Taking stock after the UN Secretary-General’s Climate Action Summit

Janos PasztorBy Janos Pasztor / 17 October 2019

Despite all efforts over the past decade, the world remains far off track to limit global heating to 1.5°C or 2°C, and the impacts of overshooting those goals are becoming ever more apparent.

Two new IPCC special reports this quarter – one on land and one on the ocean and cryosphere – highlight an increasingly alarming state of affairs, as millions of people worldwide are experiencing extreme climactic events, from storms to floods, to heatwaves and droughts. The reports also draw attention to a lack of governance – in particular on finding integrated solutions to maximize the synergy and minimize trade-offs between different actions.

The international political response is not matching the urgency of this crisis: a failing furiously denounced by young climate leaders around the world, including teenage Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, who spoke at the UN Secretary-General’s Climate Action Summit in New York.

So, where do we go from here, and what does this mean for C2G’s work on the governance of climate-altering technologies?

Highlighting the need to govern carbon dioxide removal

One important outcome of the Summit was the stated commitment by 77 countries and many non-state actors to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 to help limit heating to 1.5°C (with as little temperature overshoot as possible).

This is significant, because all IPCC scenarios to achieve this goal require the use of large-scale carbon dioxide removal. The exact scale of removal will depend on how fast the world reduces global emissions. However, it is clear the amount of removals needed is massive.

All scenarios to limit temperature rise to 1.5oC will require more governance than currently exists – as highlighted in our report: “Governing Large-Scale Carbon Dioxide Removal: Are We Ready?”. Consequently, the 77 countries (and hopefully more over time) will need to address the governance issues C2G has been raising as they convert their commitments into concrete policies and actions.

We are beginning to see that carbon dioxide removal – and, in particular, nature-based solutions – is finding its way onto the agendas of more and more governments, civil society actors, and the private sector. The Summit and the related activities in New York saw a rising focus on some of these ideas, including in a video featuring Greta Thunberg and George Monbiot.

But this was not accompanied by sufficient appreciation by leaders of either governments or civil society organizations of the scale and speed of CO2 removal needed to stay under 1.5°C heating, or its costs and trade-offs, as well as potential synergies. They do not yet fully recognise the challenges entailed in achieving net zero emissions, nor the additional governance that will be needed.

In that light, we see two important objectives for the international community, toward which we will focus our catalytic efforts in the coming year.

First, we would encourage governments to address gaps in carbon dioxide removal governance within the UNFCCC process, and to align that work with the Sustainable Development Goals. This could include workshops as well as calls for inputs for Parties to develop shared understanding of the issues.

Secondly, we would like to see the creation of an international, multi-stakeholder forum to share practical experience to spur innovation and strengthen the governance of carbon dioxide removal in support of more ambitious national climate plans, as required by the Paris Agreement.

Beyond that, as the governance of carbon dioxide removal is taken on board by the main institutional players, we would see our work in this area wrapping up, allowing us to focus on the governance of solar radiation modification.

Where to next for solar radiation modification governance?

The conversation has not advanced so quickly on solar radiation modification. In addition to the initial insights already contained in the IPCC’s SR 1.5, governments have asked the IPCC to assess how much is known about these technologies in its sixth assessment report (AR6) – and C2G has prepared an analysis in a “Technical Brief” to inform that work.

But for the time being, governance discussions on solar radiation modification that could lead to more informed decision-making are still limited: in terms of engagement of different stakeholders; access to information; and conversations in broader fora. We do expect this to change partly due to the publication of the IPCC AR6 reports in 2021-2022, but also due to other developments.

Some conversations and actions are, however, beginning to take place: ‘geoengineering’ made an appearance in the US democratic primary debate, for example, and there is a commission looking into what a US national scientific research programme might entail, including governance concerns. Australia is showing interest in marine cloud brightening as a potential means to protect the Great Barrier Reef. Increasingly we hear during our outreach activities to different stakeholders that there is a desire to engage in conversations about this topic. But the conversation remains undeveloped at best.

Within the climate discourse, there are also attempts to recast some forms of solar radiation modification as ‘climate restoration’, making them more palatable. Nonetheless, there is an abiding undercurrent of popular concern about climate-altering technologies such as these, albeit not one that has yet broken into the mainstream.

This situation may change, and possibly sooner than expected, as the challenges of reducing or removing enough CO2 emissions to stay under 1.5°C and the dangers of temperature overshoot become more apparent, and as reports of different processes and experiments addressing these issues trigger public discussions.

In the meantime, C2G will continue with its catalytic mission to expand the conversations and to increase the engagement of stakeholders, developing partnerships with those already working on these issues, and with others who could do so in the future. The aim is to encourage an ‘ecosystem of actors’ engaged in different ways in addressing governance issues related to solar radiation modification. C2G’s increased focus on developing information materials about the governance of these technologies is supporting that mission.

C2G’s evolving strategy

Given this evolving state of affairs, we have refined our strategy, which is detailed in the a new 4-page summary of our approach. Our strategy elaborates two primary objectives for our work with governments and international organizations:

  1. Through its catalytic work, C2G will contribute to strengthening the ability of the international community to consider in the UN General Assembly in 2022 the conclusions on the governance of solar radiation modification to be conveyed in the 6th Assessment Report of the IPCC.
  2. C2G aims to transition some or all of its functions and roles to actors in the UN system (and other relevant entities as needed), so it can complete its work around 2023. This includes catalysing (or strengthening) an ecosystem of actors working on the governance of climate-altering technologies in the UN and in other relevant international entities.

As we pursue these goals, we will continue to work with stakeholders to create increase awareness about the governance needs of climate-altering technologies. Recently, we have developed a series of new policy and evidence briefs, including on emerging marine climate altering techniques, nature-based solutions to carbon dioxide removal, and the Arctic.

It’s an ambitious agenda, in a period of deep political change and uncertainty. But as each year passes with insufficient action and increasing climate impacts, the pressure to consider climate-altering technologies seems likely to grow, and the need for an inclusive, well-informed global conversation on their governance will become ever more important.

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