UK newspaper The Guardian reports that a group of leading scientists has published a paper insisting that fossil fuel companies should be forced to ‘take back’ the carbon dioxide emitted from their products, which would give them the direct responsibility for cleaning up the climate.
The principle that the producer of pollution should pay for its clean-up is established around the world, but has never been applied to the climate crisis.
Yet technology to capture and store carbon dioxide underground is advancing, and is now technically feasible, according to Myles Allen, a professor of geosystems science at the University of Oxford.
“The technology exists – what has always been lacking is effective policy,” he said. “The failure has been policy, not technology – we know how to do this.”
The companies that profit from extracting fossil fuels – oil, gas and coal producers around the world – should be paying for an equivalent quantity of carbon dioxide to be stored geologically as a condition of being allowed to operate”, he argued.
Allen is a co-author, along with four other scientists from Oxford, the US and the Netherlands, of a recent paper published in the journal Environmental Science Letters that sets out how such an extended producer responsibility could work.
Under a carbon take back obligation, all fossil fuels extracted or imported into a nation or group of nations would be offset by storing underground an amount of carbon dioxide equivalent to that generated by that fuel. Phased in over time, it could be used to store 100% of emissions by 2050, to help the world reach net zero.
The authors of the paper argued that unlike a carbon tax, which discourages the use of fossil fuels by making them more expensive, such a system would ensure the effect on the climate was neutralised, and the cost of doing so would be part of the cost of fossil fuel production.
Although carbon capture and storage technology is expensive at present, within a few decades it is likely to come down sharply in price, according to the paper.
This would enable the storage of carbon dioxide in the ‘geosphere’ – underground – rather than the biosphere, in the form of forests and vegetation, which stores carbon but is under pressure as so much land is needed for growing food around the world.
The group pointed out that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has made clear that limiting global temperatures to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels, which is necessary to avoid the worst ravages of climate breakdown, is likely to require the removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as well as the phasing out fossil fuels and the rapid deployment of renewable energy.
Carbon take backs could work alongside carbon border taxes, or carbon border adjustment mechanisms (CBAMs), by penalising or preventing imports from countries that do not impose some form of carbon reduction obligation on their industries.
Several other scientists, though not involved with the paper, applauded the idea.
Dr Hannah Chalmers, a reader in sustainable energy systems at the University of Edinburgh, said: “Introducing an extended producer responsibility for fossil fuels would be a game-changer in successfully responding to the challenge of delivering affordable, low-carbon energy. Geological storage of carbon dioxide is likely to play an important role in reaching net zero emissions by 2050.”
Paul Ekins, a professor of resources and environmental policy at University College London, said: “There is an urgent need for radical new CO2 emission reduction policies. [This proposal] provides a means to get built the substantial carbon capture and storage infrastructure that nearly all models say will be needed if the 1.5C target is to be met. The [UN climate] meetings need urgently to start discussing such measures before the target gets irrevocably out of reach.”