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At the expense of the children

Today’s kids could face hefty carbon clean up bill without 1.5°C aligned climate action

Photo: Matthias Heyde
Today’s youth could be left with the unfair task of mopping up decades worth of carbon emissions unless major-emitting countries significantly step up their 2030 climate targets, says a new study published in Nature Climate Change today. 

The study, led by researchers from the international climate science and policy institute Climate Analytics, looks at who would bear the responsibility for removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, if governments were to do their ‘fair share’.

The authors look at two different ways to assign responsibility. In the first, countries with more culpability for causing climate change take a greater share of the carbon removal burden.

In the second approach, countries that are relatively wealthier shoulder more of the burden, while countries with below-average Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita are spared from any carbon removal obligation.

“We show that unless they accelerate climate action now, major emitters including the USA, the EU  and China could be morally responsible for removing massive amounts of carbon during the lifetimes of today’s children,” said Claire Fyson, lead author of the study.

“Yet we don’t even have ready solutions to mop up such volumes of carbon emissions – most of these technologies are not available at scale, are expensive and some could pose serious risks to sustainable development,” she said.

According to the study, each additional gigatonne of carbon emissions in 2030 in these countries would generate about 20–70 additional gigatonnes of carbon dioxide removal responsibility over the course of this century.

Carbon dioxide removal refers to solutions for drawing the climate-warming gas out of the atmosphere and sequestering it. This includes natural measures like restoring and planting forests, enhancing soil carbon storage as well as technological options such as direct air capture or bioenergy with carbon capture and storage.

The world’s top climate science body, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) shows that to meet the internationally-agreed goals of the Paris climate accord, carbon dioxide will need to be actively removed from the atmosphere, but the amount depends on the pace of emissions reductions in the coming decades.

“At the moment, government carbon cutting pledges put the world on a path to 3°C of warming by the end of the century, potentially leaving future generations with the unfair choice between risky, large-scale carbon removals and very dangerous levels of warming,” said Carl-Friedrich Schleussner, co-author of the study.

“Our work is a reminder that the need for large amounts of carbon dioxide removals in the future is not inevitable, but is rather the result of insufficient climate action today,” he said.

The researchers show that by cutting 2030 target emission levels by half, which would be consistent with what is required globally to limit warming to 1.5 °C, the EU, the USA and China would reduce the amount of carbon dioxide removal that they would be responsible for over the course of this century by tens to hundreds of gigatonnes.

These amounts are equivalent to about 40 years’ worth of current carbon dioxide emissions for China, 50 for the USA and 30 for the EU.

The researchers applied equity principles to look at the responsibility for dealing with removing carbon because the models used to show how international climate targets can be met only indicate the total amount of necessary carbon removals and how these could be deployed at the lowest cost.

"These models often assume that solutions such as vast bio-energy crop plantations would be cheapest in developing regions, placing a larger burden on the Global South to meet Paris Agreement goals. While these regions may have greater potential for removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, our study shows that responsibility for doing so lies largely with the big emitters," said Matthew Gidden, co-author of the study.

Study

“Fair-share carbon dioxide removal increases major emitter responsibility” Fyson et al
Nature Climate Change, 27 July 2020.

Link for publication: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41558-020-0857-2

Contacts

Claire Fyson
Climate Analytics
Policy Analyst
E-Mail: claire.fyson@climateanalytics.org

Carl-Friedrich Schleussner
Climate Analytics
Head of Climate Impacts
E-Mail: carl.schleussner@climateanalytics.org

Matthew Gidden
Climate Analytics
Team Leader Mitigation Pathway Analysis 
E-Mail: matthew.gidden@climateanalytics.org

About Climate Analystics

Climate Analytics is a non-profit institute leading research on climate science and policy in relation to the 1.5°C limit in the Paris Agreement. It has offices in Berlin, New York, Lomé and Perth.

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