Carbon Dioxide Removal at Davos:
Net zero vs real zero?



30 January 2020

What was said about CO2 removal at Davos?

World attention focused last week on contrasting approaches to the climate crisis at Davos. Of particular importance to C2G’s work was the intensifying attention paid to proposals for large-scale carbon dioxide removal – and the important questions it raises about governance of these approaches, as well as the ways governance can help society sort through difficult choices.

Microsoft said it would invest $1bn in CO2 removal technologies. Astra Zeneca said it would “identify carbon removal options that will lead to more carbon dioxide removed from the atmosphere than added to it”. Starbucks aspired to become “resource positive – storing more carbon than it emits, eliminating waste, and providing more clean, freshwater than it uses”. One report said energy chiefs at Davos were lining up behind the promise of CO2 capture.

Mark Carney, the outgoing governor of the Bank of England who was recently named as UN envoy for climate action, noted: “With the major investors, this is becoming the question (of every corporate): what’s your plan to get to net zero?”

Prince Charles said: “In carbon capture and storage, there are a growing number of initiatives that might just buy us vital time as we make our transition to sustainable markets and a net zero economy.”

He added: “Beyond major innovations and technologies, we must also look to invest in nature-based solutions in sectors like agriculture, forestry and fisheries.”

A number of prominent figures – including US President Donald Trump, and the primatologist Jane Goodall – backed the Trillion Trees Initiative, a World Economic Forum initiative.

But Greta Thunberg, in comments widely reported by the media, warned against relying on either technological or nature-based CO2 removal: “Until we have the technologies that at scale can put our emissions to minus then we must forget about net zero – we need real zero.”

Of tree planting, she said: “Planting trees is good, of course, but it’s nowhere near enough of what needs to be done, and it cannot replace real mitigation or rewilding nature.” Of new technologies: “All the solutions are obviously not available within today’s societies. Nor do we have the time to wait for new technological solutions to become available to start drastically reducing our emissions.”


Why is this important?

There is growing recognition in civil society and the private sector of the IPCC’s assessment that CO2 removal at a large scale would be necessary to limit global temperature rise to 1.5°C, and to achieve net zero by 2050.

But there are also concerns about ‘moral hazard’ – or similar concepts such as ‘mitigation deterrence’. This is the notion that the possibility of large-scale CO2 removal could reduce pressure on governments and the private sector to radically cut emissions, which is fundamental and essential.

As the CO2 removal debate gathers pace, this concern continues to divide many in the environmental community. How can the world scale those CDR approaches society deems acceptable, whilst reinforcing the imperative to reduce emissions to real zero?

For C2G, it points to the critical role of governance in addressing thorny issues of moral hazard, equity, safety, scaling and enabling of those approaches society deems acceptable.


The CO2 removal conundrum

There are two propositions at the heart of this debate:

  1. According to the IPCC, there is no pathway to limit global temperature rise to 1.5°C in 2100 which does not include large-scale CO2 removal. CDR would also be necessary to achieve ‘net zero’ by 2050 or before, to tackle residual emissions. (Achieving the necessary scale requires governance that provides incentives as well as guardrails.)
  2. There is a potential risk that assuming the possibility of large-scale CO2 removal will undermine action on emissions cuts and could contribute to overshooting temperature goals. Neither nature-based nor technology-based CO2 removal exists at the huge scale required, and there isn’t sufficient governance to scale-up in line with the Sustainable Development Goals. 

Ignoring either proposition could be risky.

On the one hand, delaying the development of governance needed to scale-up CO2 removal would limit options to keep temperatures down, at a time when the world needs urgent action on multiple fronts.

On the other, the history of technology deployment is rife with misreadings or overblown claims. Removing hundreds of billions of tonnes of CO2 would require a massive global effort, and would be extremely challenging in the timescale envisaged.

The conundrum facing policy makers is how to reconcile the necessity for CO2 removal, with the necessity not to undermine emissions cuts. This is not an either/or, but how to tackle both in a mutually supportive way.


How do policymakers respond?

This is a question of governance. How to address these two concerns may be one of the most important governance challenges facing society today.

Some research projects are attempting to quantify the cost of mitigation deterrence, and to examine potential policy options to limit its effect.

As an impartial actor, C2G is working with partners to catalyse a global dialogue between the scientific and research community, governments, CSOs and the private sector on these issues. Over the course of 2020, that includes exploring critical governance gaps for the large-scale use of CDR ahead of the Convention on Biological Diversity COP in China, and the UNFCCC COP in the UK.

C2G also aims to catalyse a multi-stakeholder forum, which would include discussion and exchange on best practice in methodologies, monitoring, reporting, verification, international cooperation and financing of CO2 removal.

Learn more about governing large-scale Carbon Dioxide Removal

Governing Large-Scale Carbon Dioxide Removal

Governing Nature-Based Solutions to Carbon Dioxide Removal

Governing Carbon Dioxide Removal in the Marine Environment

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