What are the primary emerging climate technologies C2G focuses on?
C2G focuses on two broad families of emerging technologies and approaches to tackle climate change.
Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR), also known as Greenhouse Gas Removal, Negative Emissions Technologies (NETs), or Carbon Drawdown, aims to reduce atmospheric concentrations of Carbon Dioxide (CO2) (the primary human source of climate change) through processes that permanently remove them from the atmosphere.
Removing atmospheric CO2 is not a new idea: the UNFCCC has always considered mitigation to include both emission reductions and removals. What is new is the large scale, nature and urgency of CDR deemed necessary to help limit global temperature rise to 1.5°C. This has important implications for the governance of CDR at global and national levels.
CDR methods include the use of biological ‘sinks’ (also known as ‘nature-based solutions’) and chemical processes, and vary considerably in their potential, readiness, permanence, cost, and risks of negative side-effects. The IPCC notes that many are still in the early stages of research, while others have not been deployed at scale. No one single approach will likely be sufficient; instead, a portfolio of differing approaches will be needed.
Solar Radiation Modification (SRM), also known as Solar Radiation Management, or Solar Geoengineering, refers to methods that aim to reduce global warming by reflecting more solar radiation into space, or by allowing more heat to escape the earth’s atmosphere.
Many conceptual ideas for SRM exist, which vary considerably in their potential, readiness, permanence, cost, societal acceptance and risks of negative side-effects. Most have not yet progressed beyond words on a page, a computer model or laboratory experiment, and none are currently ready for deployment.
Both the research and any potential deployment of either large-scale CDR or SRM would require governance nationally and internationally, to maximize benefits and minimize risk, as well as to ensure costs and benefits are justly distributed.
Are these emerging climate technologies the same as geoengineering?
The word ‘geoengineering’ is used by defining studies as an umbrella term to describe a broad range of emerging technologies and approaches, which would allow large-scale intentional intervention in the Earth’s systems to tackle climate change.
In practice, however, the use of a single word to describe such a wide variety of approaches has not proved useful for catalyzing a constructive, society-wide learning process and debate on how to govern them.
In particular, the term ‘geoengineering’ is often equated with one particularly controversial technology – Stratospheric Aerosol Injection– which raises very specific challenges and tends to dominate the debate.
In its special report on global warming of 1.5°C, the IPCC chose not to use the word ‘geoengineering’, explicitly giving “separate consideration” to carbon dioxide removal and solar radiation modification instead.
C2G (formerly C2G2) is taking a similar approach, in order to avoid misunderstandings and to enable a more inclusive conversation about these technologies and approaches.
Why are people considering new technologies and approaches to tackle the climate crisis?
The world is already suffering from the effects of climate change.
Extreme weather events are being attributed with increasing confidence to global warming, as seen in hurricanes in the Caribbean and the Atlantic, forest fires in Europe and North America, droughts in Africa, and floods in Asia.
These events are causing wide-scale suffering. They are also eroding progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals, which governments agreed to in 2015 as a road map to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure prosperity for all.
In December 2015 in Paris, governments agreed to limit average global temperature rise to within 1.5-2°C above pre-industrial levels—beyond which the negative consequences for humankind would become increasingly severe.
To do this, the governments agreed to a rapid decarbonization of the world energy system, relying on both emissions reductions and the removal of atmospheric CO2, “so as to achieve a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century”. But global emissions are still rising, and existing government pledges continue to fall short.
The IPCC’s 2018 Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C warned that all pathways with limited or no temperature overshoot beyond 1.5°C now require the use of large-scale Carbon Dioxide Removal, on the order of 100–1000Gt over the 21st century. Scaling existing removals to this level would require an unprecedented global effort from governments, the private sector and civil society.
Given the scale of the challenge, a number of scientists are suggesting that Solar Radiation Modification (SRM) could be an option to buy more time in the event of temperatures exceeding the Paris goals. But this potential benefit must be weighed against its many risks, both known and unknown.
While work on SRM is mostly limited to computer models and academic papers, there is some small-scale experimentation underway on efforts to restore Arctic sea ice, and there are plans for the near future to begin an outdoor experiment related to one particular approach, known as Stratospheric Aerosol Injection (SAI). According to the IPCC: “although some SRM measures may be theoretically effective in reducing an overshoot, they face large uncertainties and knowledge gaps as well as substantial risks and institutional and social constraints to deployment related to governance, ethics, and impacts on sustainable development”.
As the effects of temperature rise become more apparent, there is concern that some actors could go ahead with research and even deployment of some forms of solar radiation modification unilaterally, and without governance. Depending on the scale and impact of the technology, this could cause very serious problems for global ecosystems and the environment, as well as triggering potential conflicts.
Why are many people reluctant to consider emerging climate technologies?
One of the biggest concerns surrounding emerging large-scale Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR) and Solar Radiation Modification (SRM) approaches is the potential for “moral hazard”. This is the risk that the potential existence of additional measures to tackle climate change could divert efforts away from essential existing mitigation activities.
Other overarching concerns include a focus on technological solutions to what may primarily be a socio-economic problem, and the risk of stepping into areas which many people consider to be outside the realm of human responsibility (e.g. ‘playing God’).
There is also concern that some of these technologies may be inherently ungovernable, opening a Pandora’s Box of potentially damaging effects, which could never adequately be made safe or just. This concern is most salient for some proposed Solar Radiation Modification (SRM) measures, which the IPCC says face ‘large uncertainties, knowledge gaps and substantial risks’, as well as institutional and social constraints.
While some critics argue for a ban on all field experiments and deployment of large-scale interventions in the earth system, other observers assert that premature rejection of emerging technologies and approaches could be as risky for the well-being of people and ecosystems as their premature use.
What is the legal status of emerging climate technologies?
While some elements exist for the international governance of large-scale Carbon Dioxide Removal and Solar Radiation Modification, they are neither sufficient nor in force globally. Overall, there is no effective, comprehensive and universally accepted framework governing the research, testing and possible use of either large-scale Carbon Dioxide Removal or Solar Radiation Modification approaches.
Since 2009, reports from the UK Royal Society, the European Union, and the US National Academies of Science, and more recently the IPCC Special Report on 1.5°C Global Warming, have highlighted the need to develop this governance.
A number of piecemeal approaches are currently in place.
- Existing provisions under the UNFCCC, the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement address some aspects of governing large-scale Carbon Dioxide Removal, but many key governance gaps and challenges still need to be addressed;
- Some decisions under the Convention on Biological Diversity have provided guidance for considering the use of “geoengineering”;
- Amendments to the London Convention/London Protocol have addressed marine geoengineering, such as ocean fertilization, in a risk management framework.
Given the potentially planetary-wide effects of some of these approaches, it is essential that the current governance gaps be closed, and that there be transparent, inclusive public discussions on how the world governs emerging climate technologies.
What are C2G’s top governance priorities?
In order to catalyze the creation of effective governance for Solar Radiation Modification and large-scale Carbon Dioxide Removal, following wide-ranging discussions with experts in governance and geoengineering from across the world, C2G established three priorities:
- Governance of Solar Radiation Modification
C2G seeks to catalyse the creation of effective governance for solar radiation modification, including the creation of international agreements to prevent the deployment of technologies with global impact, such as Stratospheric Aerosol Injection, unless (i) the risks and potential benefits are sufficiently understood, and (ii) international governance frameworks are agreed.
- Governance of Research
C2G aims to catalyse the creation of effective governance for trans-disciplinary research into emerging climate technologies, particularly for approaches to solar radiation modification.
- Governance of Carbon Dioxide Removal
C2G aims to catalyse the creation of effective governance for large-scale carbon dioxide removal at the appropriate sub-national, national and global levels, including in the UNFCCC. This includes both nature-based solutions and technological approaches.
Who needs to be involved in the governance of emerging climate technologies?
Until recently, the debate around large-scale Carbon Dioxide Removal and Solar Radiation Modification approaches was mostly limited to scientific circles. This is changing, but still not fast enough. Policy makers and civic representatives worldwide need to get more involved.
Leaders as well as the public need to acknowledge the growing risks of failing to radically reduce emissions and remove massive amounts of carbon as quickly as possible. Policy makers need to learn more about emerging climate technologies, broaden the debate to all sectors of society, and create governance for these additional potential tools before events overtake.
- Scientific and Academic Community. Scientists and academics have driven the debate on emerging climate technologies for the past decade, and published hundreds of papers. The UK Royal Society and the US National Academies of Sciences have recommended that any large-scale intentional interventions in the earth system would need to be governed. Until recently, this debate was concentrated in a small number of countries.
- Civil society organisations (CSOs), including environmental groups. Following the IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C, a growing number of CSOs are addressing the potential risks and benefits of large-scale carbon dioxide removal, including how to govern it. There has been more reluctance, however, to initiate debate on solar radiation modification. If CSOs want to ensure their voices are heard, it makes sense to get involved earlier rather than later in policy discussions, before others have framed the debate.
- Faith Communities. Some emerging climate technologies touch on profound questions around humanity’s relationship to the environment and the cosmos. For many people, this has been the province of religion rather than government or science; any serious discussion must include representatives from a wide range of religions and philosophies.
- Governments and Intergovernmental Organizations (IGOs). Governance of emerging climate technologies needs to take place at multiple levels, nationally, regionally and internationally. Interest by governments and international organisations is growing following the IPCC special report on global warming of 1.5°C. This is driven by growing concern over the rising impacts of climate change, and insufficient global progress in limiting it. But more governments and IGOs need to get involved, in order to build comprehensive and effective governance frameworks.
- Media. Journalists and social media influencers are likely to play a large role in public perceptions of emerging climate technologies and their governance. Specialist and mainstream media interest in carbon dioxide removal has grown following the IPCC special report, and as more societal players explore its potential. Solar radiation modification approaches have remained more of a niche interest, but attention is growing and will rise further if decisions are made and experiments begin. Social media has seen widespread discussion of the ‘chemtrail conspiracy theory’, in which people believe that powerful actors are already secretly engaged in deploying a form of Stratospheric Aerosol Injection. Scientists agree this conspiracy does not exist, but the belief that it does can influence the public debate.
- Cultural Leaders. Emerging climate technologies are beginning to break through into popular culture, reflecting growing concern over climate change and poorly governed interventions to tackle it. Musicians, artists, writers and filmmakers have an important role in exploring the challenges of intentional large-scale interventions in the climate.
- Private Sector. There are a growing number of start-up efforts to remove atmospheric CO2 and some corporations, including fossil fuel companies, are exploring the development of CDR technologies. The business case has proved elusive, however, absent a price on carbon. Policy incentives may be needed to scale up any technologies society deems sufficiently safe and acceptable.
Are emerging climate technologies the same as weather modification?
C2G does not consider emerging climate technologies to be the same as weather modification, primarily due to differences in scale, duration and intent.
At the same time, large-scale weather modification projects (or the aggregate effect of many weather modification activities) might have effects on regional climates, and lessons learned from their governance may have impacts on the governance of emerging climate technologies as well.
Is Carbon Dioxide Removal the same as Carbon Capture (and Storage)?
No, but in some circumstances, they are related.
In general, carbon capture and storage refers to capturing CO2 emissions from fossil fuels where they are burned (at source), and then storing them permanently underground. Ideally, this would have a net zero impact on CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere.
Carbon Dioxide Removal creates a net negative CO2 balance as it removes CO2 already emitted and resident in the atmosphere. One proposed approach involves combining biofuels (whose growth would draw down CO2) with carbon capture and storage, creating an overall negative effect.
There are other carbon dioxide removal approaches which do not rely on carbon capture technologies.