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Carbon Unicorns and Fossil Futures: Whose Emission Reduction Pathways Is the IPCC Performing?

Authors:
Has It Come to This?
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Nature, Society, and Culture
Scott Frickel, Series Editor
A sophisticated and wide- ranging sociological literature analyzing nature- society-
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e Promises and Perils of Geoengineering on the Brink
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Has It Come to This?
The Promises and Perils of
Geoengineering on the Brink
EDITED BY J.P. SAPINSKI, HOLLY JEAN BUCK,
AND ANDREAS MALM
Rutgers University Press
New Brunswick, Camden, and Newark, New Jersey, and London
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{~?~CIP t/k}
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v
Contents
Part I Introduction
1Critical Perspectives on Geoengineering: A Dialogue
HOLLY JEAN BUCK, J.P. SAPINSKI, AND ANDREAS MALM
Part II Contesting Geoengineering: Power, Justice,
and Civil Society
2Winning Hearts and Minds? Explaining the Rise
of the Geoengineering Idea 
INA MÖLLER
3Carbon Unicorns and Fossil Futures: Whose Emission
Reduction Pathways Is the IPCC Performing? 
WIM CARTON
4Defending a Failed Status uo: e Case against
Geoengineering from a Civil Society Perspective 
LINDA SCHNEIDER AND LILI FUHR
5Geoengineering and Indigenous Climate Justice:
A Conversation with Kyle Powys Whyte 
KYLE POWYS WHYTE, INTERVIEWED BY HOLLY JEAN BUCK
6Recognizing the Injustice in Geoengineering:
Negotiating a Path to Restorative Climate Justice through
a Political Account of Justice as Recognition 
DUNCAN MCLAREN
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vi Contents
7An Intersectional Analysis of Geoengineering: Overlapping
Oppressions and the Demand for Ecological Citizenship 
TINA SIKKA
Part III State Power, Economic Planning,
and Geoengineering
8Mobilizing in a Climate Shock: Geoengineering
or Accelerated Energy Transition? 
LAURENCE L. DELINA
9A Le Defense of Carbon Dioxide Removal: e State
Must Be Forced to Deploy Civilization- Saving Technology 
CHRISTIAN PARENTI
10 Planning the Planet: Geoengineering Our Way Out of
and Back into a Planned Economy 
ANDREAS MALM
11 Provisioning Climate: An Infrastructural Approach
to Geoengineering 
ANNE PASEK
Part IV Geoengineering: A Class Project
in the Face of Systemic Crisis?
12 Geoengineering and Imperialism 
RICHARD YORK
13 Gramsci in the Stratosphere: Solar Geoengineering
and Capitalist Hegemony 
KEVIN SURPRISE
14 Promises of Climate Engineering aer Neoliberalism 
NILS MARKUSSON, DAVID TYFIELD, JENNIE C. STEPHENS,
AND MADS DAHL GJEFSEN
15 Prospects of Climate Engineering in a Post-truth Era 
HOLLY JEAN BUCK
Acknowledgments 
Notes on Contributors 
Index 
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34
3
Carbon Unicorns
and Fossil Futures
Whose Emission Reduction
Pathways Is the IPCC
Performing?
WIM CARTON
If one is to believe recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)
reports, then gone are the days when the world could resolve the climate crisis
merely by reducing emissions. Avoiding global warming in excess of °C/.°C
now also involves a rather more interventionist enterprise: to remove vast
amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, amounts that only increase the
longer emissions refuse to fall. e basic problem with this idea is that the tech-
nologies that are supposed to deliver these “negative emissions” do not currently
exist at any meaningful scale. Given the large uncertainties surrounding their
feasibility; their expected eects on land use change, food security, and biodi-
versity; and their scalability, it moreover seems improbable that they ever will.
Indeed, there appears to be something of an unspoken consensus among scien-
tists that the mitigation scenarios represented in the IPCC increasingly mirror
science ction writing. In a recent assessment, the European Academies Science
Advisory Council (EASAC), for example, concluded that negative emissions
technologies (NETs) have “limited realistic potential” to help mitigate climate
change on the scale that many scenarios assume will be needed. One expert
summarized the skepticism well when she recently characterized such technolo-
gies as “carbon unicorns, underscoring the widening gap between the level of
mitigation that is needed and the apparent infeasibility of the pathways that are
supposed to take us there.
Despite its fantastical nature, however, the negative emissions idea has
recently burst into the public arena, where it is already leading a life of its own.
For skeptics, this raises the concern of a “moral hazard,” or the possibility that
the mere promise of future NETs could act as a break on emission reductions
in the present. Techno-optimist policy makers, the thinking goes, might very
well seize on the negative emissions idea as a “get- out- of- jail” card, holding back
from rapid near- term decarbonization in the belief that opportunities for future
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Carbon Unicorns and Fossil Futures 35
negative emissions oer a sucient guarantee that the climate crisis can be con-
tained. It is, above all, future generations, and particularly the poorest among
them, that would face the consequences when this “high- stakes gamble” eventu-
ally backres and large- scale NETs turn out to be little more than a pipe dream.
At that point, the window of opportunity for avoiding dangerous warming
through conventional mitigation would have closed, and the world would be le
with the unenviable choice between runaway warming or implementing some
of the more dystopian geoengineering technologies that this book documents.
ese are not empty fears: as I discuss next, the perceived necessity to defer the
bulk of mitigation into a discounted future is the exact logic that underpins the
rise to prominence of NETs in mitigation scenarios. How can we expect policy
makers to guard against wishful thinking when even scientists appear unable to
do so? Besides, the negative emissions concept has already strayed beyond the
realm of abstract science and policy debates. e business case for mitigation
deferral is already under construction, suggesting that NETs are already per-
forming valuable political- economic work. is makes it necessary to scrutinize
much more closely what is actually going on in the various models that generate
the apparent need for negative emissions.
Take the example of Shell. While not exactly known for its vanguard mitiga-
tion actions, the company recently released a document in which it outlines its
vision to keep global warming “well below °C. Unsurprisingly perhaps, Shell’s
“most ambitious climate scenario” turns out to include substantial fossil fuel use
well into the future. It, for example, assumes that demand for oil will grow until
about  and then decrease only gradually. By , the year when the world
needs to reach net- zero emissions in order to stay below .°C, oil demand in
this scenario would still account for about percent of current consumption.
By , the net- zero target for °C, fossil fuel production would still be respon-
sible for . GtCO, or almost half of what it is today. For Shell to be able to
claim that these estimates are compatible with the targets of the Paris Agree-
ment, it heavily relies on speculative technologies, in particular carbon capture,
usage, and storage (CCUS) and NETs. It thus assumes that all the remaining
fossil fuel carbon can be captured and/or compensated for by storing it in prod-
ucts (. CO/yr), applying direct carbon capture and storage (CCS) to oil and
gas installations (. GtCO/yr), and deploying large-scale bioenergy with car-
bon capture and storage (BECCS— . CO/yr), which is the NET most oen
favored in models. In total, this would require that “some , large carbon
capture and storage facilities are built, compared to fewer than  in operation
in . To reach .°C, the company then imagines that an additional eort
could be made by planting “another Brazil in terms of rainforest.
ese astonishing claims fulll a clear function, even if they are only a sce-
nario exercise or a best- case “possible” future, not a concrete prediction or com-
mitment. e inclusion of NETs and CCUS in Shell’s future scenario constructs
a vision in which the risk for stranded assets is minimized. It makes it possible to
claim, as Shell does in its “Shell Energy Transition Report,” that all the compa-
ny’s proven and potential fossil fuel reserves could be utilized— around twenty-
ve years of reserves at current production rates— while still staying within
the limits of the Paris Agreement. Invoking a future of large-scale negative
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36 Wim Carton
emissions in this way suggests that there is no need to cut fossil fuel production
before its economic value has been fully recovered and thus no need for drastic
short- term changes in the company’s business model. Given the urgency of the
climate problem, this surely seems extraordinary. Is Shell making these numbers
up? An analysis by Carbon Brief suggests that the math does indeed add up.
Despite being somewhat optimistic about future energy demand in general,
Shell’s projections of future coal, oil, and gas demand and of the scale at which
NETs could be deployed are all broadly in line with those of °C- compatible
IPCC scenarios. If anything, Shell’s scenario is at the lower end of how much
negative emissions models say could be deployed by the end of the century.
In itself, of course, it is unremarkable that a fossil fuel company would use all
means possible to help justify the continued use of oil and gas, including foster-
ing narratives about the large- scale deployment of future carbon unicorns. is,
aer all, is the company that has known about the dangers of climate change
since at least the s and still decided to double down on oil and gas invest-
ments. More surprising is the fact that this logic appears fully internalized in
mainstream climate scenarios— in other words, that the IPCC reports appear
to feature emission reduction pathways that seem fully compatible with mas-
sive continued fossil fuel use in the medium term. More than a “moral hazard,
this suggests some fairly hazardous scientic morals. Surely this should raise a
few eyebrows. How is it possible that the world’s most authoritative science on
climate change is generative of scenarios that play directly in the hands of the
fossil fuel industry? In this chapter, I want to explore some of the reasons this
is occurring. I want to argue that the path that led to the inclusion of negative
emissions in models and from there into the IPCC was a profoundly ideological
one and that we need to understand it as such to make sense of the way in which
negative emissions are already being invoked to justify business as usual. Doing
so, I suggest, helps us challenge the now common idea that negative emissions
are somehow an inevitable reality of climate politics.
Negative Emissions as Convenient Fiction
To unpack the work that negative emission scenarios perform, we need to start
with the science that produces them. e scenarios represented in the IPCC are
generated by using so- called integrated assessment models (IAMs), which
are designed to model the complex relationship between social and biophysical
systems. Briey put, these models seek to project future technological innova-
tion, economic growth, demographic change, energy use, and so on and how
these interact with changes in the climate system. A rst important observation
is that economics plays a central role in this exercise, in that IAMs are generally
made to operate in line with mainstream economic theories. e IPCC is quite
explicit about what this means. e h assessment report (AR), for example,
notes that “the models use economics as the basis for decision making. is may
be implemented in a variety of ways, but it fundamentally implies that the mod-
els tend toward the goal of minimizing aggregate economic costs of achieving
mitigation outcomes.... In this sense, the scenarios tend towards normative,
economics- focused descriptions of the future. e IPCC also acknowledges
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Carbon Unicorns and Fossil Futures 37
that models “typically assume fully functioning markets and competitive mar-
ket behavior” and therefore do not take account of existing asymmetries and
(market) power relations.
is focus on economics is important for a number of reasons. Most directly,
it means that climate policy in IAMs is interpreted as the implementation of
a carbon price— that is, it is the assumed cost of carbon that gives the main
incentive for a specic level of mitigation. Other mechanisms by which trans-
formational change might come about— for example, through mass behav-
ioral changes or nonmarket government interventions on the scale of recent
Green New Deal proposals— are largely ignored by the models. A second and
related constraint lies in the cost- minimization focus that the IPCC mentions.
Essentially, IAMs are designed to “maximize overall welfare” and nd the most
cost- eective emission reduction pathways. is eectively means that they pri-
oritize dierent mitigation technologies on the basis of primarily economic and
technological criteria and underplay social, political, and broader environmen-
tal reasons society might opt for one mitigation technology over another. In
fact, this is the main reason a technology like BECCS can be modeled by IAMs
on such obviously unrealistic scales (e.g., requiring a land area twice the size of
India). Even when models take into account more explicitly social factors (e.g.,
to assess the public acceptability of dierent technologies), these are usually still
translated into economic terms.
Now, this primary concern in IAMs with optimized, cost-eective mitigation
pathways has long meant that very few scenarios were compatible with keep-
ing temperatures below °C. Up to the fourth assessment report or so, models
tended to generate results that stabilized greenhouse gas (GHG) concentrations
at levels that were signicantly higher than those corresponding with what are
now the Paris Agreement targets. As political recognition of the need for a °C
limit grew, rst in Europe and then elsewhere, policy makers asked the model-
ing community to come up with scenarios that would be consistent with this.
is confronted modelers with a considerable dilemma. As Parson notes, “Most
of the Integrated Assessment Models (IAMs)... found that the target could
not be met via plausible and cost- eective levels of mitigation.” e solution
they came up with was as innovative as it was problematic. Modelers decided to
include in IAMs novel mitigation options, primarily BECCS and aorestation,
that allow for the removal of CO from the atmosphere. ese were not entirely
conjured out of thin air, of course. Aorestation had long been promoted as a
carbon osetting strategy, and researchers had put forward the possibility for
BECCS already in the late ’s and early s, though it had so far only been
considered as a “backstop” option. Now, however, it became the go- to method.
Not only did this signicantly decrease the costs of achieving stringent mitiga-
tion targets; it also introduced a debt mechanism into the models. By allow-
ing for large- scale carbon dioxide removal (CDR), it suddenly became possible
to exceed carbon budgets in the short term, on the assumption that this “over-
spending” would be compensated for by net- negative emissions in the second
half of the twenty- rst century.
e inclusion of NETs in IAMs in this way played a crucial role in uphold-
ing the possibility of the °C limit. As Dooley et al. argue, “e availability of
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38 Wim Carton
BECCS proved critical to the cost-eciency, and indeed the theoretical possibil-
ity, of these deep mitigation scenarios, leading to systemic inclusion of BECCS
in RCP. scenarios [the IPCC’s most optimistic scenarios] included in AR.
It is worth underscoring what this means. NETs were mainstreamed in IAMs in
order to square the request of policy makers (i.e., to provide °C pathways) with
the specic economic framework within which these models operate. Current
scenarios are in this sense the result of a cost- minimization exercise—a fully
institutionalized eort to keep the costs of mitigation as low as possible. e
models are therefore not actually telling us that NETs are a biophysical necessity
to achieve stringent mitigation targets. ey are merely saying that these technol-
ogies are more cost- eective than other forms of mitigation. Whether one accepts
the need for negative emissions in this sense ultimately depends on whether one
agrees with the various economic assumptions upon which the models are based.
As I discuss next, there are plenty of reasons not to do so.
The Politics of a Pathway
Modelers tend to see their work as “objective input[s] to the climate policy
debate, as do, presumably, most policy makers. ey are generally quite can-
did about the assumptions that underpin their models but insist that scenarios
are still useful because they are not actually meant to be policy prescriptive or
oer accurate predictions of the future. Rather, modelers argue, scenarios are
merely supposed to be policy relevant to “support policy decisions between dif-
ferent choices” and point to those pathways that would be most ecient. e
IPCC has in many ways sought to patrol this border between policy- relevant
and policy- prescriptive science.
A rich literature in science and technology studies, however, suggests that
this distinction is dicult to uphold in practice. Scholars in this discipline
point out that any kind of scientic knowledge production comes with value
judgments and therefore inevitably ends up fullling some kind of political
function. e incorporation of NETs in IPCC scenarios is one clear illustra-
tion of how, as Turnhout et al. put it, “dominant political discourses compel
scientists to create assessments that work within these discourses, a process
that involves the articulation of problems that are legible to and the proposal
of solutions compatible with prevailing political and economic logics. Knowl-
edge production, in other words, is oen reective of existing power relations
in society, and at the same time, it contributes to and justies the reproduc-
tion of those relations. e future focus and therefore unveriable and specu-
lative character of scenario production signicantly amplies these dynamics.
In this, the problem is not that science is political per se but that its political
character remains unrecognized or actively denied by the actors involved, either
directly or as a consequence of the methods that are used. As a result, value-
laden and contestable assumptions appear as somehow unavoidable or “natural,
which closes opportunities for debate and the involvement of dissenting voices.
e use of models, particularly ones as complex as IAMs, further contributes to
this process of depoliticization by shrouding assumptions and value judgments
behind seemingly technocratic and objective modeling choices.
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Carbon Unicorns and Fossil Futures 39
Beck and Mahony argue that the increasing importance of modeled emission
reduction pathways in the IPCC in this way represents a shi toward a “new pol-
itics of anticipation, wherein potentially contestable choices for climate futures
are woven into the technical elaboration of alternative pathways. ey note
that by being included in the authoritative assessments of the IPCC, such path-
ways do not just describe possible climate futures but potentially help bring them
into being— that is, they perform certain futures as seemingly legitimate, neces-
sary, and desirable. IAMs in this sense provide scientic backing for the kind of
mitigation scenarios that are “thinkable and therefore actionable” while simul-
taneously sidelining others. One of the clearest examples of this is the negative
emissions idea. Before they appeared in IAMs, NETs were virtually absent from
the climate policy arena. Following their inclusion in models, they appeared
in IPCC assessments and from there have become an increasingly common
topic in mainstream policy debates. As the previous Shell example shows, they
have now moved into the delaying tactics of the fossil fuel industry. e mod-
eling community in this way “performed an important legitimating function
for the speculative technology of BECCS, pulling it into the political world,
making previously unthinkable notions... more mainstream and acceptable, as
well as perhaps pushing it ahead of policy options (such as radical mitigation)
in political calculations.” e speculative and contestable inclusion of NETs
in inuential and seemingly neutral IPCC assessments served to normalize and
mainstream the idea that negative emissions are both feasible and necessary.
Taking this one step further, some scholars have argued that the negative
emissions idea is performing an important legitimizing role for the existing
architecture of climate policy as a whole. By perpetuating the idea that cost-
eective pathways to °C and now also .°C are still available, the argument
goes, the IPCC is providing a rather convenient narrative to governments. e
possibility of future NETs appears to suggest that more of the same incremental
policies will eventually get us there— that there is no need for drastic or eco-
nomically “irrational” actions. As such, it helps preserve a sense of normality
against increasingly dire warnings— and observations— of an unfolding climate
emergency against thirty years of political delay in delivering serious mitiga-
tion eorts. e science- sanctioned normalization of negative emissions in this
sense reproduces the idea that all is as it should be in the magical wonderland
of climate politics, where mitigation need not imply eorts to cut actual fos-
sil fuel production, at least not in the short term. At the same time, this dis-
course builds on highly improbable projections of the future that rely on the
hypothetical deployment of technologies thatat the scale they are being
proposed— reasonably belong in the realm of science ction. When it so obvi-
ously constitutes a form of risk transfer, in which it is the powers that be that
stand to gain, while it is future generations that will be le to pick up what
pieces remain, then the need for critique runs very deep indeed.
Performing the Imperative of Gradualism
So how did it come to this? To understand how IPCC scenarios ended up being
“performative” in this way requires us to scrutinize not just model outcomes and
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the political work that these perform but also the logics that generate these out-
comes in the rst place. ere is plenty to suggest that the dynamics described in
the science and technology literature can in large part be traced back to the vari-
ous connected assumptions that underlie IAMs, assumptions that together con-
stitute an ideological commitment to the postulates of mainstream economic
theory. is is, of course, hardly a unique case. In important ways, it reects the
wider trend by which economics has come to dominate the terms of the cli-
mate policy debate— of how to assess and understand both the problem and its
potential solutions.
Consider again the focus of IAMs on cost- eective mitigation. Why exactly
is it that the prioritization of cost- eective solutions leads to the need for nega-
tive emissions? ere are a number of intertwined reasons for this, and while
I cannot consider all of them here, a few stand out as particularly important.
First, it is worth noting that mitigation costs in IAMs are usually calculated on
the basis of a comparison with a so- called baseline, meaning a counterfactual
scenario of what the world would look like in the absence of climate policies.
e cost of mitigation, in other words, is an estimate of what it takes, in eco-
nomic terms, to move from the assumed baseline to the desired mitigation sce-
nario. Observe that these baselines are necessarily hypothetical exercises, not in
the least because, with a few exceptions, models so far do not take into consider-
ation the many feedbacks of a warming climate itself. Essentially, they assume
that economic growth, population growth, consumption, energy demand, and
so on will continue as an extrapolation of existing trends despite rapidly increas-
ing temperatures, as if climate change has no societal impact at all. is crucial
omission is acknowledged by modelers as a shortcoming, but in itself, it argu-
ably already invalidates the entire scenario- building exercise. Calculating costs
and cost- dependent mitigation pathways in relation to an impossible baseline
clearly overstates the benets of the “no- policy” scenario and therefore presum-
ably inates the aggregate costs of mitigation. More generally, it means that the
choice of baseline signicantly inuences the outcomes of the model. Model-
ers generally deal with this by considering a large range of possible baselines that
are grouped together under stylized “socioeconomic pathways.
To dierent extents, these baseline scenarios assume continued (and oen
growing) fossil fuel consumption and trade well into the twenty- rst century.
Moving to a mitigation scenario, then, logically implies signicantly reducing
that consumption and trade as well as its corresponding economic value (since
baselines are seen as economically optimal, any deviation from them becomes
a cost). e extent to which fossil fuel consumption needs to be reduced, how-
ever, and the exact costs this corresponds to fundamentally depend on the kind
of mitigation technologies that are included in the model. For example, if one
assumes a future in which no CCS technologies are implemented, then fossil
fuel consumption needs to fall rapidly to stay within the targeted temperature
limits, reaching zero before the end of the century. Indeed, many of the sce-
narios that explicitly exclude CCS (including BECCS) are unable to gener-
ate °C- compatible pathways at all because of prohibitively high costs. is
reects not only the substantial investments needed to rapidly replace current
high- carbon infrastructures but also the fact that for many sectors where there
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Carbon Unicorns and Fossil Futures 41
are currently few low-carbon technological alternatives on the horizon—think
cement and steel production, aviation, and so on— drastic emission cuts would
almost, by necessity, involve cuts in economic production. With CCS, some
of those fossil fuels can continue to be used and their corresponding economic
value recovered. e inclusion of negative emissions from BECCS in particu-
lar extends this eect further. BECCS essentially enlarges the carbon budget
while also providing a source of energy, allowing even more fossil fuels to be
used in the medium term. Observe here that the cost-eective focus of IAMs
in this way renders dierent mitigation technologies qualitatively substitutable,
meaning that as long as a given technology is available and economically attrac-
tive (within the assumptions used by the model), it will be prioritized. As noted
previously, this ignores obvious social justice or environmental sustainability
concerns.
From this discussion, it appears that the cost of mitigation tends to decrease
with the continued use of more fossil fuels. is is obviously not fully true. As
the IPCC points out, aggregate mitigation costs in IAMs generally increase
when action is delayed. e reason for this is fairly simple—scenarios still need
to reach °C or .°C by the end of the century. e longer mitigation is delayed,
the more fossil fuels are “locked into” a (growing) economy and the more invest-
ments and/or devaluations it will therefore take to eventually bring emissions
down to net zero / net negative. e cost of mitigation is hence a function not of
continued fossil fuel use per se but of the steepness of the mitigation curve— that
is, of how quickly fossil fuel consumption needs to fall in order to reach the
specied temperature target. e faster fossil fuels are eliminated, the steeper
the emission reduction curve and therefore the higher the cost. is seems like a
trivial consideration, but it is critical to understand its implications. Since IAMs
are designed to minimize mitigation costs, this means that they by denition
select for the most gradual reduction in fossil fuel use. As long as emissions and
fossil fuel consumption go hand in hand, this also means that they select for
the most gradual emission reduction curve. Including CCS in IAMs essentially
decouples fossil fuel consumption from emissions and therefore allows the for-
mer to fall more slowly relative to the latter. Negative emissions go even further
in that they actually extend the carbon budget and thus stretch out the emission
reduction curve itself. e eect is to reduce the rate at which fossil fuel use
needs to fall, which in turn leads to lower mitigation costs. One could say that
the inclusion of NETs in IAMs in this way serves to recover as much economic
value from fossil fuel consumption and trade as possible within the limits of a
°C or .°C budget.
Some of this “gradualizing” of the mitigation curve is done quite explicitly by
modelers themselves. VanVuuren et al., for example, using an earlier version of
the IAM IMAGE, explain the criteria they used when developing their mitiga-
tion pathways: “First, a maximum reduction rate was assumed reecting the tech-
nical (and political) inertia that limits emission reductions. Fast reduction rates
would require the early replacement of fossil fuel– based capital stock, and this
may involve high costs. Secondly the reduction rates compared to baseline were
spread out over time as far as possible— but avoiding rapid early reduction rates
and, thirdly, the reduction rates were only allowed to change slowly over time.
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Kriegler et al., using a dierent IAM, similarly note that their model does
not allow for the early retirement of existing fossil fuel infrastructure. In other
words, the models are actively designed so as to avoid the devaluation of eco-
nomically valuable fossil fuel assets, believing this to be unfeasible and so as to
make full use of the window of opportunity for reaching the desired mitigation
target. In this, their assumptions are directly in line with the arguments of the
fossil fuel industry. In Shell’s “well below °C” scenario as well, the imperative
for NETs logically follows from the assumed inevitability of socioeconomic
and technological inertia— that is, the idea that until  or so, “energy system
CO emissions are largely locked in by existing technologies, capital stock, and
societal resistance to change. Modelers and industry interests in this way agree
that there is no alternative to incremental change, even if that means conjuring
up improbable technological solutions.
ese dynamics are reinforced by the idea that future costs and benets need
to be discounted relative to the present. IAMs generally use a discount rate
of percent, which means they weigh costs and benets in the present more
heavily than those that will occur in the future. e reasoning here, imported
directly from nancial markets, is that future generations will be wealthier
(given continued economic growth) than current generations and will therefore
be better able to pay for any future costs that arise from climate change. is is a
contentious and o- debated assumption. For one, it assumes, wrongly, that the
costs and benets of mitigation/adaptation and indeed the impacts of climate
change itself can be straightforwardly captured / compensated for in monetary
terms. As discussed earlier, it also suggests that growth can and will continue
despite an accelerating environmental crisis, which seems improbable to say the
least. ere is furthermore no consensus among economists about what exact
discount rate to use, which is unsurprising given the inherently subjective and
speculative nature of the exercise. As Stanton et al. note, selecting a discount
rate essentially means making a judgment about how to value the benets of
avoided warming for future generations, which is “a problem of ethics, not eco-
nomic theory or scientic fact. A high discount rate is an implicit prioritiza-
tion of short- term interests over long- term ones, or as Jasano pointedly says,
it “erases the distant future as a topic of calculable concern. In the IAMs we
are concerned with here, applying a discount rate of percent has the eect of
deferring mitigation costs into the future when those costs will supposedly be
more aordable. Because large- scale NETs are projected to be implemented
mainly in the second half of the century, discounting makes them compara-
tively more attractive than mitigation measures that are rolled out in the near
term and therefore gives them a direct advantage in the model.
So what is actually going on here? Clearly, the supposed necessity of negative
emissions in mitigation scenarios is the result of a number of specic assump-
tions and value judgments, all of which can reasonably be questioned. But the
problem seems broader than just the negative emissions issue alone. Essentially,
what is being performed in IPCC scenarios is the imperative of gradualism— that
is, the idea that mitigation needs to be incremental if it is to materialize at all.
e “naturalization” of fossil fuel benets through business as usual baselines,
the management of the rate of mitigation by way of cost- eective technology
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Carbon Unicorns and Fossil Futures 43
choices, the direct “gradualization” of model inputs, and the application of a
high discount rate all form the idea that some degree of emissions is inevitable
and that the economic benets of fossil fuel production must be defended to
the greatest extent possible. Models in this way institutionalize the assumption
that short- term devaluation of fossil fuel assets is untenable and economically
undesirable and hence that the socioeconomic inertia is an unavoidable feature
of the current energy system. is de facto enacts inertia as some kind of natu-
ral law rather than a condition that is maintained and reproduced through his-
torically specic socioeconomic structures and therefore responsive to political
choice.
Connecting integrated assessment modeling to the interests of polluters like
Shell, then, is a commitment to the ideology of mainstream economics, a narrow
reliance on cost- eectiveness as the most appropriate way to mediate between
alternative climate futures. By reducing mitigation to a question of carbon
costs and then applying a cost- minimization model to it, IAMs render climate
change mitigation legible to vested political and economic interests but at the
same time delimit the range of mitigation options that seem feasible. As a result,
modeled pathways end up being biased against more radical, near- term emis-
sion reductions, opportunities for widespread behavioral changes, or the kind
of state- driven economic planning proposed by Andreas Malm in this book. It
then becomes more logical to imagine that warming will be contained by a mas-
sive rollout of fantastical NETs than to try to project, for example, a portfolio of
more short- term and risk- averse strategies, even if that means accepting a higher
economic cost (for some!). By placing IAM- based scenarios center stage in its
assessments, the IPCC in this way reproduces the idea that it is the (contest-
able and awed) laws of economic theory that should determine the rules of
engagement in climate policy, not the laws of the biogeochemical carbon cycle
or consideration for the ethical distribution of mitigation risks and responsibili-
ties. e inevitable end result, ironically, is that the IPCC, as the most authorita-
tive international body on climate change, is providing scientic backing for the
kind of delaying tactics that companies like Shell excel in.
The Point Is to Change It
To be sure, there are plenty of good reasons to support certain kinds of CDR, at
least in principle. Aorestation is direly needed not just to sequester carbon but
also to bend the trend of rapid biodiversity loss. Soil carbon sequestration not
only takes carbon out of the atmosphere but also increases soil organic matter
and therefore improves soil structure, helps build soil fertility, and benets soil
organisms. Neither of these, however, are the silver bullets that IPCC scenar-
ios are projecting with NETs. Implementing these technologies on a planetary
scale comes with enormous challenges, and it therefore seems problematic to
treat them as real alternatives to direct emission cuts. In fact, no new research is
needed to demonstrate that aorestation, bioenergy production, and CCS are
not the convenient and inexpensive mitigation options that they are now being
portrayed as. ese technologies already exist at smaller scales and have already
been extensively studied. e vast literature on carbon forestry, for example,
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not only conrms the potential benets that tree planting oers but also vividly
illustrates the trade- os commonly involved, including a real possibility for vio-
lence and dispossession, project failure, public disapproval, or the marginaliza-
tion of the interests and voices of those most aected. Debates on forest-based
carbon osetting— a mechanism that in many ways overlaps with the logic of
negative emissions— furthermore underscore the ethical problems with the idea
that land use change should compensate for the continued emissions of fossil
fuels. Fairhead et al. in this context speak of the “economy of repair,” or the idea
that “unsustainable use ‘here’ can be repaired by sustainable practices ‘there,’”
where “there” oen ends up meaning the developing world, since the “economy
of repair” too is a cost- optimizing one. If large- scale negative emissions provide
the next frontier for this perverse logic, as seems a real risk, it needs to be chal-
lenged and resisted.
I have suggested that a good place to start this task is by scrutinizing the idea
that negative emissions are necessary in the rst place. It turns out that NETs
were introduced in models rst and foremost as an economic necessity, given by
the character of the models themselves. Whether we accept the inevitability of
negative emissions— at scale— is therefore entirely contingent on whether we
subscribe to the economic assumptions that they extend from. ese assump-
tions ultimately revolve around the treatment of climate change as primarily a
question of cost- minimizing economics. It seems obvious that this is a wholly
inadequate way to decide on the most feasible, desirable, or appropriate way to
cut emissions. It falsely constructs all forms of mitigation as qualitatively equal
(ignoring important ethical, political, and ecological dierences), perpetuates
simplistic assumptions of how change occurs in complex social systems, and ori-
ents the mitigation curve toward gradualism despite the social and environmen-
tal risks this entails. e cost of mitigation in models is moreover a constructed
category fully dependent on assumed long- term technology costs, the exclusion
of climate feedbacks, and the choice of discount rates and baselines. Translating
this inherently partial approach into concrete mitigation pathways seems like
high- risk theoretical myopia and ends up ignoring real opportunities for more
just and immediate cuts in GHG emissions. Modelers might insist that their
scenarios are not predictions, but their inclusion in the IPCC still gives them
undue real- world validity and political inuence. It is illuminating in this respect
that VanVuuren et al. recently published a study that modeled scenarios to .°C
with minimal negative emissions simply by assuming more rapid electrication
of the energy system and far- reaching lifestyle changes, among other things.
While they don’t provide a cost analysis for these scenarios, one can assume that
they would be signicantly more costly— in the way IAMs assess this— than
“standard” mitigation approaches. What this illustrates is that if one tinkers long
enough with inputs and assumptions, it is possible to make these models come
up with virtually anything. As Tavoni and Socolow note, this “should make the
reader cautious about carrying modeling results into the real world.
In the end then, while modelers acknowledge that the choice between dier-
ent mitigation options remains a political one, their models only give credibility
to a select range of options. By reducing climate policy to a question of cost-
optimization, IAMs appear to take the cost of mitigation outside of the political
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Carbon Unicorns and Fossil Futures 45
debate. ey seem to suggest that mitigation needs to be cost-eective if it
will materialize at all, which underplays both the scope and the urgency of the
change that is needed. e need for rapid, radical emission reductions suggests a
need to repoliticize discussions on what forms of mitigation are most appropri-
ate and how we will be paying for it. Surely, if the responsibility of the IPCC’s
working group on mitigation extends beyond minimizing the devaluation of
fossil fuel assets— as of course it does— then its work should involve highlight-
ing, in a much more direct way, the benets of certain emissions reduction
pathways in spite of their cost— that is, to illuminate the many uncertainties and
risks of incremental climate policy. Surely assessing opportunities for mitigation
should involve not just acquiescing to the inevitability of fossil- infused inertia
but actively challenging it by providing an open and honest evaluation of the
social, economic, political, and environmental pros and cons of the full range of
mitigation options, including those that are inconvenient to vested political and
economic interests.
Of course, some economists would fume that no such thing is possible; that
high- cost scenarios are politically unrealistic, not policy- relevant; and that no
politician or business would implement a policy that is not cost- eective. But
that would be missing the point entirely. As Alyssa Battistoni rightly observed
recently, there are no politically realistic climate change mitigation options.
ere is nothing politically realistic about assuming that large- scale NETs are
going to save the day. It merely defers the political inconvenience of implement-
ing those technologies to future generations, pushing the problem out of sight
for the current generation of decision makers. To accept this as a matter of fact
is to fail to stand up to the magnitude of the challenge, to default on our col-
lective responsibility toward future generations. It is to deny that the only real-
istic way forward involves a fundamental change of politics. Moreover, even if
it were true that political decisions are necessarily made in narrowly dened,
cost- optimizing ways and hence that the political arena is locked into long- term
socioeconomic inertia, why should scientists have to play by that game? Why
would modelers need to build political feasibility into their models if all this
does is lead to future scenarios populated by carbon unicorns? Why should the
academic community not point out that there is in fact a choice here, even if
it is an unpopular and economically dicult one? When climate policies turn
out to be so woefully inadequate, it is perhaps time for the scientic community
to become a little less policy relevant and a little more confrontational in its
engagement with decision makers. It is perhaps time to start refusing to per-
form, through seemingly innocuous models, the kind of gradualism that has
long ago proven incapable of taking us out of this mess.
Notes
1Carl- Friedrich Schleussner et al., “Science and Policy Characteristics of the Paris Agree-
ment Temperature Goal,” Nature Climate Change  (July ): – ; Glen P. Peters
and Oliver Geden, “Catalysing a Political Shi from Low to Negative Carbon,Nat ure
Climate Change  (): – ; Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC),
Global Warming of .°C: An IPCC Special Report on the Impacts of Global Warming of
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46 Wim Carton
.°C aboe Pre-industrial Levels and Related Global Greenhouse Gas Emission Pathways, in
the Context of Strengthening the Global Response to the reat of Climate Change, Sustain-
able Development, and Eorts to Eradicate Poerty (Geneva, Switzerland: IPCC, );
IPCC, Climate Change : Mitigation of Climate Change; Working Group III Contri-
bution to the Fih Assessment Report of the Intergoernmental Panel on Climate Change
(Geneva, Switzerland: IPCC, ).
2See Kevin Anderson and Glen Peters, “e Trouble with Negative Emissions,Science ,
no. (): – ; Pete Smith et al., “Biophysical and Economic Limits to Negative
CO Emissions,Nature Climate Change  (): –; Alice Larkin et al., “What If
Negative Emission Technologies Fail at Scale? Implications of the Paris Agreement for
Big Emitting Nations,Climate Policy , no. (): – ; Sabine Fuss et al., “Bet-
ting on Negative Emissions,Nature Climate Change , no. (): – ; Anna B.
Harper et al., “Land- Use Emissions Play a Critical Role in Land- Based Mitigation for Paris
Climate Targets,Nature Communications , no. ().
3European Academies Science Advisor y Council (EASAC), Negative Emission Tech-
nologies: What Role in Meeting Paris Agreement Targets? EASAC Policy Report (Salle,
Germany: EASAC, ).
4Matt McGrath, “Caution Urged over Use of ‘Carbon Unicorns’ to Limit Warming,” BBC
News, October, , http:// www .bbc .com/ news/ science -environment -.
5Nils Markusson, Duncan McLaren, and David Tyeld, “Towards a Cultural Political
Economy of Mitigation Deterrence by Neg ative Emissions Technologies (NETs),” Global
Sustainability  (): e; Dominic Lenzi, “e Ethics of Negative Emissions,Global Sus-
tainability (): e; Jan C. Minx et al., “Negative Emissions: Part — Research Landscape,
Ethics and Synthesis,Enironmental Research Letters , no. (): .
6Henry Shue, “Climate Dreaming: Negative Emissions, Risk Transfer, and Irreversibility,
Journal of Human Rights and the Enironment, no. (): – ; Anderson and
Peters, “Trouble with Negative Emissions.
7Minx et al., “Negative Emissions.
8Royal Dutch Shell, PLC, Shell Scenarios: Sky—Meeting the Goals of the Paris Agreement
(e Hague, Netherlands: Royal Dutch Shell, PLC, ).
9IPCC, Global Warming of .°C.
10 Shell, Shell Scenarios, .
11 Adam Vaughan, “Shell Boss Says Mass Reforestation Needed to Limit Temperature Rises
to . C,Guardian, October, , http:// www .theguardian .com/ business/ / oct/
/ shell -ben -van -beurden -mass -reforestation -un -climate -change -target.
12 Shell, Shell Energy Transition Report, , https:// www .shell .com/ energy -and
-innovation/ the -energy -future/ shell -energy -transition -report .html.
13 Wim Carton, “‘Fixing’ Climate Change by Mortgaging the Future: Negative Emissions,
Spatiotemporal Fixes, and the Political Economy of Delay,Antipode , no. ():
– .
14 Simon Evans, “In-Depth: Is Shell’s New Climate Scenario as ‘Radical’ as It Says?,” Carbon
Brief, March, , http:// www .carbonbrief .org/ in -depth -is -shells -new -climate
-scenario -as -radical -as -it -says.
15 Damian Carrington and Jelmer Mommers, “‘Shell Knew’: Oil Giant’s  Film Warned
of Climate Change Danger,Guardian, February, , http:// www .theguardian .com/
environment/ / feb/ / shell -knew -oil -giants - -lm -warned -climate -change -danger.
16 Note that there is also a dierent set of IAMs that is used to calculate the social cost of
carbon and is not used in producing emission reduction pathways. ese more simple
models make a cost- benet analysis of dierent emission reduction pathways by weighing
the economic costs of various mitigation options against the risks (again, in economic
terms) of climate change. is is the kind of thinking that, for example, leads Wil-
liam Nordhaus— using his Dynamic Integrated model of Climate and the Economy
(DICE model)— to the conclusion that the economically “optimal” level of warming is
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Carbon Unicorns and Fossil Futures 47
somewhere from .°C to .°C and that “the advantage of geoengineering over other poli-
cies is enormous.” See William D. Nordhaus, “An Optimal Transition Path for Control-
ling Greenhouse Gases,Science , no. (): ; William D. Nordhaus,
A Question of Balance: Weighing the Options on Global Warming Policies (New Haven,
Conn.: Yale University Press, ); William D. Nordhaus, “Projections and Uncertain-
ties about Climate Change in an Era of Minimal Climate Policies,American Economic
Journal: Economic Policy, no. (): – ; and Nicholas Stern, “e Structure of
Economic Modeling of the Potential Impacts of Climate Change: Graing Gross Under-
estimation of Risk onto Already Narrow Science Models,Journal of Economic Literature
, no. (): – .
17 IPCC, Climate Change .
18 IPCC, .
19 Silke Beck and Martin Mahony, “e IP CC and the Politics of Anticipation,Natu re
Climate Change , no. (): – .
20 Larkin et al., “What If Technologies Fail?”; Detlef P. VanVuuren et al., “Open Discussion
of Negative Emissions Is Urgently Needed,Nature Energ y  (): – .
21 Simon Evans and Zeke Hausfather, “Q&A: How ‘Integrated Assessment Models’ Are
Used to Study Climate Change,” Carbon Brief, October, , http:// www .carbonbrief
.org/ qa -how -integrated -assessment -models -are -used -to -study -climate -change.
22 Massimo Tavon and Robert Socolow, “Modeling Meets Science and Technolog y: An
Introduction to a Special Issue on Negative Emissions,Climatic Change , no. ():
– ; Detlef P. VanVuuren et al., “Stabilizing Greenhouse Gas Concentrations at Low
Levels: An Assessment of Reduction Strategies and Costs,Climatic Change , no.
(): – .
23 Tavoni and Socolow, “Modeling Meets Science and Technology”; Beck and Mahony,
“IPCC and the Politics of Anticipation.
24 Edward A. Parson, “Climate Policymakers and Assessments Must Get Serious about
Climate Engineering ,Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences , no. ():
– .
25 Leo Hickman, “Timeline: How BECCS Became Climate Change’s ‘Saviour’ Technol-
ogy, Carbon Brief, April, , http:// www .carbonbrief .org/ beccs -the -story -of -climate
-changes -saviour -technology.
26 VanVuuren et al., “Stabilizing Greenhouse Gas Concentrations”; Christian Azar et al.,
“Carbon Capture and Storage from Fossil Fuels and Biomass— Costs and Potential Role
in Stabilizing the Atmosphere,” Climatic Change, nos.–  (): – .
27 Carton, “‘Fixing’ Climate Change.
28 Oliver Geden, “Politically Informed Advice for Climate Action,Nature Geoscience 
( June ): – ; Oliver Geden, “e Paris Agreement and the Inherent Inconsis-
tency of Climate Policymaking,Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change, no.
(): – .
29 Kate Dooley, Peter Christo, and Kimberly A. Nicholas, “Co -producing Climate Policy
and Negative Emissions: Trade- Os for Sustainable Land- Use,Global Sustainability
(): .
30 Parson, “Climate Policymakers.”
31 Dooley, Christo, and Nicholas, “Co-producing Climate Policy,” .
32 Evans and Hausfather, “Q&A.”
33 Silke Beck and Martin Mahony, “e Politics of Anticipation: e IPCC and the Nega-
tive Emissions Technologies Experience,Global Sustainability  (): e; Dooley,
Christo, and Nicholas, “Co- producing Climate Policy.
34 Esther Turnhout, “e Politics of Environmental Knowledge,Conservation and Soci-
ety, no. (): .
35 Esther Turnhout, Katja Neves, and Elisa DeLijster, “‘Measurementality’ in Biodiver-
sity Governance: Knowledge, Transparency, and the Intergovernmental Science- Policy
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48 Wim Carton
Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES),” Enironment and Planning A
, no. (): .
36 Sean Low, “e Futures of Climate Engineering,Earth’s Future  (): –.
37 David Demeritt, “e Construction of Global Warming and the Politics of Science,
Annals of the Association of American Geographers , no. (): – ; Mar-
tin Mahony and Mike Hulme, “Epistemic Geographies of Climate Change,Prog-
ress in Human Geography , no. (): – ; Beck and Mahony, “Politics of
Anticipation.
38 Beck and Mahony, “Politics of Anticipation,” .
39 Beck and Mahony, .
40 Beck and Mahony, .
41 Geden, “Paris Agreement.
42 Larkin et al., “What If Technologies Fail?”
43 Shue, “Climate Dreaming.
44 Evans and Hausfather, “Q&A”; IPCC, Climate Change , chap..
45 Cf. VanVuuren et al., “Stabilizing Greenhouse Gas Concentrations”; and Keywan Riahi et
al., “e Shared Socioeconomic Pathways and eir Energy, Land Use, and Greenhouse
Gas Emissions Implications: An Overview,Global Enironmental Change  ():
– .
46 Riahi et al., “Shared Socioeconomic Pathways.”
47 IPCC, Climate Change , sec.....
48 David Klein et al., “Global Economic Consequences of Deploying Bioenergy with Car-
bon Capture and Storage (BECCS),Enironmental Research Letters  (): – .
49 IPCC, Climate Change , chap..
50 Elmar Kriegler et al., “Is Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide Removal a Game Changer for
Climate Change Mitigation?,Climatic Change , no. (): – .
51 IPCC, Climate Change , sec.....
52 VanVuuren et al., “Stabilizing Greenhouse Gas Concentrations.
53 VanVuuren et al., .
54 Kriegler et al., “Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide Removal.
55 Shell, “Sky Scenario,” .
56 IPCC, Climate Change ; VanVuuren et al., “Open Discussion.”
57 Robert S. Pindyck, “e Use and Misuse of Models for Climate Polic y,Review of Eni-
ronmental Economics and Policy , no. (): – .
58 Elizabeth A. Stanton, Frank Ackerman, and Sivan Kartha, “Inside the Integrated Assess-
ment Models: Four Issues in Climate Economics,Climate and Development , no.
(): .
59 Sheila Jasano, “A New Climate for Society,eory, Culture and Society , no. (): .
60 Larkin et al., “What If Technologies Fail?”; see also Beck and Mahony, “Politics of
Anticipation.
61 Timothy E. Crews, Wim Carton, and Lennart Olsson, “Is the Future of Agriculture
Perennial? Imperatives and Opportunities to Reinvent Agriculture by Shiing from
Annual Monocultures to Perennial Polycultures,Global Sustainability  (): e.
62 Karin Edstedt and Wim Carton, “e Benets at (Only) Capital Can See? Resource
Access and Degradation in Industrial Carbon Forestry, Lessons from the CDM in
Uganda,Geoforum  (): ; Sarah Milne et al., “Learning from ‘Actually Exist-
ing’ REDD+: A Synthesis of Etnographic Findings,Conservation and Society , no.
(): – ; Melissa Leach and Ian Scoones, eds., Carbon Conicts and Forest Land-
scapes in Aica (New York: Routledge, ); Connor Cavanagh and Tor A. Benjaminsen,
“Virtual Nature, Violent Accumulation: e ‘Spectacular Failure’ of Carbon Osetting
at a Ugandan National Park,Geoforum  (): – ; Esteve Corbera and Charlotte
Friedli, “Planting Trees through the Clean Development Mechanism: A Critical Assess-
ment,Ephemera , nos.–  (): – ; Tracey Osborne, “Tradeos in Carbon
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Carbon Unicorns and Fossil Futures 49
Commodication: A Political Ecology of Common Property Forest Governance,Geofo-
rum  (): – .
63 James Fairhead, Melissa Leach, and Ian Scoones, “Green Grabbing: A New Appropriation
of Nature?,Journal of Peasant Studies , no. (): .
64 Daniela F. Cusack et al., “An Interdisciplinary Assessment of Climate Engineering Strate-
gies,Frontiers in Ecology and the Enironment , no. (): – .
65 VanVuuren et al., “Alternative Pathways.
66 Tavoni and Socolow, “Modeling Meets Science and Technology,” .
67 Alyssa Battistoni, “ere’s No Time for Gradualism,” Jacobin, October, , http://
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68 Kevin Anderson, “Duality in Climate Science,Nature Geoscience, no. ():
– .
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... Este es el primer límite de la "economía circular": el uso de desechos como materias primas para el proceso económico no puede ser total, dado que siempre existirá una porción de energía no disponible. Otro límite a este concepto es el hecho de que, en el proceso económico global, 75% de la energía producida viene de combustibles fósiles (Korhonen, Honkasalo, y Seppälä 2018), cuyo reciclaje eficiente y a gran escala es poco menos que hipotético, debido al incipiente estado del proceso de desarrollo de tal tecnología (Carton 2020). Finalmente, el hecho de que el proceso económico moderno tiene al crecimiento económico como objetivo primordial implica que toda mejora en la eficiencia de uso de materiales mejorará la productividad, pero no disminuirá el uso de los materiales en cuestión, en lo que se conoce como Paradoja de Jevons: "cuando aumenta la eficiencia de producción, los costos de producción disminuyen y eventualmente, los precios de los productos finales disminuyen. ...
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This Handbook provides an essential guide to the study of resources and their role in socioenvironmental change. With original contributions from more than 60 authors with expertise in a wide range of resource types and world regions, it offers a toolkit of conceptual and methodological approaches for documenting, analyzing, and reimagining resources and the worlds with which they are entangled. The volume has an introduction and four thematic sections. The introductory chapter outlines key trajectories for thinking critically with and about resources. Chapters in Section I, “(Un)Knowing Resources,” offer distinct epistemological entry points and approaches for studying resources. Chapters in Section II, “(Un)Knowing Resource Systems,” examine the components and logics of the capitalist systems through which resources are made, circulated, consumed, and disposed of, while chapters in Section III, “Doing Critical Resource Geography: Methods, Advocacy, and Teaching,” focus on the practices of critical resource scholarship, exploring the opportunities and challenges of carrying out engaged forms of research and pedagogy. Chapters in Section IV, “Resource-Making/World-Making,” use case studies to illustrate how things are made into resources and how these processes of resource-making transform socio-environmental life. This vibrant and diverse critical resource scholarship provides an indispensable reference point for researchers, students, and practitioners interested in understanding how resources matter to the world and to the systems, conflicts, and debates that make and remake it.
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In recent years, bio-energy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) has been awarded a key role in climate mitigation scenarios explored by integrated assessment models and referenced in reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Because a majority of scenarios limiting global warming to 2 °C or 1,5 °C include vast deployment of BECCS, a critical discussion has emerged among experts about the moral implications of thus introducing an unproven technology into the policy realm. In this paper, we analyse this discussion as it has played out between 2013 and 2019, with a focus on how expert narratives are constructed in the mass media about the possibilities for decarbonisation within the current political-economic order. We find there are almost no narratives that support massive deployment of BECCS, and that all narratives presuppose limits to decarbonisation imposed by the current political-economic system. The perception of such limits lead some to argue, through deterministic and apolitical narratives, for the necessity of negative emissions technologies, while others argue instead that “degrowth” is the only solution. Thus, there is a distinct lack of positive narratives about how capitalism can bring about decarbonisation.
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Models suggest that climate change mitigation now depends on negative emissions, i.e. the large-scale removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. This assumption has been criticised in the climate policy literature for being unfeasible and unjust. This article asks how critical scholars can make sense of, and contribute to these debates. It suggests that negative emissions can be conceived of as a spatiotemporal fix that promises to defer the devaluation of fixed capital. But the negative emissions example also challenges us to broaden our conception of how the socioecological contradictions of capitalism can be "fixed". I outline three ways in which it does this by highlighting the significance of a predominantly temporal fix, the role of hegemonic, sociopolitical interventions involving multiple actors, and the possibility of safeguarding existing production processes. I conclude that spatiotemporal fixes to climate change should be seen as part of a wider political economy of delay in devaluing carbon-intensive accumulation processes.
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Non-technical summary Modern agriculture is associated with numerous environmental predicaments, such as land degradation, water pollution, and greenhouse gas emission. Socio-economically, it is characterized by a treadmill of technological change, increased mechanization, and economic consolidation, while depressing economic returns to farmers. A root cause is the dominance of annual plants cultivated in monocultures. Annual crops require the yearly clearing of vegetation resulting in soil erosion and other forms of ecosystem degradation. Monocultures are susceptible to agricultural pests and weeds. By contrast, perennial polycultures informed by natural ecosystems, promise more sustainable agroecosystems with the potential to also revitalize the economic foundation of farming and hence rural societies.
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Non-technical summary In the face of limited carbon budgets, negative emissions technologies (NETs) offer hopes of removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. It is difficult to determine whether the prospect of NETs is significantly deterring or delaying timely action to cut emissions. This paper sets out a novel theoretical perspective to this challenge, enabling analysis that accounts for interactions between technologies, society and political and economic power. The paper argues that, seen in this light, the scope of NETs to substitute for mitigation may be easily exaggerated, and thus that the risk of harm from mitigation deterrence should be taken seriously.
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The 2015 United Nations Paris Agreement on Climate reinforces actions to conserve and enhance forests as carbon reservoirs. A decade after sub-national demonstration projects to reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD+) commenced, we examine why many REDD+ schemes appear to have fuelled social conflict while having limited success in addressing the drivers of forest loss and degradation. Our analysis is two-tiered: first we synthesise findings from a set of ethnographic case studies of REDD+ in Mainland Southeast Asia, conducted by the authors; second, we explore whether the insights from our regional synthesis apply globally, through a comparative review of published qualitative research on REDD+ field experiences. Our results reveal three major implementation dynamics that can undermine REDD+ in practice, which we conceptualise from science and technology studies and critical political ecology as follows: 1) problems with the enrolment of governments, civil society, and local forest users in REDD+ governance; 2) the prevalence of overly simplified codification systems for REDD+ implementation that mismatch targeted societies and landscapes; and 3) the consequent dissonance between REDD+ objectives and outcomes. Together, these problematic dynamics reveal how and why REDD+ so often misses its targets of reducing deforestation and delivering community benefits. In effect, it appears that REDD+ in the course of implementation maps onto local power structures and political economies, rendering it blunt as tool for change. The potential of REDD+ as a ‘solution’ in the global climate regime must therefore be scrutinized, along with other similar mechanisms espoused by the green economy.
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Recent research has shed light on the various tradeoffs involved in carbon forestry, i.e. the pursuit of international forestry projects to help mitigate climate change. This article contributes to these debates by highlighting the importance of resource quality and degradation in evaluating project benefits and tradeoffs. Focusing on the case of an industrial tree plantation in Uganda, the Kachung Forest Project, we highlight how the livelihoods of communities surrounding the reserve have been affected by interlinked changes in local resource access and resource quality. We show that the project has brought about a significant degradation of fuelwood sources, grazing and cultivation lands, and potentially increased pressure on scarce water sources, which in turn contributed to increased poverty in the area. We also argue that the community development interventions that project actors have pursued have primarily delivered ‘benefits that capital can see’ quick-fix solutions that fit within the profit-maximizing logic in which the forest company operates, while obscuring the underlying and resource-dependent drivers of poverty. Our study calls for closer attention to the interlinked socioecological changes underpinning the foundational tradeoffs – between cost-effective carbon sequestration and long-term environmental and developmental objectives – in the industry forestry model analysed here.
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Scenarios that limit global warming to below 2 °C by 2100 assume significant land-use change to support large-scale carbon dioxide (CO 2) removal from the atmosphere by afforestation/reforestation, avoided deforestation, and Biomass Energy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS). The more ambitious mitigation scenarios require even greater land area for mitigation and/or earlier adoption of CO 2 removal strategies. Here we show that additional land-use change to meet a 1.5 °C climate change target could result in net losses of carbon from the land. The effectiveness of BECCS strongly depends on several assumptions related to the choice of biomass, the fate of initial above ground biomass, and the fossil-fuel emissions offset in the energy system. Depending on these factors, carbon removed from the atmosphere through BECCS could easily be offset by losses due to land-use change. If BECCS involves replacing high-carbon content ecosystems with crops, then forest-based mitigation could be more efficient for atmospheric CO 2 removal than BECCS.
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Non-technical summary In the post-Paris political landscape, the relationship between science and politics is changing. We discuss what this means for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), using recent controversies over negative emissions technologies (NETs) as a window into the fraught politics of producing policy-relevant pathways and scenarios. We suggest that pathways and scenarios have a ‘world-making’ power, potentially shaping the world in their own image and creating new political realities. Assessment bodies like the IPCC need to reflect on this power, and the implications of changing political contexts, in new ways.
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This essay offers a critical engagement with the ideal of policy relevant environmental knowledge. Using examples in environmental governance and conservation, it argues that by packaging knowledge in terms and categories that are considered politically salient, scientists do not just inform policy-making by providing information about presumed pre-existing objects in nature and environment; rather, science is constitutive of those objects and renders them amenable for policy and governance. These political implications of scientific knowledge imply a need for critical scrutiny of the interests that science serves and fails to serve as well as mechanisms to ensure the accountability of science. This essay is a modified and expanded version of the inaugural lecture with the same title that was delivered on June 2, 2016 at Wageningen University, the Netherlands.
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Non-technical summary Under the Paris Agreement, nations have committed to preventing dangerous global warming. Scenarios for achieving net-zero emissions in the second half of this century depend on land (forests and bioenergy) to remove carbon from the atmosphere. Modelled levels of land-based mitigation could reduce the availability of productive agricultural land, and encroach on natural land, with potentially significant social and environmental consequences. However, these issues are poorly recognized in the policy-uptake of modelled outputs. Understanding how science and policy interact to produce expectations about mitigation pathways allows us to consider the trade-offs inherent in relying on land for mitigation.
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With the Paris Agreement's ambition of limiting climate change to well below 2 °C, negative emission technologies (NETs) have moved into the limelight of discussions in climate science and policy. Despite several assessments, the current knowledge on NETs is still diffuse and incomplete, but also growing fast. Here, we synthesize a comprehensive body of NETs literature, using scientometric tools and performing an in-depth assessment of the quantitative and qualitative evidence therein. We clarify the role of NETs in climate change mitigation scenarios, their ethical implications, as well as the challenges involved in bringing the various NETs to the market and scaling them up in time. There are six major findings arising from our assessment: first, keeping warming below 1.5 °C requires the large-scale deployment of NETs, but this dependency can still be kept to a minimum for the 2 °C warming limit. Second, accounting for economic and biophysical limits, we identify relevant potentials for all NETs except ocean fertilization. Third, any single NET is unlikely to sustainably achieve the large NETs deployment observed in many 1.5 °C and 2 °C mitigation scenarios. Yet, portfolios of multiple NETs, each deployed at modest scales, could be invaluable for reaching the climate goals. Fourth, a substantial gap exists between the upscaling and rapid diffusion of NETs implied in scenarios and progress in actual innovation and deployment. If NETs are required at the scales currently discussed, the resulting urgency of implementation is currently neither reflected in science nor policy. Fifth, NETs face severe barriers to implementation and are only weakly incentivized so far. Finally, we identify distinct ethical discourses relevant for NETs, but highlight the need to root them firmly in the available evidence in order to render such discussions relevant in practice.