19 min read

Here's What the IPCC Report *Actually* Said About Carbon Removal Tech

Here's What the IPCC Report *Actually* Said About Carbon Removal Tech

You might remember I was slowly making my way through the most recent IPCC report. That's the Working Group 3: Mitigation report, which came out in April. Well, it's almost 3000 pages and between life and work, it's taken me a while. But today I want to get into one of the main topics I saw a lot of people focusing on in the report. Carbon dioxide removal. People really kind of saw what they wanted to see about CDR in this report. Some heralded it as proof that CDR will, in fact save us. So no need to look into anything else. Others claimed the IPCC had actually said quite the opposite. And I wondered, how could that be? It was the first time I can remember people having that divergent of views about what the IPCC report actually said. For all its inscrutability, the IPCC report is generally not ambiguous about what the science says.

Part of the issue was that the Summary for Policymakers was significantly more positive about the potential for CDR than the rest of the report, and most media coverage of the report drew almost exclusively for that Summary. But the Summary for Policymakers is the only part of the report that politicians are allowed to weigh in on, and we already know that both Saudi Arabia and the U.S.—two countries with a lot hinging on the potential of CDR to close the gap left by the inaction of their governments and fossil fuel companies—leaned heavily on the IPCC to include positive mentions of carbon removal, so I wasn't exactly surprised to find that the rest of the report was nowhere near so positive.

I read through it paying particular interest in all the places where CDR showed up and what the underlying data and research in the report actually said about it. Lucky for me, the smart folks over at the Center for International Environmental Law, or CIEL, had the same idea and put together a brilliant report on this subject. The architects of that report, Nikki Reisch, director of the Climate and Energy Program at CIEL, and Carol Muffett, the organization's president and CEO, joined me on the podcast this week to walk me through a whole bunch of the discrepancies on carbon removal tech in this report and finally answer the question: What did the IPCC say about the potential of this tech? Following is a transcript of that conversation, edited for accuracy, clarity, and brevity.


Amy [00:02:10] I was hoping that we could start with kind of your focus in this most recent analysis.

Carroll Muffett [00:02:18] The genesis of this report lies in a phenomenon that I've seen going back across several IPCC reports and particularly saw in the special report on 1.5 degrees, and that is that people will cherry pick individual lines out of the summary for policymakers and use those lines often taken out of context to spin very simple but deceptive narratives about what the IPCC is saying. And nowhere has that been clearer than in lines taken out of the summary for policymakers on things like carbon capture and storage and the role for CDR and with the  1.5 Report, I found that to actually explain to people what the IPCC was really saying about these technologies you actually had to go through the whole report and pull out, like here, all the cautionary notes that the IPCC had included around these technologies. There were warning signs flashing everywhere, if you read the whole report. But if you read, not only does the executive summary sorry, the summary for policymakers, but the press releases characterizing that summary for policymakers, You would have believed that that the IPCC was doing nothing but singing the praises of these technologies when nothing could be further from the truth. And so that's why we set out to analyze these documents. And I'll say that part of the reason for the focus on the summary for policymakers is that it is the window into which the vast majority of the world views what the IPCC has examined and what it's found. And so our goal was to actually unpack what the IPCC is really saying about these technologies to push back against those oversimplified and frankly, false narratives that the IPCC is saying, you know CCS and CDR are the solutions to the climate crisis. Because the IPCC really doesn't say that. I think the additional complication comes from the fact that the summary for policymakers is unique among the IPCC documents in being the one moment where politics really does come into play as states negotiate that summary line by line by line. And when you've got a thousand pages of text to work with, like, there is a lot of leeway in terms of word choice, in terms of emphasis in what goes into that summary. And this is part of what we were trying to expose is that, you know, the IPCC has these complex and extensive warnings on these technologies and the overreliance on them. But you don't get that in the summary for policymakers precisely because there was all this political pressure to tell a very different story.

Nikki Reisch [00:05:27] I think I would just add that the other critical piece we wanted to unpack in this analysis was to expose the way that the assumptions built into the models that the IPCC is reviewing and reporting on really skew perceptions of what's possible, and that those assumptions, while acknowledged in passing by the IPCC in its report, really play a much greater role in the way that the report describes mitigation pathways and can really skew the way that the public and policymakers take away messages. And so we really examine some of the key political and economic assumptions that constrain the way the models represent, what mitigation pathways are available and what outcomes are possible. And so we go into unpacking some of that about the focus on an assumptions about economic growth that really exclude the possibility of re conceiving growth as something other than the inexorable accumulation of and use of resources. So that possibility is really written out of many of the underlying models. And the models also really have an approach to. Cost and portraying the costs of mitigation measures that don't capture the costs of climate change itself or adaptation to climate change. So what you get is a really skewed picture of the least cost mitigation measures for a particular temperature target. And that bias towards avoiding near term costs really ends up skewing the models towards reliance on future speculative technologies rather than near-term available mitigation measures now.

Amy [00:07:22] I want to talk to you about that a little bit more, because I think it's so interesting that in this report where you had this new chapter, chapter five, right, which is really questioning a lot of these economic assumptions, you also still had these models that were based on the traditional interpretations of growth and on some economic models that are starting to be more and more questioned. So I'm curious, I guess, just what you think of that.

Carroll Muffett [00:07:51] Maybe I'll start with that point about things being contradictory. I think that was actually one of the precise reasons that we wanted to do this analysis, is because there are really clear warning signs in the work in Group one and work group two reports that emphasize that we have extraordinarily limited amount of time that we need to reduce fossil fuel emissions into the atmosphere because we have to keep warming below 1.5 degrees. And the IPCC warns in the clear as possible terms that going beyond 1.5 degrees, even temporarily, it will result in irreversible losses to ecosystems, to communities, to human lives. And you really don't see the recognition of that urgency, the recognition of the critical importance of not going beyond 1.5 degrees reflected in working group three. And I think that in a similar way, the Working Group two report really highlighted the critical importance of centering issues of social justice, of human rights, of centering issues of equity, including in responses to the climate crisis. And you would think that that as well would frame the analysis of options that Working Group three was looking at. But in fact, it doesn't. And you mentioned the point about costs. So I think one of the things that was really striking for us, even in the late stages of this report, is Figure seven from the Working Group three report, which lays out in really stark terms. I think that the difference between the promise of renewable energy and the reality of renewable energy and electrification and the potential of some of these technologies like carbon capture and storage and CCR. If you look at Figure seven, what you find is that there are enormous near-term emission reductions to be made at relatively low cost, some in fact at negative cost, which means the economy benefits from accelerating wind and solar energy deployments. You could you could achieve more reductions from reducing methane emissions from oil and gas. And, of course, you could achieve even more if you stopped producing so much oil and gas in the first place. And then you compare that with the IPCC's own evaluation of the costs and potential of us and the US. And it's striking because the IPCC is saying here in graphic terms, literally, look, this stuff is extraordinarily expensive and it has very limited potential. And yet when you look at the report itself, you don't see that reflected in the analysis at all. In fact, the story that the summary for policymakers appears to tell is one that really puts CSS and CDR at the forefront of solutions.

Amy [00:11:07] That's so interesting.

Nikki Reisch [00:11:08] We focus a lot in this analysis on the major gaps or contradiction or disconnect, if you will, between this report and what the headlines are. And the last report that really emphasized in loud and clear terms the irreparable harm that will result from overshooting 1.5. So you would think following on the heels of of that report, that in a report focused on mitigation strategies would center or at least focus heavily on those measures that would enable the world to avoid overshoot of 1.5 degrees and the irreparable harm that the IPCC just showed when. Barlow. And yet we see, you know, a presentation of these modeled pathways side by side so that in presenting the CE one model pathways, those that involve no or low overshoot of 1.5 right alongside scenarios that model a temperature rise to catastrophic levels can be misread or would suggest that that all options are on the table, that all those pathways are somehow acceptable or conceivable policy options. And you referenced the chapter on demand side measures, which I think is a really important one to see in this report. But we did notice similarly that many of the most new and radical and critically progressive thinking about re conceptualizing demand and the systemic change needed to actually reduce energy demand is not yet reflected in the modeling of mitigation pathways in those integrated assessment models that really underlie the graphs and charts of projected pathways. And there's a lag time always between new science and the consensus science that sort of summarized here. But what we're also seeing is that the scientific studies that are produced are influenced by the government sources, the corporate entities and other funders that really guide what research is done. And so there's a real gap and a need to ensure that research is being done to actually map and model what it would look like to implement some of these systemic changes. Because there is a deep contradiction between the IPCC's own recognition and multiple places in the report that economic growth, business as usual, economic growth and consumptions of it is one of the major drivers of emissions and is a driver of this current crisis. So we need to reconceptualize growth and yet the models are sort of prisoner to this fixed concept of growth continuing apace and even accelerating in the future. When, if we want to tackle this crisis and avoid human catastrophe, we need to upend those assumptions and rethink the approach entirely.

Amy [00:14:09] Mm hmm. Yeah. I'm curious what you guys think. You know, you mentioned the research, just how much this sort of illustrates the need to get certain corporate interests out of the research realm.

Carroll Muffett [00:14:24] You know, I think there's a simple answer and a complex answer. I'll start with the simple one. We have seen a long history of the fossil fuel industry funding research programs, funding research projects, funding entire research institutions at colleges and universities, particularly at many of the most prestigious universities like M.I.T.. And you look at the research that comes out of those programs, and much of it emphasizes technologies like this. MIT ran a whole program on carbon capture and storage for a long time. I think you see a heavy focus in a lot of this industry funded research on what can be done that allows business as usual while managing the problem or appearing to manage the problem. And I think that is just a fundamental conflict. Importantly, much of that government support has also come from government agencies who have the promotion of fossil fuel production and use as part of their agency mandate. And so I think the net consequence is you get this body of science that is funded by, supported by and driven by the underlying agendas of the companies and government agencies that are funding it. And even with the best intentions of the researchers involved, I think the pressure is clear to produce outcomes that are going to keep the money flowing. The net result is these models realities become our perception of the real reality, and the model realities are pushing us towards a planet that is frankly unlivable.

Nikki Reisch [00:16:23] Yeah, just on that, if I can just jump in on that on that last point, just to underscore something that we were talking about before, about all of the assumptions built into these modeled realities and how they skew the outcomes, I think a critical reflection that may seem obvious, but I don't think is frequently acknowledged is that, you know, models that incorporate various mitigation measures reflect outcomes based on what would happen if those mitigation measures worked in practice like they do in theory. They don't model what happens when they fail. So the models that build in, for example, reliance on CCS model, what happens if CCS worked? Perfectly as designed in theory. But in reality, what we've seen to date is that CCS projects have repeatedly over promise and under-delivered on emissions reductions and haven't achieved those promised outcomes. The IPCC report says explicitly that what's assumed is where it refers to six. In modeled scenarios that assumes a capture a carbon dioxide capture rate of 90 to 95%. That's a rate that just simply has not been consistently achieved by any CCS projects to date. So when your model is reflecting. A theoretical, hypothetical, imagined possible outcome and and real world policy choices are being based on that aspirational picture. We find ourselves in the very deep water and very world ablaze that we're currently living in.

Amy [00:18:18] That to me was like the the scariest thing in your analysis because I was just like, oh, god, that's just not going to. Not going to work. There was that paper last year that Ben Franta did about how some of the economists who had been commissioned to do white papers in the nineties and came up with some of the economic growth models are now kind of saying, oops, we didn't include the cost of inaction. And that, you know, that that's now, what, 20 years on? I guess I'm curious what you guys think the chances are of these models being updated to actually reflect reality quickly enough for policymakers to actually find them useful?

Carroll Muffett [00:19:05] I think we've suffered from this approach to modeling for a very long time. And we've seen the impacts of climate change and the cost of those impacts systemically and systematically underestimated for years. If you look at any given year in recent years, what we see are climate fueled or climate exacerbated disasters in countries around the world that take an array of forms and add up to untold billions of dollars literally every year, year in, year out. I think the problem now is like the accumulated costs of those losses are accelerating every year, and they're only going to accelerate what it would take to integrate projections of those increased costs into the models. Frankly, I don't know. But I think part of my concern is that we have lost an extraordinary amount of time and waiting for more economic models to prove to us a reality that we see unfolding around us every day is maybe not the strategy we need. What we need is to recognize that we have solutions right in front of us and crafting extraordinarily complex models to say that, well, maybe the solutions that we have aren't necessary because we could invent something that might work 50 years from now. It's just not the way to address this crisis.

Nikki Reisch [00:20:44] I think one of the key takeaways from this report, buried though it may be in places, is really that. We have the mitigation measures we need. They exist, they're affordable, they're proven, they work. And what we need to do is to deploy them rapidly. And now and those measures are clearly renewable energy reduction and energy demand. Those are the key centerpieces of an effective strategy. And there are some models in the mix of the thousands that are reviewed here that, of course, do show just how quickly we could reduce emissions and how hopeful the world might be if we were to accelerate those policy measures that rely on proven. Mitigation strategies that are available now and not speculative ones that may or may not work at all, and that bring a host of other environmental and social risks along with them. What's lacking is the political will, not the scientific proof. And I think that's a real sea change in where we are in the importance of these reports is that. Yes there's of course benefit and deeper and more extensive study and and intensifying the scientific study of climate change its dynamics impacts, etc.. But the science on the causes of climate change is crystal clear, and the known solutions that address those underlying drivers are evident and available. And so really, we're not facing a gulf of scientific knowledge. We're facing a tremendous gulf and an absence of political will. And we need to unleash the stranglehold that vested interests have on our collective future and the policies that are going to keep it livable.

Carroll Muffett [00:22:51] If I could add just one point that I think. Is too often lost in these analysis. And that is that CO2 molecule emitted to the atmosphere today doesn't warm the atmosphere once and disappear. It warms the atmosphere and keeps on warming the atmosphere until ten years. 100 years. Sometimes a thousand years from now, when it eventually decays out of the atmosphere or it's pulled out of the atmosphere. For some reason that is really important because it means the impacts of each individual CO2 molecule are cumulative. It will keep contributing to warming as long as it's in the atmosphere. And that means that cutting emissions early, cutting emissions now has a much higher impact than trying to cut emissions or pull carbon out of the atmosphere a decade from now or three decades from now. One of the really striking things that comes out of the IPCC report is there is a place where the IPCC acknowledges that the divergence between the high ambition pathways and the low ambition pathways would become clear in terms of emissions, in terms of other sorts of pollutants within a few years. And by 2030, we would start to see that divergence in terms of what the levels of new CO2 accumulating in the atmosphere are. That's an extraordinary thing to recognize, and I think our policy processes don't appreciated enough, literally. If we accelerate these responses, we'll start seeing the outcomes from that, the shifts in that really, really rapidly. And by contrast, if we delay action, we're not just finding the emissions in 2030, we're fighting the cumulative warming from all the emissions between now and 2030.

Amy [00:24:52] Why do you think that there was such a difference between Working Group two and Working Group three? specially given that I feel like a lot of people were expecting Working Group three to kind of come out guns blazing in a way that it didn't really.

Nikki Reisch [00:25:07] The key difference between these past reports on the physical science and the impacts and experiences of climate change, and this Working Group three report on what can and effectively what should we do about it. Although the report is not prescriptive, it lays out science and research about what can be done to address this problem and really tease up what is ultimately a political and economic question about which steps are we going to take? All of them carry some some cost, but some costs are born disproportionately by future generations, but also by disadvantaged populations today. And some of those costs are absolutely necessary to bear. What we saw was a sort of battleground between states with really vested interests in maintaining a business as usual approach to their economies, to energy sector, and trying to do as they might to blunt any messages that suggest we need to radically rethink and drastically and dramatically move beginning immediately away from all fossil fuels and replace them with renewables and focus on the necessary systemic changes in the way that we use resources to lower demands and make our approach to living sustainable.

Carroll Muffett [00:26:40] And I think what I would add to that is, first to recognize the extraordinary resistance on the part of some some core governments, not just Saudi Arabia as a producer of oil and gas, but the US too grappling honestly with what the IPCC science tells us and grappling honestly with what that means for how things need to change because changing is politically unpalatable and politically uncomfortable, even when it's vitally necessary. And I think that is compounded by where we are in the trajectory of denial. We talked earlier about the role of industry in funding, funding scientific research in that space. And I think if you if you watch the history, if you watch if you watch, if you pay attention to denial efforts across spaces and across time, they follow a pretty predictable arc. First, you deny that. A phenomenon exists, and then you deny that the phenomenon is a problem, and then you deny that the problem is severe. And when that no longer works, then you deny that people are causing the problem or that you specifically are causing the problem. Then you turn to economics and say, Oh, well, it's too expensive to address it. And then in the final stages, you take one or two, one or two courses, and we're seeing both of them play out. You argue that, oh, yes, the problem exists and we are part of the solution. We've been part of the solution problem all along. Or you couple that with the problem exists, but it's really too late to do anything about it. So we really just need to learn to adapt. And that schema, that playbook is one that we've seen play out over and over again. And so what does that mean for these IPCC analysis? Well, I think it means that, you know, we know that the fossil fuel industry spent a really long time arguing that there was no such thing as climate change, and it lost that argument in the wake of the overwhelming evidence. And so engaging in that part of the fight really doesn't benefit anymore. And then they spent a long time arguing that it wasn't worthwhile to address the climate crisis. But again, the evidence makes clear that we have to act. And so what I think you've seen is that a really heavy shift in the debate away from those early parts of the denial equation. This problem doesn't exist. This problem is is manageable to focusing denial efforts on what we can manage. This fossil fuels are part of the solution, and they've been part of the solution early on all along. And that, I think, is that that that disproportionate focus of industry efforts and and that efforts and funding of countries like the United States and Saudi Arabia, I think, has a disproportionate impact on the science around mitigation as compared to the science that speaks to the physical reality of climate change and the mounting and incontrovertible evidence of its impacts.

Nikki Reisch [00:30:07] There are just some really critical and really damning quotes in the report about the consequences of continued fossil fuel production and use that try as the governments might have to water things down in the summer. Policymakers are there in black and white about the way that committed emissions from existing fossil fuel infrastructure are going to blow through the remaining carbon budget, implying that there is a clear need to phase out and shutter existing facilities, let alone halt expansion. That is all there and I think it's really valuable to pull that out because though it may not make the headlines, it is certainly incontrovertible based on the the cumulative science.

Carroll Muffett [00:30:51] There is one of those factoids that I'd like to highlight for you because it's actually.

Amy [00:30:56] Please!

Carroll Muffett [00:30:56] Extraordinarily important and that is when we talk about we've talked a lot about cars, but two of the biggest carbon dioxide removal technologies that figure in the Working Group three report and indeed in the business models of oil and gas companies and in the National Action Plans of the United States and other countries are bioenergy with carbon capture and storage called beccs and direct air capture, which is all the rage lately, the idea that you can suck carbon directly out of the ambient air. And I mention this because ...

Amy [00:31:39] That's amazing

Carroll Muffett [00:31:42] There's an extraordinary and growing reliance on BECS and DAC, particularly in these models. And you hear even climate advocates say, well, we're going to need that to address the problem. And I think one thing that the IPCC makes really abundantly clear that people should understand is that Beccs and Dacs, even according to their advocates, wouldn't make any meaningful contribution to removing CO2 from the atmosphere until well after 2050. Some models say 2060, 2070 or beyond. In a world where we need to cut emissions in half by 2030 and eliminate them by 2050. Strategies that say Oh we'll start contributing to the solution sometime after 2050 simply have no significant place.

Amy [00:32:35] I find that so concerning to just the number of climate people that I see kind of being like, Well, we're going to need this, but just not being clear about how far off and potentially impossible it is. The idea of a giant CO2 vacuum is like so viscerally appealing to people, you know, that I think it's just so dangerous.

Nikki Reisch [00:33:01] And I think there's been a real mis perception and misreading of the messages on CDR carbon dioxide removal and that the two most prominent forms of which discuss are backs and deck in that. Sure, many scientific studies will show that we may need some amount of CDR at some time in the future to address residual emissions. That statement is not the same as saying CDR is a central part of combating the climate crisis and we need to invest in it now. Those things are quite different and the latter has been portrayed as a key takeaway of this latest report when that's far from the truth. If you look at what, as Carroll was just saying, if you look at the underlying science and the observations about the tremendous uncertainties about whether these technologies will even work if and when they're deployable, because they are not demonstrated at scale. And the tremendous social, environmental, economic risks they pose because of the massive inputs of land, energy and water that they require when you look at those facts. In combination with the urgent need to reduce emissions now in the immediate future, and the fact that any emissions that we continue to release have a cumulative impact, the takeaway is clear that we need to focus efforts, energy and investment on the available, deployable, proven strategies that can do that near-term dramatic reduction today and that CDR, BECS and DAX are really dangerous. Distractions and speculative possibilities in the future are not a response to an ever more urgent and oppressive present where climate change is literally taking lives as we speak.

Amy [00:35:25] That's it for this time. Thanks for listening and we'll see you next week.