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Thoughts on governance from the IPCC special report

by Janos Pasztor / October 10, 2018

The release of the IPCC’s Special Report on 1.5°C global warming adds new impetus to the question of how the world might govern large-scale carbon dioxide removal (CDR)[1].

It highlights the scale of the challenge with a stark headline: “All pathways that limit global warming to 1.5°C with limited or no overshoot project the use of carbon dioxide removal (CDR) on the order of 100–1000 GtCO2 over the 21st century.”

These are huge numbers. Were society to deploy CDR at this level, it would require a global effort affecting people everywhere, “subject to multiple feasibility and sustainability constraints.”

The report also acknowledges that some scientists are exploring the possibility for solar radiation modification (SRM)[2] technologies to reduce an overshoot, whose potential deployment would involve “substantial risks, institutional and social constraints… related to governance, ethics, and impacts on sustainable development.”

I would like to share a few reactions we at C2G2 had to this report, and the significance of some of its statements for our work.

While we take no position on whether any of these approaches should be deployed or further researched (that is for society to decide), we think it likely that more countries will start considering what part (if any) they might play in their response to climate change.

C2G2 believes governance must become an inseparable part of this conversation. We also think a much broader cross-section of society – in particular those most vulnerable to negative impacts, but who do not have a strong voice in international debate – needs to become involved.


On terminology
  • The report considers several ideas which would amount to large-scale deliberate intervention in the earth system. Yet it explicitly refrains from using the term ‘geoengineering’ to describe them. Instead, it refers to two broad approaches: carbon dioxide removal (CDR), and solar radiation modification (SRM). See glossary.

This is significant: by disaggregating these approaches, the report facilitates a consideration on their own merits. We think this is useful. Wherever possible, we also advocate identifying a specific method or technology, rather than the category. (For example, direct air capture, or reforestation.) All these proposals have unique characteristics and governance requirements, and conflating them can be misleading.

  • Mitigation is defined in the glossary to encompass carbon dioxide removal (CDR) options; and carbon dioxide removal, in turn, is classified as a special type of mitigation. By bringing CDR approaches (which include biological sinks and chemical processes) unambiguously into the mitigation frame, it underscores that action is required on both emission reductions and carbon dioxide removal. This should raise awareness that policy makers need to get involved in the debate over available and feasible options, and the adequacy of governance frameworks.
On the need to govern large-scale carbon removal
  • The Summary for Policymakers notes that “most CDR measures could have significant impacts on land, energy, water, or nutrients if deployed at large scale. Afforestation and bioenergy may compete with other land uses and may have significant impacts. Effective governance is needed to limit such trade-offs and ensure permanence of carbon removal.”

 We at C2G2 welcome this statement, as it prominently places CDR measures in a broader risk management context in which trade-offs may need to be made, and affirms that governance will be needed to manage these and other considerations.

  • Chapter 4 notes a number of “cross-cutting issues and uncertainties” surrounding the governance of CDR. Table 4.6 states: “Existing governance mechanisms are scarce… and often the mechanisms are at national or regional scale. An international governance mechanism is only in place for R&D of Ocean Fertilisation within the Convention on Biological Diversity.”

This relative lack of governance is one significant reason our initiative exists. We would add, however, that the UNFCCC has always considered mitigation to include both emission reductions and removals, and there may be many areas where its existing work and practice could apply to large-scale CDR.

We at C2G2 have started work identifying what governance measures may or may not already apply under the UNFCCC, and what gaps need to be filled. This is important, given the IPCC’s conclusion that even in the most aggressive emission reduction scenarios a few hundred gigatons of CDR will be needed.


On the need to govern Solar Radiation Modification (SRM) / Solar Geoengineering
  • The Summary for Policymakers notes that “SRM measures are not included in any of the available assessed pathways.” At the same time, it states that “although some SRM measures may be theoretically effective in reducing an overshoot, they face large uncertainties and knowledge gaps as well as substantial risks, institutional and social constraints to deployment related to governance, ethics, and impacts on sustainable development.”

This puts down an important marker. Given the scale and urgency of the challenge, the reality is that even while none of the pathways considered in the Special Report include SRM, some scientists are exploring its potential to tackle a possible overshoot.

  • Chapter 4 identifies several issues around “governance and institutional feasibility”, including the possibility for unilateral action. It notes “An equitable institutional or governance arrangement around SRM would have to reflect views of different countries and be multilateral because of the risk of termination, and risks that implementation or unilateral action by one country or organisation will produce negative precipitation or extreme weather effects across borders.”

We at C2G2 agree. We would point out that these concerns require differentiated consideration across the various solar radiation modification approaches being proposed.

  • Chapter 4 cites a number of potential international institutions for SRM governance arrangements: including the UNFCCC, CBD, WMO, UNESCO and UNEP. It suggests that reasons for states to get involved might include getting a voice in SRM diplomacy, prevention of unilateral action, and benefits from research collaboration.

We in C2G2 agree that there will be many organisation with a role to play in SRM governance, and are working with all these intergovernmental entities. This includes preparations for a potential resolution at the UN Environment Assembly in March 2019, which would ask for a state-of-play report on CDR and SRM.

We would add that with research already happening, and outdoor experiments underway (Ice 911) or due to begin (SCoPEx), governing the research of proposed solar geoengineering measures is an immediate necessity. There must be safeguards to ensure this research is well governed at every level, and does not automatically head down a slippery slope towards testing and deployment.


The ethics of governing SRM
  • Chapter 4 makes some important points about social acceptability and ethics. For example: “ethical questions around SRM include those of international responsibilities for implementation, financing, compensation for negative effects, the procedural justice questions of who is involved in decisions, privatisation and patenting, welfare, informed consent by affected publics, intergenerational ethics (because SRM requires sustained action in order to avoid termination hazards), and the so-called ‘moral hazard’

This is a welcome inclusion in an assessment of the science. In practice, the feasibility of all these approaches will largely depend on the way societies respond to them.

  • It notes that unequal representation and deliberate exclusion are plausible in decision-making on SRM, and cite that the concerns, sovereignties, and experiences of Indigenous peoples may particularly be at risk.

Indeed, this is a very real concern: and recognizing it is only the first step towards addressing it. Bringing more communities into a meaningful conversation around SRM requires active and sustained engagement. It must also consider the possibility that those communities could withhold their consent.

  • It also notes that the general public can be characterised as ignorant and worried about SRM.

We would point out that the lack of global governance around solar geoengineering, including related research, gives the general public good reason to be concerned. A lack of public engagement breeds justifiable distrust that these technologies may not be governed for the benefit of all. As the report indicates, even a subtle difference in how information is presented about solar geoengineering can influence subsequent judgements of its favourability.

These points underline the need to broaden the conversation around solar geoengineering well beyond  academic and scientific circles. This means not only ensuring availability of information, but also translating often difficult and controversial concepts into language that a wide cross-section of society can understand, in ways that promote genuine engagement in the assessment process.



In summary, the IPCC Special Report offers a welcome examination of what the potential use of large-scale carbon dioxide removal might actually mean in practice, and a necessary initial examination of the challenges associated with potential solar radiation modification approaches.

In all cases, the consideration of effective governance will be inseparable from the consideration of these approaches as a whole.   My colleagues and I at C2G2 stand ready to play our part.


[1] In C2G2 we have referred to these approaches as large-scale Carbon Removal and Solar Geoengineering. When commenting on this report, however, we have opted to use the IPCC terminology. In the light of this report and other developments, we will reassess our own language.

[2] See previous footnote.

[3] See previous footnote.

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