Carton, Wim (2019). “Fixing” Climate Change by Mortgaging the Future: Negative Emissions, Spatiotemporal Fixes, and the Political Economy of Delay

Full citation: Carton, W. (2019). “Fixing” Climate Change by Mortgaging the Future: Negative Emissions, Spatiotemporal Fixes, and the Political Economy of Delay. Antipode51(3), 750-769.

Abstract: Modeling studies suggest that successful climate change mitigation now depends on the roll-out of “negative emissions”, that is, the large-scale removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through a range of proposed technologies. This idea has been extensively criticized by other scientists for being unfeasible and unjust. Among others, a reliance on negative emissions over more short-term emission reduction strategies transfers the costs of mitigation, and the risks of potential failure, to future generations. In this article, I add to this literature by exploring the political economic effects that a focus on negative emissions has, or might have in the future. Building on a rich theoretical tradition within geography, and drawing on a literature review and a contemporary example, I highlight the risk that negative emissions become an active delaying strategy for the fossil fuel industry. I use a recent scenario exercise (‘Sky’) by the oil and gas company Shell to demonstrate how the mere promise of negative emissions can be used by companies to persuade investors and policy makers that substantial, continued use of fossil fuels is compatible with the goals of the Paris Agreement. The paper seeks to explain this dynamic by unpacking some of the assumptions that underlie the models used by scientists to create mitigation scenarios. I draw particular attention to the models’ methodological basis in cost-optimizing economics as one of the reasons why negative emissions scenarios appear to align so easily with the economic interests of companies such as Shell. The paper also makes a theoretical contribution to the field of environmental geography by conceptualizing these dynamics more generally. In the conclusion, I call for more critical attention to the ideological assumptions that underlie mainstream scenario exercises, and the way that these further certain social and economic interests over others.

Read Carton’s complete paper in Antipode.

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