Ten opportunities for civil society to shape carbon dioxide removal governance

Guest post by Holly Buck, UCLA School of Law / 26 May 2020

Holly Buck is the author of After Geoengineering: Climate Tragedy, Repair and Restoration, and a Research Fellow at UCLA Institute of Environment and Sustainability; Emmett Climate Engineering Fellow, UCLA School of Law.

[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.]

Many countries, cities, and companies are announcing net-zero emissions targets. These imply the capacity to remove some amount of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, in order to balance out residual emissions.

But Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR) approaches won’t magically appear — they need policy to be implemented, as well as to mitigate the risks of rapidly scaling them up.

Civil society organisations (CSOs) are influential in global environmental governance, and they have a key role to play in governing CDR.

Yet right now, while many CSOs have engaged with particular carbon removal approaches, such as agroforestry or natural climate solutions, few have engaged with the umbrella concepts of CDR or “negative emissions”.

(In my analysis of CSOs accredited by the United Nations Environment Program — which is a sample of organisations engaged on global environmental policy — only about 1 in 10 had engaged with CDR or negative emissions, per systematically searching their websites).

Moreover, nearly all engagement with these umbrella concepts is driven by scientific and technical organisations or NGOs in the global north.

This is unfortunate, because there are many other types of CSOs whose experience and perspectives would be valuable for guiding CDR governance.

CSOs include not just NGOs, but other major groups (as categorised by the UN) — organisations supporting women, children and youth, indigenous peoples, local authorities, workers and trade unions, business and industry, and the scientific and technological community.

Understandably, engaging with CDR poses an additional burden on CSOs that may have other pressing priorities when it comes to climate change, the environment, and sustainable development. However, without CSO engagement, CDR faces an uncertain future, and civil society may bear the risks of uninformed or improper implementation.

Here are ten opportunities for CSOs to shape CDR governance:


Broad opportunities in CDR policy
1.    Promoting transparency in CDR decision-making and public education about CDR techniques.

CSOs can gather and share information about what government agencies and transnational corporations are doing, and tell citizens about how these institutions are operating.

2.    Monitoring of projects and regulations, and holding regulators accountable.
CSOs are well positioned to help hold global institutions accountable. CSOs have worked to make sure mechanisms like the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) had integrity, participating in processes to ensure accountability. At the same time, along with academic researchers and the media, CSOs have for years drawn attention to important weaknesses in the CDM, Joint Implementation, and UN-REDD to sequester the carbon they were intended for.  Monitoring and accountability happens at local and national scales, too. One example is how Clean Water Action has reported on compliance with regulations around CO2-EOR (enhanced oil recovery).
3.    Diversifying the conversation and aiding the voiceless.

CSOs can amplify more voices.  One example is how CSOs brought attention to large-scale land acquisitions for biofuels in the global south during the past decade, where groups like ActionAid and the Oakland Institute, among many others, produced reports that brought impacts to local people to the attention of the press.

4.    Making sure the vulnerable do not bear the costs of CDR.

CDR has not happened in any coordinated way or at scale, and so the question of who pays for the increased cost of removing carbon is often underdiscussed. However, if CDR is pursued, CSOs could help ensure that people who already suffer from poverty do not end up bearing the cost in terms of higher energy or food prices.

5.    Placing CDR in the context of wider socio-technical change, and maximising co-benefits.

Sometimes CDR is discussed as simply an innovation which needs to be scaled up, but it is important to discuss the wider context of what needs to be scaled down for this to happen, as well as the broader energy transition.

6.    Policy agenda-setting in terms of CDR.

When it comes to natural climate solutions, large environmental NGOs have been able to set out policy recommendations and roadmaps, often drawing from their own research to support their recommendations. This is less so the case with CSOs from other sectors, and it is less the case with other CDR techniques.

Opportunities in science and research


7.    Doing undone science.

‘‘Undone science’’ refers to research areas that are left unfunded, incomplete, or unpursued, but that civil society deems worthy of exploration. The complexity and expense of research, and the tendency for elites to set agendas for research funding, means that the foundations for knowledge production are the cultural assumptions and material interests of privileged groups — leading to gaps in what is known.

8.    Improving the assessment of CDR techniques and policies.

Related to undone science, there are also opportunities for NGOs to conduct assessments of the existing science in ways that surface social dimensions of CDR techniques.

Opportunities in international governance


9.    Shaping how nations engage with CDR under the Paris Agreement.

Decarbonisation pathways generally rely on the large-scale use of CDR technologies later in the century. Although there are no explicit multilateral policy instruments for mobilising negative emissions technologies right now, the provisions under Article 6 of the Paris Agreement for market mechanisms balancing sources and sinks may be used for furthering the development of CDR.

Policy instruments to mobilise financial flows for CDR will at least be further debated, and there will also need to be a correspondent discussion about safeguards. CSOs are in a position to shape these discussions, as they are already at the forefront of discussions about climate finance more broadly, as well as social safeguards on biological carbon removal. Opportunities for engagement include ensuring that CDR does not compete with other climate action priorities for funding, and working with delegations on how carbon removal is employed in countries’ Nationally Determined Contributions.

10. Coalition building.

Because carbon removal is a relatively nascent concept, and includes such disparate technologies and interest groups, there are opportunities for CSOs to participate in coalition building on both domestic and international levels.  For example, NGOs and international organisations like the UNDP and CBD collaborate on Nature4Climate, which catalyses partnerships around natural climate solutions. This model could be used to address carbon removal more generally, as well as bring more groups into the conversation.

The way forward

Some of these opportunities are harder to reach than others. Of the ten identified above, some of them fit easily within what many CSOs are already strong at — coalition building, holding regulators and policymakers accountable, diversifying the conversation, and placing CDR approaches within contexts of environmental justice, for example.

But other opportunities will not be within the reach of many CSOs without funder interest and increased resources — doing undone science, for example, or policy agenda-setting.

There is a tremendous amount at stake right now with regards to civil society engagement with the umbrella concept of carbon removal. Currently, there is constructive ambiguity as to whether CDR is a climate offset strategy, or a climate recovery strategy. At present, companies are able to gain momentum from enthusiasm for climate recovery, and the conceptual goal of net-negative emissions, to develop CDR as climate offsets.

Many modeling scenarios contain a few gigatonnes of “residual emissions” from hard-to-mitigate sectors, such as aviation or heavy industry, at the end of the century. There is currently no process for allocating those residual emissions and determining which sectors, companies, or nations are going to be entitled to residual emissions.

There are the beginnings of international contestation, as Duncan McLaren and colleagues point out, arguing that some nation-states are attempting to place negative emissions as an alternative rather than addition to emissions reductions in international negotiations.

Civil society organisations ought to be key to shaping these decisions. Many CSOs, and environmental justice organisations in particular, have years of experience debating offsets already, and weighing in on the impacts and risks of offset schemes, as well as issues like carbon leakage and additionality.

Civil society engagement is probably required for CDR to ever be more than an offset strategy, and an important role of CSOs is to use their experience with offsets to call out times when CDR is employed in the service of continued fossil fuel company benefit.

Early engagement could be preferable, because otherwise CSOs may be in the position of reacting against offset schemes, rather than being able to shape the goals of carbon removal and align them with the priorities of communities.

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