PhD Course: the politics of Net Zero and carbon removal
Updated: Aug 19, 2022
In mid-June, I had the pleasure of attending a PhD course on the politics of Net Zero and carbon removal in Copenhagen. The course attracted PhD students from diverse institutions in Scandinavia and across the UK, and our knowledgeable teachers included Jens Friis Lund from Copenhagen University, Wim Carton from Lund University, Nils Markusson from the University of Lancaster, Inge-Merete Hougaard from Lund University and Copenhagen University, Kate Dooley from the University of Melbourne and Camilla Moreno from Humboldt University.
Bridging insights from the fields of science and technology studies, political ecology and political economy, and with 20 students in attendance, the course provided an intimate setting through which to engage with and debate conceptual tools for the critical study of climate science and policy. Nils demonstrated the parallels between the construction of new climate models and targets on the one hand and promises for technological solutions to fix climate change on the other. Kate showcased the importance of scrutinizing the problematic assumptions built into climate models that form the basis of climate science and, in turn, the basis for climate policy. Camilla argued that the problem of climate change had been epistemically reduced to a problem of carbon counting and accounting, requiring all to become versed in this epistemic framing (what she terms 'carbonese'), with the effect of producing new coloniality by marginalizing other views and practices that seek to engage with and address climate change. Wim presented insights from political economy, arguing that 'net zero' constitutes a discursive fix which serves to delay the devaluation of carbon-intensive fixed capital (e.g. rigs, pipelines, refineries, etc.). Inge presented her work on tracing the emergence of the imaginary of carbon dioxide removal within Danish climate policy, illustrating the argumentative socio-cultural tools on which Danish policy-makers draw to construct a vision for Danish carbon capture and storage. Finally, Jens spoke of the effects of international and national climate targets on the local people populating the places where grand plans are materialized, evincing how such plans often lead to the dispossession of local people from their lands and associated livelihoods.
In addition to these lectures, the course included an excursion in which we journeyed to the southeast of the city for a guided tour of the Amager Resource Centre (Arc), Copenhagen's main waste management centre. Waste from households in Copenhagen is transported to this facility, where it is burned and, in turn, produces heat and power for the city's residents.
Caption: Participants of the Net Zero course walking up to the Arc waste management facility. Photo Credit: Inge-Meret Hougaard.
To "keep the public onboard" with the construction of a waste management facility in the centre of the city, it is also fitted with a number of recreational activities, including the famous Copenhill ski slope, running and hiking tracks and a vertiginous climbing wall ascending along a segment of the facility's outer wall. By coupling waste management and leisure, the Arc's operators seek to forge a vision and practice of "hedonistic sustainability" in which a waste management centre isn't "just good for the environment, it's good for life."
Caption: Climbing wall at the Arc waste management facility. Photo credit: Naima Kraushaar-Friesen
In 2020, approximately 599,000 tonnes of waste was processed in the facility. Deep beneath the facility's leisurely surfaces we witnessed the process by which Copenhagen's waste is repurposed into energy. The waste first arrives by trucks into a hanger where it is dumped into a colossal pit. Two enormous clamps then shuffle the waste before transferring it to an incinerator, producing heat. A portion of the heat is directly funnelled into district heating for roughly 90,000 households, while another portion is used to run turbines and generate electricity for approximately 80,000 households. The entire process leads to an average of 500,000 tonnes of emitted carbon every year.
Caption: The two clamps at the Arc used to shuffle and move waste. Photo credit: Inge-Merete Hougaard.
Retrofitting the Arc with carbon capture and storage technology is expected to be a significant contribution to the city of Copenhagen's plan to become a carbon-neutral city by 2025. The Carbon Capture Cluster Copenhagen, or C4 for short, is a consortium project bringing together Arc, a public company owned by the municipality of Copenhagen and a number of other waste management, energy and transport companies with the aim of capturing half a million tonnes of carbon by 2025 and up to 3 million tonnes thereafter. Thus far, only a pilot CCS plant has been trialled, capturing a negligible amount of carbon, which was immediately released upon capture. The purpose of this pilot was simply to demonstrate that the technology 'worked'. However, within the next two and half years, the consortium, if successful in its applications for EU funding, expects full scale CCS technology, which would require an entirely new building (roughly as large as the current facility) to be both built and become operational to capture the full 500,000 tonnes of produced carbon.
Caption: Participants of the Net Zero course gathered around the location where the pilot CCS technology had been placed a few months prior to our visit. Photo credit: Inge-Merete Hougaard.
This visit demonstrated the power and problems of techno-optimistic visioning in the construction of climate targets. For example, when asked why the 2025 carbon capture target was half a million tonnes, the Arc representative's response was simply that that was what the facility currently emitted and hence needed to achieve for the city of Copenhagen to meet its own climate target. However, this isn't the first time that promises of rapid and large-scale deployment of CCS have been made by politicians and companies. Indeed, the past three decades has witnessed numerous cycles of hype for and subsequent abandonment of CCS projects, while the mere promise of these technologies has had real impacts in sustaining old (and even justifying the creation of new) carbon-intensive practices. In the case of Arc, C4 and the city of Copenhagen's (perhaps unrealistically) ambitious climate goal, the promise of this CCS project could be diverting the focus of policy-making away from reducing the overall waste, energy and carbon consumption of the city, while simultaneously running the risk of not delivering on the promised emissions removal.
While the course has given me many valuable conceptual and empirical insights for the critical study of climate science and policy, what I've come to value the most from this experience are the connections forged with other PhD students who, like me, are working to make sense of the current moment of socio-environmental crisis and energy transition. The course provided an exciting platform to meet and bond with potential future colleagues in our common field of environmental and energy social sciences and humanities.
Caption: Group photo of the participants of the Net Zero Course. Photo credit: Jens Friis Lund.