Why this UN climate report is different

It tentatively endorses an idea from oil exporters that carbon capture may be needed to curb climate change. That reflects a better deliberative approach.

People in Israel hold a balloon during a demonstration by startup High Hopes Labs that is developing a balloon that captures carbon directly from the atmosphere at a high altitude.

The latest United Nations climate report, released Monday at some 3,000 pages, came with at least one surprise. It agreed with a few big oil exporters, such as Saudi Arabia, that the goal of halting global heating will require the capture of carbon pollutants and either burying or reusing them. Carbon removal for certain “hard-to-abate” uses of fossil fuels is “unavoidable” and “essential” to achieve net-zero emissions, the report stated.

This shift by the U.N. panel reflects more than recent advances in carbon removal technologies or a rapid increase of investments in them over the past five years. It also represents a more mature listening by policymakers to weigh the arguments of those offering alternative pathways to curb climate change.

Environmental groups have long been divided over whether to work with those seen as destroying nature. Treat them as enemies or potential collaborators? Are your opponents open to new ideas and compromise, or are they set to win?

Since its founding in 1988, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has steadily perfected the art of negotiating its policy recommendations, based on both scientific advice and inclusive deliberation. That has required less shaming and demonizing while learning to listen with respect and even empathy to others. One of the IPCC’s most contentious issues is whether endorsing technologies that might quickly fix global warming would lessen the drive to end the use of fossil fuels.

The report takes a cautious approach to that argument, emphasizing that carbon capture is not yet commercially viable or at a scale to greatly reduce  atmosphere warming. Nations must still cut oil and gas use by 60% to 70% by 2050. Yet it also accepts arguments that certain products made only from petroleum, such as plastics, might be needed in the far future, or that many underdeveloped countries may be slow to end their reliance on oil.

The report reflects a shift toward “carbon management” rather than decarbonizing the world economy. Much of Europe and North America, as well as Saudi Arabia, are already investing in carbon removal technologies. While these methods are still not yet as feasible a solution to global warming as renewable sources of energy, the U.N. panel’s serious consideration of them shows a better convergence of thinking on how to deal with climate change. Both urgency and understanding are needed to meet difficult climate goals. 

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