The Global Challenges Foundation notes that the discussion about geoengineering has shifted. As the field of research receives more funding and attention from the scientific community the position of what constitutes geoengineering is currently under change.
The author Janos Pasztor gives us an insight on the recent developments that displaces the previous views of geoengineering. A division must be made to properly evaluate the technology’s potential benefits and address its risks.
The views expressed in this text are those of the author. The statements are not necessarily endorsed by the Global Challenges Foundation.
Over the past two years, policy makers, civil society and the private sector have started facing up to an alarming scientific finding: that cutting emissions alone is no longer enough to avert catastrophic climate risk. The world now also needs to remove billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide already in the air.
Carbon dioxide removal (CDR), also referred to as negative emissions technologies, carbon drawdown, or greenhouse gas removal, aims to address the primary driver of climate change, by removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and ensuring its long-term storage. At a large enough scale, it could also slow ocean acidification.
This not a new idea. The international community recognised in 1992 that mitigation included both emission reductions and ‘removals’, when it adopted the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The Paris Agreement of the UNFCCC indirectly references CDR in calling for a balance between sources and ‘sinks’.
What is new is the scale, nature and urgency of CDR that scientists now say is needed: and a growing understanding of the consequences of insufficient action.
In 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – which gathers the best scientific knowledge on these issues – released a special report which said all pathways to keep global warming below 1.5°C required CDR on the order of 100–1000 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide over the 21st century. CDR is also needed to achieve ‘Net Zero’ emissions by 2050, a target many countries have now adopted.
This is a huge challenge, requiring a massive and coordinated global effort, which brings together actors from across society.
Suggested approaches vary widely – including technological, such as direct air capture machines, or nature-based, such as large-scale afforestation. (More information of these approaches can be found at https://www.c2g2.net/carbon-dioxide-removal/.)
But most are not yet available at anything near the scale scientists say is needed, at a price society has been willing to pay. And many in the environmental movement have been slow to champion their uptake – partly for fear that focus on CDR may lessen willingness to reduce emissions.
Recent developments suggest that may be beginning to change. There has been a concerted push by civil society groups for large-scale deployment of ‘nature-based solutions’, and there has been also growing private sector interest in a range of innovative new CDR technologies.
A number of major corporates recently identified CDR as a crucial part of their decarbonisation strategies. And decision makers have paid increasing attention to these ideas as countries set ambitious targets to achieve Net Zero over the coming decades.
While these conversations have taken a temporary back seat with the COVID-19 crisis, calls for green recovery packages, and the move towards greener economic policies in general, could create new impetus for the development of large-scale CDR in the post-pandemic period.
The CDR governance challenge
To act at the scale that is needed, getting the governance right for CDR will be essential – both to create policy incentives that drive research investment and enable deployment, and to ensure that any research, testing or potential use is safe and effectively governed.
Large-scale CDR could require extensive amounts of land, energy or water, and might compete with food production or other activities. Some technologies could result in negative effects and trade-offs as well as potential synergies for the Sustainable Development Goals. On the other hand, some approaches could improve crop productivity and biodiversity, and promote green jobs. Different CDR methods could affect communities unequally, creating liability and compensation issues.
Governance can help address these issues and strengthen accountability at multiple levels, from the global to the local. Most governance of CDR will take place at national levels. International governance is, however, needed to address, inter alia, cross-border environmental, social and economic impacts, as well as issues around responsibility, liability, monitoring and accounting, as well as finance and international technology cooperation.
The UNFCCC has numerous elements which could form the basis of a governance framework, but may require strengthening given both the new approaches to CDR being considered and developed, and the massive scale of removals implied by the many pathways assessed by the IPCC.
CDR governance may also be informed through other intergovernmental processes, such as the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA), building on previous decisions under the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and under the London Protocol to the London Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution (LC/LP).
What we have learned
During the last two years of our work, we at the Carnegie Climate Governance Initiative (C2G) have noticed changes. Efforts to tackle the CDR challenge have taken a substantial leap forward over recent years. The IPCC’s special report in 2018 played a big part in setting the stage. CDR has benefitted from a decoupling from the broader concept of ‘geoengineering’, which also includes solar radiation modification technologies, and had turned some potential interlocutors away.
There has also been a shifting approach to the concept of ‘moral hazard’, or ‘mitigation deterrence’. Actors are concerned that promoting CDR might lessen pressure on society to cut emissions, which has discouraged debate. Increasingly, however, there is an understanding that both reductions and CDR are needed. Rather than avoiding debate of CDR, there is now discussion on how it can be incentivised, without undermining efforts to cut emissions.