Companies across multiple industries, including the chemical sector, are pledging to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions to net zero. To meet that goal, they will offset carbon through various actions. One option is planting trees. Another is capturing carbon dioxide from fossil fuel use to store it or use it as a raw material.
▸ Hometown: Columbia, Maryland
▸ Current position: Professor of environment and sustainability, University at Buffalo
▸ Education: MSc, human ecology, Lund University, 2011; PhD, development sociology, Cornell University, 2017
▸ Quote from her latest book: “Removing carbon from the atmosphere at a climate-significant scale means the creation of a significant new industry.”
▸ Previous book: After Geoengineering: Climate Tragedy, Repair, and Restoration, 2019
But achieving net-zero emissions won’t ensure that the planet is buffered from the environmental and health impacts of fossil fuel extraction and use, says Holly Jean Buck, author of Ending Fossil Fuels: Why Net Zero Is Not Enough. She argues that a net-zero goal could allow fossil fuel extraction and use to continue, drawing resources away from efforts to capture CO2 from the atmosphere.
Climate change isn’t the only reason for phasing out fossil fuels, according to Buck, an interdisciplinary researcher and professor at the University at Buffalo. She notes that fossil fuels are connected to negative impacts, including financial support of corrupt and oppressive governments, air pollution and its health effects, and environmental injustice.
Buck is one of the hundreds of contributing authors to a recent report by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) working group that assesses ways to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. The working group released its report April 4.
Buck also served on a US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine committee that wrote the report A Research Strategy for Ocean Carbon Dioxide Removal and Sequestration, released in December 2021.
Buck was previously a science fellow at the University of California, Los Angeles, Institute of the Environment and Sustainability and a climate engineering fellow at the UCLA School of Law, where her research focused on the governance of climate engineering. She also received funding from the US National Science Foundation’s Food Systems and Poverty Reduction Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship.
Cheryl Hogue spoke with Buck about her book, net zero, the chemical enterprise, and the call to end fossil fuels. This interview was edited for length and clarity.
What are the pluses and minuses of net-zero policies and goals?
The advantage of net zero as a goal is it affords some flexibility, both in time and in space. Maybe your country produces a lot of livestock. New Zealand and Uruguay are in this situation. A lot of their emissions are from livestock, and that’s hard to decarbonize.
Also, some things may be plausible to decarbonize fully in a few decades, but the technology isn’t there quite yet. There are plausible routes for sustainable aviation fuel or green hydrogen to power factories. They’re not quite mature.
But there are also definitely problems. The biggest one is the danger that net zero is used as kind of a loophole or a way to put off more expensive transitions, kicking the can down the road. It could delay emission cuts. That’s what a lot of climate advocates are worried about when they see these targets.
Your book argues that a shift away from fossil fuels is essential to address human-caused climate change. Would you discuss this, especially in relation to net zero?
We know that we have to wind down the production of fossil fuels, not just increase renewables. We have to do both. If we want to limit warming to 1.5 ºC, which the world has agreed to try to do, countries would need to be decreasing fossil fuel production by 6% a year over this decade. And yet they’re planning to increase production 2% or so. We’re really not on the right track.
You say that decarbonizing the petrochemical sector is especially hard. Why?
Right now, about 80% of a barrel of oil goes to fuels, and the rest goes into petrochemical products. There are emissions linked to various parts of that production. Both the extraction of oil and gas and the cracking of molecules have a greenhouse gas footprint. Plastic is not well recycled, so it’s kind of a climate problem in its own right.
What are the challenges and opportunities that the chemical industry faces for ending fossil fuels rather than striving for net zero?
It’s a tough industry to transition because a lot of the facilities are hugely expensive. There’s a lot of capital tied up with them.
But I think there are opportunities in terms of new industries. For example, carbon capture, use, and storage. There are a lot of interesting opportunities in the utilization of CO2 in terms of fuels and chemicals like methane, methanol, polymers, and also building materials. CO2 can be used in all these different applications. Petrochemicals could be made with recycled carbon.
These opportunities might be new companies that are competing with legacy petrochemical businesses.
What’s your message for chemists or researchers who come up with new materials in relation to net zero?
It’s such an interesting and exciting time to be truly innovating in this industry. The movement to address climate change is opening up economic opportunities for products that wouldn’t be competitive with petrochemicals now.
This could be a kind of new chemistry revolution, both in terms of biomaterials and CO2 utilization.
This article was updated on April 20, 2022, to correct the name of the Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship that Holly Jean Buck received funding from. It is Food Systems and Poverty Reduction, not Food System Reduction. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine name was also corrected to use the plural “Sciences.”
This article was originally published on March 18, 2022. It was updated on April 20, 2022 to note that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change working group released its report on greenhouse gases April 4.