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What’s in a name? Why we became C2G

Janos PasztorBy Janos Pasztor / 10 June 2019

As of today, Carnegie Climate Geoengineering Governance Initiative (C2G2) will go by a new name: Carnegie Climate Governance Initiative (C2G).

This was not a decision taken lightly, but one we felt had become increasingly important to achieve our core mission: to catalyze the governance of emerging large-scale approaches to tackle climate risk, such as carbon dioxide removal or solar radiation modification.

As an initiative with the term ‘geoengineering’ in its title, C2G2 was sometimes – mistakenly – viewed as promoting ‘geoengineering’. This brought with it many negative connotations and misunderstandings, which hampered our ability to engage with society, and to catalyse the learning processes necessary to take informed decisions.

If terminology stands in the way of understanding, then it should be changed.

Our mission, however, remains the same.

Scientists say that in order to stay below the threshold of 1.5°C warming, the world needs to deploy a range of radical new methods, including removing atmospheric carbon dioxide at an unprecedented scale and speed. Other approaches to reflect back more solar radiation into space, once considered a fringe idea, are also increasingly discussed.

All these ideas bring with them a complex mix of risks and costs as well as potential benefits, and all would need to be governed.

Our aim is to catalyze society-wide conversations to ensure that governance take place. In practice, we have learned that in order to best accomplish this, we need to change our name.

The shifting context

The context of our work has changed significantly since we launched in 2017.

In late 2018, the IPCC warned there was no pathway to limit global warming to 1.5°C without large-scale carbon dioxide removal – in addition to transformative emission reductions – and that the damage from breaching that goal was worse than we had thought.

This has prompted rising interest in “nature-based solutions”, including large-scale afforestation and reforestation, as well as growing interest and investment in new carbon dioxide removal technologies, such as direct air capture.

Each of these approaches offers a unique set of potential benefits, risks and governance challenges. But in many cases, these approaches are not considered by their proponents and others to be ‘geoengineering’, and the term might dissuade them from getting involved in essential conversations.

Increasing attention is also being paid to some forms of solar radiation modification – such as efforts to protect and restore polar ice, seeding clouds to protect corals, or painting roofs white to reduce heat stress in cities. Those considering these approaches might also shy away from the term ‘geoengineering’, yet their participation in the governance conversation is essential.

Amid all this uncertainty, one thing is clear: none of these emerging approaches offer a risk-free pathway to tackle climate change, and all would need to be governed. If catalyzing that governance requires us to change the way we describe these approaches, then that is what we should do.

The problem with the word ‘geoengineering’

The word ‘geoengineering’ is, according to many of the defining studies in this field, an umbrella term to describe a broad range of often very different approaches. The thing that unites them is that they are large-scale intentional interventions in the Earth’s systems to tackle climate change.

The problem is that using a single word can give the wrong impression that ‘geoengineering’ is one thing, with a single set of features. This leads to the conflation of different approaches, which does not contribute to effective governance.

It can also lead to the blocking of constructive conversations and new learning. This is unhelpful, as the IPCC has warned us that a variety of approaches to large scale carbon dioxide removal will be needed, most of which are either not yet available, or not deployed at scale.

In particular, the term ‘geoengineering’ is often equated with one particularly controversial technology – stratospheric aerosol injection– which raises very specific challenges.

Well-placed concerns about this technology have dominated the debate, hindering urgent discussions about how to remove enough CO2 to achieve net zero emissions.

The costs of continuing to use the term ‘geoengineering’ can be high. In one particularly instructive example, its use in a recent draft resolution at the UN Environment Assembly was seen as one contributing factor to that resolution being withdrawn.

It’s noteworthy that the IPCC chose not to use the word ‘geoengineering’ in its latest report, explicitly giving “separate consideration” to carbon dioxide removal and solar radiation modification instead.

Continuing to put emphasis on governance

We hope our name change will emphasise our core commitment to the governance of actions to address the climate crisis, rather than a desire to advance any particular approach.

At the same time, we will retain our specific focus on those emerging carbon dioxide removal and solar radiation modification approaches for which significant governance gaps exist, particularly at the international level.

This is not because we are promoting them, but because some approaches are already being developed, and need to be governed.

The IPCC has made it clear we must remove carbon at an unprecedented scale and speed. Researchers are exploring whether solar radiation modification might buy us more time to do so. The world needs to know if any of these are viable options to address the climate crisis or not, and if they are, how they would be governed.

We can no longer afford for these essential policy conversations to be derailed over the use of confusing terminology. The stakes are too high, and there is too little time.

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