The international community has agreed on a climate target that keeps global warming under a threshold of 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2100. In a recent interview on The Problem with Jon Stewart, CEO of Shell Ben van Beurden posited the following: “If we are going to get to 1.5°C by the end of this century, it may well be that by 2050, we are over 1.5°C, and we need the second half of the century to clean up.”
Talk of a post-2050 cleanup naturally sounds suspicious coming from a 64-year-old fossil fuel CEO whose company is poised to spend over 40 million dollars per day from now until 2030 exploiting new oil and gas resources. Is such a proposition plausible?
Prior to the release of the 6th Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, scientific wisdom held that even if humans should succeed in cutting greenhouse gas emissions to zero, the planet would continue to warm for several decades. The rationale was that greenhouse gases — particularly carbon dioxide — remain in the atmosphere for many decades, continually absorbing solar radiation and warming the planet. Not until these gases finally dissipate would Earth’s climate even begin to stabilize, let alone cool off.
But recent research from Dr. Michael Mann has shown that while the warming effect from greenhouse gases is in play, so too is an opposite, cooling effect from oceans and other carbon sinks, which suck carbon out of the atmosphere and store it away. According to Mann’s research, these two forces ultimately balance one another, allowing for the possibility that Earth’s climate could stabilize within the century — providing humankind becomes fully carbon neutral. This would mean reducing net greenhouse gas emissions to zero — an achievement that, if executed well, would confer upon the world’s people a long list of economic, health, and social benefits.
Stabilizing the climate is one thing. Cooling the climate is significantly more complicated. There are two sets of strategies for such an endeavor: solar geoengineering and carbon geoengineering. Solar geoengineering involves blocking out the sun’s rays via reflective aerosol particles or sci-fi space mirrors. Experts warn that solar geoengineering could have unintended consequences and lead to problems in global governance. Carbon geoengineering involves sucking carbon out of the atmosphere and storing it away, by such means as scrubbers, direct air capture plants, forests, blue carbon ecosystems, and enhanced weathering. Geoengineering offers exciting possibilities, but currently is both less practical and more costly than conventional mitigation solutions such as clean energy or energy efficiency.
Van Beurden’s proposal — to wait for the latter half of the century to stabilize and cool the climate — is fraught with peril. First, it relies on a set of solutions which are very expensive and little understood. Secondly, it requires a plan. Shell and other fossil fuel companies have not positioned themselves to be a part of this plan. The world’s largest oil and gas companies have quietly made plans for 195 mega-projects that would collectively emit 646 billion tons of carbon dioxide from start to finish. For context, if the entire world were to emit 650 billion tons of carbon dioxide as a result of these projects, there would remain only a 33% chance of limiting global warming to 1.5°C. A plan to blow past 1.5°C and then hope for some science fiction miracle is a recipe for disaster.
In fact, a blip above 1.5°C is becoming increasingly likely. The World Meteorological Organization found in a recent report that there is a 10% chance the average global temperature will exceed the 1.5°C threshold over the next five years. Each year humans continue emitting greenhouse gases, this probability grows. The world is close enough to 1.5°C territory that it could move past the threshold at any time.
That said, the world is not necessarily fated to experience a blip over 1.5°C. The IPCC found that if the world’s emissions should peak by 2025, drop by 43% by the early 2030’s, and reach net zero by the early 2050’s, warming of 1.5°C could be avoided altogether. The IPCC also found these targets to be not just feasible, but beneficial to economic and social development around the world.
I don’t mean to single out Van Beurden. He is far from the only person discussing this “clean up later” scenario. But to make it plausible, the world would still need drastic reductions in carbon emissions even to have a chance at achieving the goal of 1.5°C by 2100. If fossil fuel companies are permitted to proceed with business as usual over the next decade, even the world’s best efforts at geoengineering will not be sufficient to pull off Van Beurden’s proposal.