

So why should we take his thoughts seriously, you might be asking? Well, because he’s the one who first alerted us in the 1990s to the problem of how fossil fuel emissions were heating up our climate, and he’s been helping to write the reports that have made us aware of the extent of the problem.

In 2003, he founded climateprediction.net, a volunteer computing, climate modelling project based at the University of Oxford, which Wikipedia says has harnessed more computing power and generated more data than any other climate modelling project. (He got the idea from how SETI researchers in California were using personal computers to look for traces of extra-terrestrial intelligence – which was a breakthrough for people used to turning to supercomputers to do this kind of modelling.) 

In 2001, he was the lead author on ‘Detection of Climate Change and Attribution of Causes’ in the third IPCC report. And in 2005, he said we should stop measuring the concentration of gases in the atmosphere and instead measure the amount – which simplified the question and thus has had major policy implications since. It changed the discussion markedly.

“Over the past couple of years, more and more people have been talking about the importance of carbon dioxide disposal,” he says in his TED talk. “But they’re still talking about it as if it’s to be paid for by philanthropy or tax breaks. But why should foundations or the taxpayer pay to clean up after a still-profitable industry? No. We can decarbonize fossil fuels. And if we do decarbonize fossil fuels, as well as getting things like deforestation under control, we will stop global warming. And if we don’t, we won’t. It’s as simple as that. But it’s going to take a movement to make this happen.”

So what can we do? It depends on who you are, he says. “If you work or invest in the fossil fuel industry, don’t walk away from the problem by selling off your fossil fuel assets to someone else who cares less than you do. You own this problem. You need to fix it. Decarbonizing your portfolio helps no one but your conscience. You must decarbonize your product.” Politicians and civil servants need to ask how their climate policies are helping to decarbonize fossil fuels, and increase how much of the carbon they produce is safely and permanently disposed of. 

“Global warming won’t wait for the fossil fuel industry to die,” he says. “And just calling for it to die is letting it off the hook from solving its own problem. In these divided times, we need to look for help and maybe even friends in unexpected places. It’s time to call on the fossil fuel industry to help solve the problem their product has created. Their engineers know how, we just need to get the management to look up from their shoes.”

Sources:

Myles Allen on understanding climate change. The Life Scientific, Feb.18, 2020

Fossil fuel companies know how to stop global warming. Why don’t they? TED Talk (transcript)