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We have to phase out fossil fuels and scale negative emissions

Johan Rockström, Director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, argues that we need to get serious about scaling up carbon  removals, alongside different buckets of climate action, not substituting for it.

Negative emissions are necessary to get 1.5, but they are necessary as an additionality. We have to phase out fossil fuels and scale negative emissions. We cannot scale negative emissions technologies as a way of allowing continued burning of fossil fuels.

That means we have to start getting serious about carbon removals now. It takes a long time to develop the technical, social and political frameworks that can get us to billions of tonnes by 2050. It’s already an exponential journey to take us from zero today to 5 billion tonnes in 30 years – it’s such a rapid pace that we simply have to start now.

People fear, and many times correctly, that many vested interests will use negative emissions technology as an excuse to keep burning fossil fuels. So we need to discuss in the UNFCCC and in COP negotiations how to govern, invest, monitor and have compliance around negative emissions. We should take negative emissions as seriously as we take decarbonisation pathways.

How to create economic incentives and mechanisms for investing in negative emissions now? Let’s turn a corner on the debate we’ve had for the last 30 years and put a price on carbon. And you have to be allowed to report negative emissions.

We need a much more integrated carbon neutrality matrix to account for and measure impact, with separate targets for different outcomes. We’re working on such a framework now:

  1.       Mitigation target: follow the carbon law on phasing out coal, oil and gas – stay within the carbon budget, cutting emissions by half every decade.
  2.       Land-based emissions target: contribute across the whole value chain to transform the food system from a net source to a net sink.
  3.       Nature target: Keep the oceans and nature as an intact, healthy carbon sink.
  4.       Negative emissions target: Calculate year by year what has to be accomplished to get the carbon removal volumes required.

These are separate carbon buckets – you are not allowed to offset one against the other. We are beyond offsetting, because the only way to get 1.5 is to succeed on all of these fronts. We have to succeed with negative emissions technologies and phasing out fossil fuels. We have to do both and if we fail on one, we pass 1.5. There is no way of substituting one for another.

Johan Rockström is Director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and Professor in Earth System Science at the University of Potsdam.