The Hidden Politics of Carbon Removal and Solar Geoengineering

The Institute’s co-director, Simon Nicholson, teamed up with solar geoengineering governance expert Sikina Jinnah from UC Santa Cruz to study the fate of a resolution on carbon removal and solar geoengineering that was introduced at the UN Environment Assembly in March 2019. Nature Geoscience published their analysis last week. UC Santa Cruz’s Jennifer McNulty explains their paper’s significance:

At this point, the greatest danger of climate engineering may be how little is known about where countries stand on these potentially planet-altering technologies. Who is moving forward? Who is funding research? And who is being left out of the conversation?

The “hidden politics” of climate engineering were partially revealed earlier this year at the fourth United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA-4), when Switzerland proposed a resolution on geoengineering governance. The ensuing debate offered a glimpse of the first discussion in a public forum of this “third rail” of climate change, according to Sikina Jinnah, an associate professor of environmental studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and an expert on climate engineering governance.

In a commentary that appears in the current issue of Nature Geoscience, Jinnah and coauthor Simon Nicholson of American University describe the politics and players who appear to be shaping the discussion. Their analysis, “The Hidden Politics of Climate Engineering,” concludes with a call for transparency to help resolve questions of governance and “ensure that the world has the tools to manage these potent technologies and practices if and when decisions are ever taken to use them.”

“Twenty years ago, climate engineering seemed far-fetched—if not crazy—but these ideas are being taken more seriously today in the wake of widespread governmental failure to adequately reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” said Jinnah. “The U.S is the biggest culprit in terms of shirking responsibility, but everyone is falling short.”

The Swiss proposal generated debate that revealed troubling schisms between the United States and the European Union. It also underscored the challenge of trying to establish governance for the two dominant geoengineering strategies—solar radiation management (SRM) and carbon dioxide removal (CDR)—at the same time, because the technologies present very different potential risks.

Still a purely theoretical strategy, SRM would involve altering planetary brightness to reflect a very small amount of sunlight away from the Earth to create a cooling effect. One well-known proposal is to inject tiny reflective particles into the upper atmosphere. “The idea is to mimic the effect of a volcanic eruption,” said Jinnah. “Many people are scared of its planet-altering potential, and rightfully so.” When a team at Harvard University announced its intention to do a small-scale outdoor experiment, the public backlash was swift; amid calls for a more inclusive process, the project timeline was pushed back to include input from a newly established advisory board.

By contrast, CDR has to this point been relatively less controversial. Carbon removal strategies include existing options like enhancing forest carbon sinks, and more technologically far-off options such as “direct air capture” strategies that would suck carbon from the atmosphere. CDR is baked into many climate-modeling scenarios, largely in the form of bio-energy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS). BECCS involves the burning of biomass for energy, followed by the capture and underground storage of emissions.

“Climate engineering experts are not talking about this as a substitute for greenhouse gas emission reductions,” emphasized Jinnah. “The potential of climate engineering is to lessen the impacts of climate change that we’re going to experience regardless of what we do now.”

Debate reveals areas of concern

To piece together their account of what happened at the UNEA-4 meeting, Jinnah and Nicholson interviewed attendees, reviewed documents, and scoured online comments. Their analysis highlights several areas of concern, including:

  • Disagreement among countries about the current state and strength of SRM governance
  • The domination of research by North American and European scientists
  • The need to “decouple” governance of SRM and CDR
  • A significant split between the United States and the European Union over the “precautionary approach”

The key functions of governance include building transparency, fostering public participation, and shedding light on funding. Jinnah noted that governance can also provide what she called a “braking” mechanism to avoid what some call a “slippery slope” toward deployment.

Significantly, the Swiss proposal, which Jinnah and Nicholson describe as “modest,” suggested a preliminary governance framework that drew strong opposition from the United States and Saudi Arabia. “The United States  wants to keep its options open, and it certainly doesn’t want the United Nations telling it what it can and cannot do,” observed Jinnah.

The lack of transparency around climate engineering makes it difficult to get a comprehensive picture of who’s doing what, and where, said Jinnah, but academic scientists in North America and Europe are leading the effort to explore SRM technology; CDR is already attracting private investment. Little is known about the extent of China’s activity in climate engineering.

“Very little is happening in the developing world, which is problematic because they will experience the most dramatic impacts of climate change and have the least institutional capacity to cope with it,” said Jinnah. “Some countries are facing an existential crisis and could potentially—potentially—want to see climate engineering. Or they could oppose it, because they want the focus to be on emissions reduction. But we don’t know, because governments haven’t articulated their positions.”

Jinnah bemoaned the lack of collaboration with developing countries and expressed a desire to see them build their capacity to engage with the policy and politics of climate engineering.

The debate also underscored some of the differences between SRM and CDR in terms of potential viability and deployment, prompting Jinnah to observe that “decoupling” them might break the logjam and foster greater progress on parallel tracks.

The United States favored a far less “precautionary” stance than the European Union, which has historically opted to protect the environment in the absence of scientific certainty, as it did on the issue of genetically modified foods. As one of the few countries with an active SRM research program, the United States appeared eager to preserve the status quo and “leave its decision space unchallenged,” Jinnah and Nicholson wrote.

An important step forward

Despite the breadth and depth of disagreement that surfaced at the meeting, Jinnah sees the debate as a necessary first step. “As a researcher, I think this debate was an incredibly important step forward, because you can’t study the politics of this issue without data, which in this case is countries articulating their positions on this controversial issue,” she said.

“Research is needed so we can better understand our options,” she emphasized, then added: “I’d rather not live in a world that thinks about solar radiation management, but unfortunately that’s not our reality.”

You can find Sikina Jinnah and Simon Nicholson’s paper, “The Hidden Politics of Geoengineering,” on the Nature Geoscience web site: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41561-019-0483-7

Sixth International Geoengineering Governance Summer School: A Student’s Reflection

Authored by Amanda Borth

From August 5th-11th, 2019, the Emmet Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the University of California, Los Angeles Law School held its Sixth International Geoengineering Governance Summer School in partnership with the Forum for Climate Engineering Assessment, the Solar Radiation Management Governance Initiative, Harvard’s Solar Geoengineering Research Program, and the Carnegie Climate Governance Initiative. The Emmett Institute and its partners created the summer school as a forum for post-graduate students and professionals interested in geoengineering to learn from experts in the field. The summer school thus prioritized the collaborative investigation of the social, political, ethical, and governance aspects of geoengineering. This year’s summer school was designed as a tour of the current thinking on geoengineering governance. An important component that ran through our time together was where and how geoengineering might fit into the broader sweep of climate change policy.

The summer school brought 44 students and 18 faculty experts together for 7 days in Banff, Canada. These attendees represented more than a dozen countries and a myriad of backgrounds. Students and faculty seemingly specialized in every discipline conceivable as there were experts from the physical sciences, to public health, to sociology, and much more. While many of the attendees came from academia, others represented non-governmental organizations, the civil service, the private sector, and a foundation.

The exploration of geoengineering governance considerations began with two days of highly structured instructional content where faculty presented on the following topics:

    • contemporary understandings of the science of carbon dioxide removal and solar radiation management;
    • potential integration of geoengineering into climate response portfolios;
    • governance considerations for carbon dioxide removal and solar radiation management;
    • engagement of developing countries in geoengineering research and governance; and
    • recent and ongoing developments in geoengineering.

The remaining days were less structured to give time for working group projects and a scenario exercise. For the working groups, faculty experts and students worked together to develop original, actionable projects investigating issues and questions related to geoengineering. The project topics included:

    • building a climate restoration non-governmental organization;
    • governing stratospheric aerosol injection across scales;
    • planning Canada’s approach to geoengineering;
    • crafting an accessible and flexible climate change course design tool;
    • evaluating the national and global security considerations of geoengineering;
    • investigating the relationship between adaptation and carbon dioxide removal and
    • using social media to enhance environmental consciousness.

While developing working group projects, students and experts simultaneously engaged in a scenario exercise where they were tasked with responding to a climate change challenge related to geoengineering by providing governance recommendations. In doing so, scenario groups assessed response options, expanded the scope of considerations needed to craft a response, and explored the relationship between climate response options and their governance challenges.

On the whole, the Sixth International Geoengineering Governance Summer School’s proceedings discussed above proved to be highly impactful for students on three fronts.

    1. Intensive introduction to foundational knowledge: While many students had some level of knowledge about carbon dioxide removal and/or solar radiation management going into the summer school, this knowledge tended to be incomplete given the complex, interdisciplinary nature of geoengineering. The expert presentations and panel discussions allowed students to fill gaps in their existing knowledge, learning from an eclectic collection of experts who approach geoengineering from a variety of lenses (i.e. law, policy, physical science, etc.). In turn, students gained a strong foundation of knowledge to engage constructively with experts in the unstructured portions of the week.
    1. Expert-Student Collaboration: The low distance between experts and students throughout the summer school made for an extremely fruitful learning environment. Having experts actively participate in the working groups and scenario exercise allowed students to learn the ins-and-outs of geoengineering in a more organic way, which complemented the structured presentations. Furthermore, it is important to remember that while the students were not experts in geoengineering, they were often practitioners and seasoned professionals in other fields. The collaboration between students and experts allowed for all participants to leverage their respective competences for a rich learning experience.
    1. A Culture of Support: The experts and participants impressively facilitated a supportive learning environment, which allowed students to learn widely and confidently. Because the instructors allowed ample time to unpack expert and participant interests, supplemental opportunities to further learning, and encouraged the sharing of diverse perspectives, the summer school cultivated a culture of supportive learning among participants. Thus, this prompted students to think broadly about the governance considerations of geoengineering and have agency over their learning.

While the Sixth International Geoengineering Governance Summer School allowed me, as a participating student, to grow personally and professionally, I hope that the aforementioned insights can assist and inspire future educational opportunities in geoengineering and other fields. I wish to close by expressing a sincere thank you to the Emmett Institute and all participants for creating this experience.

Amanda Borth is currently a PhD student at George Mason University.

When essential research might be a bad thing. The carbon removal research dilemma

Authored by Nils Markusson and Duncan McLaren of Lancaster University

The UK recently adopted a legislative 2050 target for ‘net-zero’ climate-changing emissions. Other countries are also moving towards similar goals. Such targets are hugely welcome in the face of growing climate change impacts. Yet delivering ‘net-zero’ depends not only on accelerated mitigation, but also critically on the development and deployment of carbon removal techniques. This creates something of a dilemma.

Our research into the social and political implications of carbon removal techniques makes two things starkly clear. First, there is little or no hope of reaching such targets or avoiding harmful climate change without significant deployment of carbon removal techniques. Alongside rapid emissions reductions, humanity needs to remove carbon from the atmosphere to balance any residual emissions and to actively lower CO2 concentrations thereafter. Second, large-scale carbon removal techniques are complex socio-technical systems that are, as yet, only imagined. Placing our hope in them is likely to enable further delay in essential emissions reductions. We need what carbon or greenhouse gas removal (GGR) techniques promise to deliver, but at the same time those promises are likely to also deter and delay essential emissions reductions. GGR promises are thus double-edged swords, and we need to understand whether and how we can wield them without them causing more trouble than they’re worth.

This would not necessarily constitute a dilemma if research into carbon removal could be undertaken in an open ‘warts and all’ fashion. We could explore how to deliver more carbon removal, and avoid making simplistic or excessive promises. But in the world we live in, that isn’t how research is funded or delivered. There are at least four problems:

First, researchers are tempted and even encouraged to exaggerate the potential of their research and minimise downsides in the quest for funding and impact. Early claims are often the most extreme – such as the idea that ocean iron fertilization could deliver ‘a new ice age’ – but even growing evidence and peer review combined cannot eliminate such tendencies. Such irresponsible behaviour is made worse where researchers from natural sciences traditions misunderstand the role of social and political factors in the uptake and impact of their research, presenting it rather as a simple question of a knowledge deficit that needs to be erased.

Second, the media (in a repeated cycle of ignorance) often misinterprets scientific findings in simplistic and exaggerated ways. Take the recent hyped media coverage of Cambridge University’s new ‘Centre for Climate Repair’, which seeks to ‘solve climate change’, and ‘fix the climate’ with ‘radical new technologies’. ‘And we can’t fail at it’, one of the researchers is quoted as saying, somewhat breathlessly.

Third, research is also routinely expected by policy makers to deliver domestic economic ‘impact’, so is driven to approaches that seem to offer commercial applications, and to exaggerate the potential to access subsequent venture capital funding. Yet commercial applications of carbon removal technologies typically act not to remove and store carbon – but to utilise carbon in short-lived applications such as fertilising greenhouses, or making synthetic fuel. This does not reduce atmospheric CO2 levels.

Fourth, add to this the fact that fossil companies are among the largest and most influential in the world, and that their future depends on finding ways of continuing to make profits from burning fossil fuels, and we have a context encouraging simplistic and excessive promises about carbon removal technologies.

We can thus see vicious circles through which scientific hubris is reinforced by media hype, the growth mantra of policy makers, and the self-interest of fossil-dependent industries. This vicious dynamic is at its most intense in well-heeled, elite, Northern institutions like Cambridge, Oxford and Harvard – but ripples out more broadly than that to include certainly also our own institution – Lancaster University.

Fossil-fueled imperialism means peoples in the global South are already suffering from climate change impacts. As a consequence, the Global North has a responsibility to deal with climate change. But can we trust the academic institutions that have supported imperialist fossil capitalism to provide the knowledge to address the problem it has caused? Should we be surprised when they come up with commercializable technical fixes that would be controlled from the global North? Let’s be wary of initiatives that place Oxbridgevard at the epicenter of knowledge-making on responses to climate change, without any explicit recognition of their historical and contemporary societal roles.

The ‘we’ that can’t fail to ‘solve’ the climate change problem is a problematic category. Being highly privileged, from the global North, and keen to get funding from industry and growth-focused governments is a tricky starting point when you set out to ‘save the world’. Scientists (engineers, even economists) are of course trained to see themselves as not being political in their daily working lives, as producing objective science. But nevertheless, in situations where so much is at stake, and the topic is as (inevitably) politicized as climate change, all researchers need to be reflexive about the roles the products of their work have out there in the world. And this means the research itself will need to change. As will how we talk about it.

We argue that the right starting place for such research would acknowledge:

  • Climate is not a ‘problem to be solved’, but a chronic condition that we need to learn to live with, with the assistance of new technologies and techniques, but primarily through behavioural, cultural and political changes.
  • The research needs to include explicit consideration of different possible global societal futures, and be reflexive about the politics of how knowledge is produced, presented and used to make those futures come about.
  • Talking of ‘repairing the climate’ is an instrumental understanding of repair, which addresses the wrong subject: what needs repair is the relationship between humans and planet in the Anthropocene
  • That although carbon removal techniques are diverse they all share the risk that as promises, they could deter necessary emissions reductions, and their delivery at scale cannot be guaranteed. Both problems need to be part of the research projects examining carbon removal.
  • That carbon removal techniques all face limitations and constraints, and can only be a supplement to accelerated emissions reductions, not a substitute.
  • This takes us a long way from the conditions in which such research is currently promoted and highlights the dilemma faced by researchers in this area.
  • Climate change is a huge issue. And the more researchers bring their knowledge and skills to bear on it, the better. However, promising technological solutions to climate change can be problematic. Research has already demonstrated that living in a climate-changed world demands social and cultural responses too, not just technological ones. Worse, raising expectations of a technical fix to climate change also empowers commercial and political interests who want to delay urgent action to cut emissions. The way we conduct and govern research on carbon removal needs to be reformed. We hope that groups like the Cambridge Centre will combine learning like this from social sciences and humanities, with their expertise in natural science and technology to find better ways forward.

We think that our research at Lancaster could help. We seek to expose this problem of mitigation deterrence, and empower researchers, activists and policy makers to engage with it. We have set mitigation deterrence into a framework of cultural political economy, and identified different mechanisms whereby the problem arises, beyond the conventional understanding of a ‘moral hazard’. We see equally serious risks where carbon removal is planned for, but fails to materialise due to technical, economic or social obstacles; or is diverted into ‘carbon utilisation’; or through unintended rebounds or side-effects, such as additional emissions from land-use change or enhanced oil recovery. We have also deliberated with stakeholders about how the problem might emerge in different political settings, and it seems we can’t rely on strong markets, strong leaders or even strong publics to deliver GGR unproblematically. There is no technical fix, but there is no social fix either: in all these settings, as under ‘business as usual’, research could be distorted, co-opted, or ignored in ways that reflect powerful interests and the technology and innovation regimes they construct.

Our research is now moving on to explore ways in which research, development and deployment of GGRs could be governed so as to minimize mitigation deterrence. The ‘declarative approach’ in which researchers assert that GGRs must be an addition to emissions reduction can only take us so far in societies where GGRs can be co-opted to sustain fossil economies. Amongst other tools we see potential for a legislative and administrative separation of negative emissions from emissions reduction in targets, policy and funding. This would enhance awareness of the problem, and build firewalls between GGR and emissions reduction in much the same way as the UK’s Climate Change Act has helped protect climate action from political meddling and vested interests. We welcome input and feedback on such proposals.

And of course we seek to promote our work too, and we currently sustain our careers from doing research about GGR techniques. We believe that this is justifiable through the kinds of contribution outlined above, but welcome feedback on this too.

Assessing the Mitigation Deterrence Effects of Greenhouse Gas Removal (AMDEG) is funded by grant NE/P019838/1, part of the Greenhouse Gas Removal from the Atmosphere programme, funded by NERC, EPSRC, ESRC, BEIS, Met Office & STFC in the UK.

 

Nils Markusson, Lecturer, Lancaster Environment Centre, Lancaster University
Contact: n.markusson@lancaster.ac.uk

The core of Nils Markusson’s interest is about the politics of environmental technology. He wants to understand the relationship between how we develop and use technology in response to environmental problems on one hand, and political processes at varying scales in society on the other. He is a social scientist, with a background in engineering, innovation policy, innovation studies and science & technology studies (STS), and most recently cultural political economy. Much of his work is done in multi- and interdisciplinary collaborations, spanning social science, natural science, engineering and the humanities.

Duncan McLaren, Professor in Practice, Research Fellow, Lancaster Environment Centre, Lancaster University
Contact: d.mclaren@lancaster.ac.uk

Duncan McLaren researches the politics and environmental justice implications of environmental technologies and imaginaries such as climate engineering, carbon removal, smart cities and the circular economy. As a Professor in Practice, he works to make academic research more accessible and useful to activists and campaigners for environmental justice. Prior to entering academia, he worked for many years in environmental research and advocacy, including as Chief Executive of Friends of the Earth Scotland from 2003 until 2011, where he was influential in the adoption of world-leading climate change legislation by the Scottish Parliament. He has also served on the UK Research Councils’ Energy Programme Advisory Council and the UK Government’s Energy Research Partnership, and as an advisor to the Virgin Earth Challenge.