The Cost of Climate Change - $535tn

The Cost of Climate Change - $535tn

July 2018

Future generations will be handed a massive bill, that could amount to $535tn, resulting from the cost of climate change due to delays in implementing significant changes to reduce greenhouse gases. These were the findings from a new research to calculate the cost of the Negative CO2 Emissions technology needed to remove carbon dioxide from air in order to avoid the risks of climate change. The study was conducted by an international team of experts led by the American climatologist scientist James Hansen; previously the director of Nasa’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies and published at Earth Systems Dynamics.

The 2015 Paris Accords on Climate Change has documented the international community’s approval to limit the global temperature increase to 2°C. The team led by Hansen believes that safest approach to reach this goal is to decrease the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere from the current annual average in excess of 400 parts per million (ppm) to the level of the 1980’s. i.e., 350 ppm. In effect, this approach is considered to be in line with the Paris Agreement to reduce the temperature increase to 1.5°C. Many climatologists and policymakers believe that limiting the temperature increase to 1.5–2.0°C will only be possible by using the negative CO2 emissions technique. 

Return carbon to Earth
The promising negative CO2 emissions is termed Bio-Energy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS). It involves farming products that are subsequently burnt at power generation facilities, and the resulting carbon emission are then captured and pushed through pipes to depths lower than the earth crust for storage over thousands of years. The scheme will allow the generation of electricity availability and reduce the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. 
The BECCS technology has its own limitations, such as land availability, as well as sufficient amount of water and fertilisers required to meet the demand for generating power. The main drawback, however, is that this technology is not presently available at mass scale. Only few pilot plants have been tested. There are other negative CO2 emissions techniques available such as fertilising the oceans to increase the photo-synthesis process and direct capture of CO2 from air to be transformed into plastics and other products. 

The Hansen team investigated the cost of removing excess CO2 from air by BECCS. They concluded that it is possible to return to a CO2 concentration level of 350 ppm by re-farming the forests and improving the soil, leaving around 50bn tonnes of CO2 to be dismantled via negative CO2 emissions techniques. The plants cultivated through BECCS will absorb CO2 and when burnt, the resulting CO2 is captured at chimney stacks. This could only work if the existing rate of emissions is curtailed. Otherwise, more delays will mean that future generations will be obliged to extract ten folds the amount of CO2, by the turn of this century. 

The negative CO2 emissions cost approximately $150-350 to remove one ton of CO2. And if global emissions are reduced by 6% per annum, which is a difficult scenario but not impossible, then $8–18.5tn is needed to return the CO2 concentration levels to the average of the 1980’s (350 ppm), divided over 80 years. This equates to an annual cost of $100-230 per year. However, if the emissions were to stay at current levels or increase by 2% per annum, the total cost will increase to a minimum of $89tn and could reach to $535tn. In other terms, the annual cost will be $1.1–6.7tn per year for 8 decades. To put these figures into perspective, the total federal budget of the USA is about $4tn and the global expenditure on military defence by all nations is $1.7tn. 

Climate Balance 
Human activities have pumped more than 1.5tn tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere since 1750. The issue is not only about the total amount of CO2 generated but also the rate of generation, considering that oceans have limitations on the rate of absorption of additional CO2.

The climate will eventually restore balance over decades and centuries and the earth will return to the position where it reflects the same amount of energy it receives. However, this balance will be attainable at higher temperatures than the existing, leading to the thawing of glaciers and rising sea levels, resulting in even higher temperature waves and more floods. 

The last time planet Earth witnessed similar conditions was some 115,000 years ago. The ocean levels were 6 to 9 meters higher than the levels of today. The findings by the Hansen team suggest that maintaining the current imbalance in energy carries a risk of permanent seal-level increase by several meters. The slow process of glacier thawing is still in action and the longer the climate imbalance spans the more drastic the consequences will be.

A major reason some nations are delaying and slowing dramatic cuts to greenhouse emissions is the due to the potential negative effects on their economies. Industries still rely heavily on fossil fuels. The response to climate change requires striking a balance between economic development and the desire to avoid the tragic effects of climate change or the need to adopt costly remedies in the future.

Regardless of the various assumptions on economic development or cost reductions, it is not imaginable that the sum of $535tn can be made available, even when spread over 80 years. During this time, the global population will grow to around 11bn and more and more produce will be needed to feed them. Furthermore, with the BECCS scheme in operation whilst climate change is on-going, there are no guarantees that this technology or for that matter, any other negative emissions technology will actually be effective. The rates of increase of CO2 could be dramatic and such pace could lead to catastrophic consequences.