Implications of Carbon Dioxide Removal for the Sustainable Development Goals

Guest post by Matthias Honegger, Axel Michaelowa, and Joyashree Roy / 25 November 2020

[The views of guest post authors are their own. C2G does not necessarily endorse the opinions stated in guest posts. We do, however, encourage a constructive conversation involving multiple viewpoints and voices.]

This blog is based on a new research paper published in the journal Climate Policy.

The 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), adopted in 2015 by all United Nations Member States, are the best expression of a commonly desired future for humanity. Action to fight climate change (SDG13) should contribute to broader societal objectives, and thus align with the other SDGs.

In the past, some climate change mitigation efforts have had negative impacts on society and the local environment. Mitigation practitioners, policymakers and civil society have learned from these experiences, and emissions reductions efforts now increasingly provide multiple sustainable development co-benefits.

When it comes to relatively novel mitigation approaches that seek to remove CO₂ from the atmosphere (Carbon Dioxide Removal, or CDR), experience regarding potential co-benefits and negative impacts is limited.

Implications – both good and bad – may arise both directly and indirectly because of insufficiently-understood operational level outcomes. It is therefore very difficult to make informed choices and decisions that mobilize CDR in a way that supports – rather than undermines – sustainable development overall.

In a new research paper published in Climate Policy, we mapped the potential implications that the scientific literature has identified to date, and where knowledge gaps remain.

More than 30 experts from around the world helped in this endeavour. Our article aims to trigger interest in much more rigorous and specific examination of the possible implications of large-scale CDR implementation, informing the design of policy instruments aiming at CDR promotion.

In the following, we address the importance of sound policy design, early action, and careful ‘on-the-job learning’ involving all stakeholders. We further outline the responsibilities of national governments and the international community, and underline the need for collaborative research and policy impact assessments.

Implications of specific CDR options depend on policy design

There is a multitude of different CDR types, ranging from well-known practices in agriculture or forestry (that enhance natural carbon reservoirs) to high-tech equipment which directly removes CO₂ from the air and stores it underground. The implications of these different approaches vary significantly given their different costs and requirements for land, water, energy, and labour.

Beyond technological differences, potential implications vary based on the way CDR options are introduced, funded and regulated in different countries and regions. Whether impacts are positive or negative depends on physical, social, economic, and political circumstances. None of the CDR options is universally ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Our table of possible effects of the different CDR options for each SDG can serve as a tool for guiding choices.

Unfortunately, there are no simple answers when it comes to anticipating the impacts of real-world CDR implementation. The upside is that good governance and sound policy design may go a long way to generate benefits, based on an understanding of specific local circumstances across social, economic, cultural, political and environmental dimensions.

To reliably result in a contribution to SDG 13 (urgent action on climate change and its impacts), there is a need for generally applicable international rules on how CO₂ removal is measured, reported and verified, and CDR needs to be robustly accounted for in national reports under the Paris Agreement. This is crucial to ensure that CDR results are consistently and transparently communicated and thus credible in the eye of the stakeholders.

Careful but determined steps to gradually mobilize CDR

Immediate decisions for drastic emissions reductions are a precondition for stabilization of the global climate in the second half of the century. Each passing day of insufficient emissions reductions increases our reliance on CDR against the goal of keeping global temperature rise under 2 °C or 1.5 °C.

Early applied learning and iterative improvement may allow for the gradual scaling of CDR in a socially accountable and robust manner, with fewer uncertainties about potential harms and co-benefits. Such a gradual development seems crucial: public acceptance, participation and broad-based decision-making are impossible in case of a late start and precipitated scale-up. Careful, ‘on-the-job’ learning involving all stakeholders is necessary.

Domestic and international responsibilities for robust CDR policies

Much of the responsibility for sound CDR support policy design and implementation lies with national or even sub-national governments. International collaboration, however, is key to both empower and encourage positive synergistic outcomes.

The Kyoto Protocol’s flexibility mechanisms offer an example of where both national priorities and international guidance influenced which activities to pursue. It was up to each recipient country to judge the sustainability performance of proposed mitigation projects. While this approach initially seemed insufficient, experience and voluntary guidance for these judgments grew over time.

Under the Paris Agreement and SDG 17 (revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development), international cooperation is expected to play an increasingly important role. However, its role is expected to change: less and less geared toward funding relative reductions in emissions and more toward funding CDR – in line with achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions.

To achieve long-term credibility transparent assessment criteria, articulation and procedures for judging the performance of specific CDR policies, programs or projects are urgently needed. International cooperation agencies, climate finance providers, and CDR practitioners would be well advised to collaboratively work toward the establishment of such criteria and procedures.

Transdisciplinary research and policy impact assessments

Countries will increasingly need to demonstrate how their mitigation policies and actions align with their pledges to achieve net-zero emissions.

International assessment principles or metrics for CDR policies could help to evaluate their expected co-benefits or risks consistently across regions, differentiated by the national circumstances.

Previous experience in climate governance (e.g. for land-use, carbon capture and storage in industry, biofuels, and international carbon markets) offers important lessons, but only imperfectly applies to CDR policy proposals.

Academic research and policy impact assessments should therefore work hand in hand to advance theoretical and practical understanding, drawing on experiences from widespread pilot activities.

Such collaboration will help in understanding the relative contribution of CDR for climate action and sustainable development in general, and will become increasingly nuanced and locally rooted.

We hope our article offers a starting point for this endeavour.

Matthias Honegger is Senior Research Associate with Perspectives Climate Research and the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies, and PhD candidate at Utrecht University.

Axel Michaelowa is Senior Founding Partner at Perspectives and researcher at the University of Zurich. Axel was a lead author of the chapter on international agreements in the 5th Assessment Report (AR) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and wrote on mitigation policies in the 4th AR.

Joyashree Roy is Bangabandhu Chair Professor at the Asian Institute of Technology, Thailand and is on lien from the Department of Economics, Jadavpur University. Her many roles include Coordinating Lead Author of the IPCC’s AR4, AR5, AR6 and Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5.

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