Open letter to Tim Flannery in response to "A 'Third Way' to Fight Climate Change"

The New York Times recently published an op-ed by Tim Flannery on carbon removal solutions to climate change. I commend Mr. Flannery for writing about such an important topic, but I think his article could have benefited from framing carbon removal solutions as a missing piece of the climate change mitigation portfolio, rather than as a “third way” for fighting climate change. Below is my more detailed response to Mr. Flannery’s op-ed, written as an open letter:

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Mr. Flannery-

First and foremost, thank you for writing about this important idea of removing excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. I, along with an increasing number of climate experts, agree with you that cleaning up carbon dioxide that has accumulated in the atmosphere will prove critical for curtailing climate change, and that it is essential to accelerate the development of carbon removal solutions today. However, I think that your framing of carbon removal as a “third way” for curtailing climate change threatens to mislead key stakeholders about the appropriate role of carbon removal solutions in mitigating climate change, in turn jeopardizing the ability of carbon removal solutions to gain the support they need to flourish.

In particular, I think that the strawman of carbon removal as a “third way” – between one option of greenhouse gas (GHG) emission mitigation and another option of solar geoengineering – can mislead key stakeholders in two important ways. First, this framing draws unfounded distinctions between GHG emissions abatement and carbon removal approaches, and risks painting carbon removal as an alternative to GHG emission abatement instead of the complement that it is. And second, this framing elevates the idea of solar geoengineering as a viable climate change abatement strategy vastly above the current scientific consensus on this topic, painting carbon removal solutions in a much more radical light than do most climate experts.

Point #1: Carbon removal is climate change mitigation.

The IPCC defines “mitigation” as “an anthropogenic intervention to reduce the sources or enhance the sinks of greenhouse gases” [emphasis mine]. In other words, carbon removal is mitigation. What’s more, strategies to enhance carbon sinks are almost identical to related GHG emission abatement strategies. Take the following examples:

  • Avoided deforestation (reduce GHG emissions) and reforestation (enhance GHG sinks)
  • Fossil energy with carbon capture and storage (reduce GHG emissions) and bioenergy with carbon capture and sequestration (reduce GHG emissions and enhance GHG sinks) or direct air capture and sequestration (enhance GHG sinks)

The above examples also make it clear that carbon removal solutions are a complement – not an alternative – to GHG emission reduction strategies. Framing carbon removal as a “third way” risks even further “neglect[ of carbon removal] in political negotiations and public debate,” (as you write in the article) as policymakers might see carbon removal as a distraction to prolong business-as-usual production of GHG emissions, which it clearly is not.

Point #2: Solar geoengineering approaches provide far too radical of an anchor of comparison for carbon removal solutions.

Climate experts see solar geoengineering in a completely different light than they do climate mitigation strategies. Take the following table from the National Research Council report on “Climate Interventions”:

Source: National Research Council, Climate Intervention reports.

Source: National Research Council, Climate Intervention reports.

Solar geoengineering is simply in a different class of climate change abatement approaches – more extreme, risky, and controversial. As a result, I have found that there is comparatively little discussion about implementing solar geoengineering proposals today: anecdotally, I would estimate that for every conversation on solar geoengineering, there are 100 conversations on mitigation approaches. As a result, framing carbon removal as a “third way” between GHG emission reductions and solar geoengineering makes carbon removal appear to be an option in the middle of these approaches, when it is in fact much closer to the mitigation activities that act as the center of gravity in the climate conversation. As an analogy, doctors do not explain exercise as a “third way” to diet and lap-band surgery to prevent weight gain, much like climate experts do not explain carbon removal as a “third way” between GHG emission mitigation and solar geoengineering to prevent a warming planet.

Conclusion

In conclusion, I suggest moving away from the framework of carbon removal as a “third way” and instead framing carbon removal as a critical yet largely missing piece of “Plan A” to deploy large-scale climate change mitigation strategies. Framed as a way to broaden the set of mitigation solutions, I think the conversation on carbon removal can help bring more parties to the climate negotiation table and can encourage deeper emission reduction pledges than would otherwise occur. Carbon removal solutions still face serious hurdles to reach the necessary scale to realize this promise, making it all the more critical that we explain carbon removal in as constructive and appropriate way to ensure we address these barriers effectively and swiftly.

Again, when it comes to the need for accelerating the development of carbon removal solutions, I suspect that we are in complete alignment. I write this letter in that spirit of support for this field, and I hope that I have not misrepresented any of your claims or otherwise portrayed them inappropriately. I also stand ready to be disabused of any misconceptions I have about your argument, and to be challenged on any/all of the points of contention listed above.     

Thank you again for writing about this important topic,

Noah Deich

Executive Director | The Center for Carbon Removal