Can the world attain the Paris Agreement goals without Geoengineering?

While the world is under the pressure of an energy crisis and other economic problems and still struggling to keep up with its climate goals, COP27 was held between 6 November and 20 November 2022 in Egypt. The world had a chance to ponder the asserted goals of the Paris Agreement for 2050. 

The most important result of the conference was a loss and damage fund agreement, which creates “funding for vulnerable countries hit hard by climate disasters”. As another source of optimism, the COP27 deal also talks about the importance of food security, agriculture, and water, which were not mentioned in the Glasgow Climate Pact of last year’s COP26. These are some good achievements, but the dominant feeling is disappointment. 

There was no achievement regarding phasing out fossil fuels, for example. Reportedly, oil-producing countries blocked the calls to do this. The energy crisis that the Russian war in Ukraine created, and other factors, contributed to the unwillingness of governments to take bold action against fossil fuels. When there are geopolitical ambiguities, economic risks and fears around the globe, countries lean towards short-term goals. The European Union (EU) pushes for natural gas and temporary energy generation from coal, although it states that these are temporary measures that will not affect the long-term climate commitments of the EU. There was no such expression that would address phase outing fossil fuels in the COP27 summary document. Instead, the document mentions the “accelerated development of ‘low-carbon’ energy systems”, which paves the way to further natural gas projects.

Because of the inertia of states in climate action, it is fair to ask ourselves if the goals set by the Paris Agreement could ever be accomplished by 2050. First, the world needs to cut emissions by the end of this decade for net zero. This would mean there should not be any coal or natural gas expansion if we do not want to put the net zero goal at risk. Given the current energy crisis, this does not seem like a realistic scenario. The problem with the climate goals is that international law has no enforcement mechanism, so that countries have to have full commitments to their climate goals internally if these goals are to be met.

Until now, there have been concerns that countries outside the European Union are not fulfilling their commitments. For example, under Donald Trump’s presidency, the US, which is the second highest carbon emitter in the world, withdrew from the Paris Treaty – Joe Biden reinstated this commitment as one of the first moves in his presidency. Besides, it is not unrealistic to predict that the EU will struggle in its commitments as new gas projects such as new Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) deals and the temporary decision to generate electricity from coal are on the line.

These assumptions are based on the premise that reaching net zero in 2050 is not late. However, reaching net zero does not mean there will no longer be climate change. Carbon dioxide will remain in the atmosphere. Some argue that even being able to reach net zero in 2050 will create hard-to-bear catastrophic outcomes, and some researchers say that the temperatures will rise to 2.6 °C at the end of this decade even if countries fulfill their pledges. Some countries such as Sweden, New Zealand, Norway, and Finland have drawn their target years closer.

At this point, geoengineering enters the discussion. Geoengineering is the deliberate effort for artificially manipulating the atmosphere to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere. Geoengineering can be considered in two broad categories: (1) carbon capture technologies and (2) solar geoengineering, reflecting the sun’s energy back into space. Carbon capture technologies such as Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS) require mass amounts of land use and emissions with other concerns. This type of geoengineering is considered to be a method of carbon dioxide mitigation rather than climate intervention. Thus, it is considered a safer way to reduce CO2 in the atmosphere than the techniques to reduce CO2 by reflecting the sun’s energy back into space. Solar geoengineering raises a lot of concerns too. The methods, such as putting a certain amount of sulfur in the atmosphere, do not have a track record.

For both ways of reducing CO2, since it is predicted that geoengineering could have regional winners and losers, geoengineering can be used as a weapon between states. However, the biggest problem with geoengineering is the way it distracts the world from its responsibilities to tackle climate change. For Katharina Beyerl, an environmental psychologist, it is potentially a faux ‘quick fix’ for countries unwilling and unable to wean themselves off fossil fuels:

It’s comparable to diet pills when people want to lose weight, but don’t want to do sports or change their diet. It won’t solve the underlying problem, but rather causes new ones. Actually, we need to change our lifestyles. And that’s difficult and it’s annoying, because it is currently easier to live unsustainably and many of us are used to this consumerist lifestyle. 

Katherine Beyerl

Despite all these problems, time is limited. Because of the inertia of national governments to tackle climate change, Paris Climate Accord targets are getting further and further to reach. Geoengineering is the most prominent answer to the unwillingness of policymakers. Therefore, the world needs to ask itself these crucial questions: Can we attain Paris Treaty goals? If not, what will be our solution? Are we ready to use geoengineering despite all the risks? The answers to these questions will determine the future of climate policy.

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