ICRLP Webinar Explainer Series Provides A Deeper Understanding on Many Issues Surrounding Carbon Dioxide Removal

One of the streams of work for The Institute for Carbon Removal Law and Policy is to provide broad education on carbon removal approaches and implications. Carbon removal is a big and complex subject matter, with much to unpack and debate. With this in mind, we launched our “Assessing Carbon Removal Webinar Explainer Series” in 2018. 

These one-hour webinars bring together Institute staff and guest speakers to explain what is known about varying carbon removal approaches and to explore big themes. The presentations and conversations delve into research needed to assess technical, legal, and social aspects and considerations of carbon removal technologies.,

Most recently presented in this series have been webinars on Agroforestry and Carbon Removal and Corporate Commitments, both of which have accompanying blog entries that outline the main points covered in the presentations, which can be found on ICRLP Carbon Removal Blog Posts page.

In addition to these recent webinars, there are a number of past presentations that provide a wealth of knowledge on carbon removal:

  • Enhanced Oil Recovery: A discussion on the technological, economic, and political issues associated with Enhanced Oil Recovery (EOR), including the costs involved, the project development perspective, EOR relative to saline storage necessary to scale up carbon storage, and why EOR should be decoupled from the decarbonatization agenda and policy.
  • Mitigation Deterrence: Mitigation Deterrence (MD) is where the pursuit of greenhouse gas removal (GGR) delays or deters other mitigation options. This webinar presents the results of a project that analyzes this issue and explores conditions in which GGR technologies can be used with minimal MD.
  • Direct Air Capture: The presentations within this webinar provide a comprehensive overview of mechanisms behind Direct Air Capture of carbon dioxide, which is the practice of utilizing chemicals to remove carbon dioxide from the air. 
  • Enhanced Mineral Weathering: This webinar presents the ins and outs behind varying proposed methods of Enhanced Mineral Weathering utilizing an array of minerals on land and in the oceans. 
  • Governance of Marine Geoengineering: This webinar followed the release of a CIGI Special Report on this topic. The presentations dig into the potential role of marine climate geoengineering approaches such as ocean alkalization and “blue carbon,” with a focus on the governance, research, deployment and potential risks associated with these approaches to carbon dioxide removal.
  • Communicating Carbon Removal: This webinar was presented following the release of ICRLP report “The Carbon Removal Debate” and explores the challenges associated with communicating the necessity for, and options behind, carbon dioxide removal.
  • The Brazilian Amazon Fires: What Do They Mean for the Climate?: As thousands of fires ripped across the Amazon in 2019, wreaking havoc and devastation, this webinar seeks to explore what these fires mean for the climate, and lessons are to be learned regarding global forest protection.
  • Soil-Based Carbon Removal: Soil harbors three times more carbon than is present in the atmosphere, and this webinar investigates whether healthy soils can help tackle climate change. Experts on the panel provide a scientific overview of soil carbon sequestration, while examining the risks, benefits, and uncertainties.  
  • NAS “Negative Emissions Technologies and Reliable Sequestration: A Research Agenda” Report: This report released by the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine is the focus of discussion in this webinar. A few of the points addressed are the current state and potential for negative emissions technologies, conceptualizing scale in addressing climate change, and the impact of carbon removal on land use and soil, among others.
  • Potential Role of Carbon Removal in the IPCC’s 1.5 Degree Special Report: The panelists in this webinar examine this special report, released by the IPCC in 2018, examine what this report says about many aspects of carbon removal such as the potential need, governance, and classification. 
  • What We Know and Don’t Know about Negative Emissions: This webinar is aimed at providing a systematic overview of negative emissions technologies, discussing the status of research, ethical considerations, and how to spur future innovation and upscale research for advancing utilizations.
  • Accessing Carbon Dioxide Removal: As the introductory webinar that kicked off the series in 2018, the panelists dive into what carbon removal technologies are, their role in the portfolio of response to climate change, risks, ways to manage technologies in beneficial ways, and what the future could potentially hold. This webinar in particular serves as a valuable springboard for those who are relatively unfamiliar with carbon removal and seeking to learn more. 

All of these webinars are also available to view on our YouTube channel and on the ICRLP website. As this series continues to evolve, we encourage you to stay tuned for upcoming webinars going forward. If you are interested in joining our mailing list to receive notifications of upcoming webinars and our Newsletter, feel free to reach out to us at icrlp@american.edu.

 

ICR Explainer Series Webinar Summary: Agroforestry

Authored by Allison Tennant, Carbon Removal Program Assistant, Institute for Carbon Removal Law and Policy & Union of Concerned Scientists

On September 2nd, the Institute for Carbon Removal Law and Policy (ICR) hosted a webinar on agroforestry, the latest in our explainer series. ICR Fellow Jason Funk moderated a panel that featured: 

  • Susan Stein, Director of the USDA National Agroforestry Center 
  • John Munsell, Professor and Forest Management Extension Specialist in the Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation at Virginia Tech
  • Patrick Worms, Senior Science Policy Advisor at the World Agroforestry Centre, presented on the different technical and economic aspects of agroforestry.

Susan Stein kicked off the presentations by giving the USDA definition of agroforestry: “The intentional integration of trees or shrubs with crop and animal production to create environmental, economic, and social benefits.” She then explained five types of agroforestry — forest buffer, alley cropping, silvopasture, windbreak, forest farming — and how they remove and store carbon. In the U.S., over 30,000 farms practice some form of agroforestry with government and private support.

John Munsell followed with the social, environmental, and economic benefits of agroforestry, such as increasing yield, increasing soil, improving air and water quality, and strengthening social capital. He also explained some of the barriers to widespread adoption and potential policies to address those issues. While a lack of awareness and knowledge of agroforestry among farmers poses one barrier, the time and space needed to see returns poses a more formidable obstacle.  Professor Munsell discussed upfront payments for land conversion, performance-based payments, and cost-share programs as ways to address that barrier. 

Patrick Worms rounded out the presentations by giving an international perspective and examples. He pointed out the great potential for agroforestry, and land management solutions in general, to remove carbon dioxide worldwide and the need for broader adoption. Currently, 43% of all agricultural land has more than 10% tree cover, but there are many opportunities for growth.

The presentations were followed by questions from the audience. 

The Institute for Carbon Removal Law and Policy would like to thank environmental journalist Erik Hoffner for helping to organize this webinar. Erik publishes a series on agroforestry for the award-winning environmental news site Mongabay.com, which you can find at https://news.mongabay.com/series/global-agroforestry/

Integrated Assessment Modeling of Carbon Removal at ICRLP

Authored by David Morrow, Director of Research, Institute of Carbon Removal Law and Policy, American University

Bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) is sometimes described as the only technology ever invented by modelers. There’s a grain of truth to this: the idea of combining bioenergy with CCS to produce a negative emissions technology rose to prominence because of its adoption by integrated assessment modelers in the early 2000s. Since then, these models have provided one important tool for thinking about how carbon removal might play a role in climate policy. The Institute for Carbon Removal Law and Policy is helping to push the boundaries of integrated assessment modeling of carbon removal with two ongoing projects.

What are integrated assessment models?

Before we get to ICRLP’s modeling projects, let’s back up a bit. What are integrated assessment models (IAMs)? Basically, IAMs are computer models that combine a model of the climate system with models of the economy, the energy sector, and land use to help researchers think rigorously about possible climate futures. For instance, researchers can use these models to ask questions like, “What would happen to the energy sector and the climate if coal were phased out worldwide by 2050?” or, “How would the energy sector change over time if the whole world put a gradually rising price on carbon beginning in 2040?” Researchers can also use these models to identify decarbonization pathways by which the world could meet various climate policy goals, such as the Paris Agreement’s goal of limiting global warming “well below 2°C.” When you read headlines saying that the world needs to cut its emissions in half by 2030 in order to limit global warming to 1.5°C, you’re reading a conclusion based in large part on integrated assessment modeling.

CarbonBrief offers an excellent introduction to IAMs and their role in studying climate policy. If you prefer to learn by doing, check out Climate Interactive’s EnROADS model, an IAM that’s fast enough to run in your web browser.

How are IAMs used to study carbon removal?

Integrated assessment modelers realized almost twenty years ago that they could combine two technologies that were already represented in their models—bioenergy and CCS—to model a technology that actively removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Research over the past two decades suggests that developing and scaling negative emissions technologies makes it much likely that the world can keep warming below 2°C or 1.5°C. In fact, modeling studies suggest that unless the world reduces its greenhouse gas emissions extremely rapidly over the next two or three decades, it may not be possible to limit warming below 1.5C without large-scale carbon removal

Until recently, however, few integrated assessment modelers had incorporated any kind of carbon removal into their model besides BECCS and reforestation. (For some notable exceptions, see recent papers led by Jessica Strefler, Giulia Realmonte, and Jay Fuhrman.) As a result, BECCS has long operated as a kind of stand-in for the wide variety of approaches to carbon removal that have been proposed. Actually implementing BECCS at the scales projected in many IAM scenarios would likely be disastrous because it would require devoting such vast tracts of land to bioenergy. Overcoming the conceptual and technical hurdles to modeling other approaches to carbon removal would be an important step in understanding what role carbon removal can realistically play in just and sustainable climate policy.

Integrated assessment modeling at ICRLP

Earlier this year, ICRLP launched a project to produce a variant of the Global Change Analysis Model (GCAM), a major IAM developed by the Joint Global Change Research Institute. I’m working with Postdoctoral Researcher Raphael Apeaning to extend GCAM’s ability to model carbon removal. That involves both incorporating additional approaches to carbon removal, starting with direct air capture, enhanced weathering, ocean alkalinization, and soil carbon sequestration; and giving GCAM the capacity to model various policies for incentivizing and supporting carbon removal. We gratefully acknowledge the financial support of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation for this project.

I’m also supervising an undergraduate in American University’s School of International Service, Garrett Guard, as he uses GCAM to write his senior thesis on the role of BECCS in climate policy. His thesis grew out of a research project he did for a course I taught last year on using integrated assessment models for climate policy analysis. Garrett’s research looks at what happens when the world tries to meet various climate targets if we exclude fossil fuel CCS, BECCS, or both from the climate policy portfolio, as well as how that varies across different socioeconomic pathways.

 

 

Carbon Removal and Corporate Climate Commitments

Allison Tennant, Carbon Removal Program Assistant, Institute for Carbon Removal Law and Policy & Union of Concerned Scientists

The latest  webinar in the explainer series presented by the Institute for Carbon Removal Law and Policy (ICR)  delves into the role of carbon removal practices in corporate climate commitments. Recently, many companies have released net-zero climate commitments that include carbon dioxide removal technologies. In July, Apple, for instance, committed to becoming 100% carbon neutral for its supply chain and products by 2030, in addition to already having carbon neutral operations. To reach this goal, the company plans to reduce emissions by 75% and develop innovative carbon removal solutions for the remaining 25% of their footprint. Apple will mostly focus on natural climate solutions, partnering with Conservation International on ecosystem restoration and protection. Earlier this year, Microsoft also committed to going carbon negative by 2030 by utilizing methods of reforestation, soil carbon sequestration, and new carbon capture technologies. With companies continuing to play a larger role in the carbon removal sphere, ICR gathered a panel to evaluate the role that the corporate world plays and might play in the carbon removal world.

The panelists were Betty Cremmins, Lead at 1t.org (Trillion Trees Platform) North America; Jeremy Freeman, Founder/Executive Director at CarbonPlan; and Alex Laplaza, Analyst at Lowercarbon Capital. The panel was moderated by Nicole Pinko, Corporate Analyst and Engagement Specialist at Union of Concerned Scientists. Discussion revolved around questions such as: 

  • What sorts of commitments are companies making, and how does carbon removal fit into those plans?
  •  Are these commitments and the plans for achieving them realistic, especially with respect to carbon removal?
  •  When it comes to the carbon removal portion of their plans, how are companies currently investing in nature-based and/or technical solutions? 
  • How are these commitments likely to affect the development or deployment of carbon removal?
  • What should people be paying attention to when they read about these commitments and the plans to achieve them? 

A Q&A session followed the discussion in which the audience inquired about terminology companies should use, the Global North’s responsibility for off-shore emissions, and the issues with carbon offsets.

To watch this webinar, click here. Make sure to keep up-to-date on new additions to our webinar explainer series, and watch past webinars here. In addition, you can keep abreast of corporate carbon removal commitments via our regularly updated action tracker.

 

ICR Fact Sheets Provide a Comprehensive Overview of All Things Carbon Removal

Although the emerging field of carbon removal has great potential to help curb climate change when coupled with more traditional methods of mitigation, it is riddled with uncertainty. There are many risk factors and many components within each individual method that are still poorly misunderstood. The Institute for Carbon Removal Law and Policy is dedicated to creating a set of comprehensive tools that can aid in providing clarity on carbon removal practices and technologies on many different levels.

Among these valuable resources are a comprehensive set of Fact Sheets that provide overviews on each of the individual topics regarding carbon removal, the production of which was provided for by a grant from The New York Community Trust. These fact sheets are broken down into two categories, topics in carbon removal and approaches to carbon removal. 

The topics in carbon removal fact sheets provide an overview and background on:

What is carbon removal?

Nature-based solutions to climate change and 

Carbon capture & use and carbon removal

The approaches to carbon removal fact sheets break down the ten different topics, providing a deeper context to the potential methods behind carbon removal. Each of these provide not only an overview, but weigh in on the co-benefits & concerns, potential scales and costs, technological readiness, governance consideration and provide sources for further readings. These methods include:

Agroforestry: Incorporates trees with other agricultural land use which not only removes carbon dioxide but also provides benefits to farmers and their communities.

Bioenergy with carbon capture and storage: A technique dependent on two technologies. Biomass that is converted into heat, electricity, liquid gas or fuels make up the bioenergy component. The carbon emissions generated from this bioenergy conversion are then captured and stored in geological formations or long-lasting products, this being the second component of this method.

Biochar: A type of charcoal that is produced by burning organic material in a low oxygen environment, converting the carbon within to a form that resists decay. It is then buried or added to soils where that carbon can remain harbored for decades to centuries.

Blue Carbon: Refers to the carbon that is sequestered in peatlands and coastal wetlands such as mangroves, tidal marshes and seagrass among others, many of which have been destroyed in recent decades. 

Direct Air Capture: An approach that employs mechanical systems that capture carbon directly and compress it to be injected into geological storage, or used to make long lasting products.

Enhanced Mineralization: Also known as enhanced or accelerated weathering. Accelerates the natural processes in which various minerals absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. One implementation involves grinding basalt into powder and spreading it over soils, causing a reaction with CO2 in the air, forming stable carbonate materials.

Forestation: This includes forest restoration, reforestation and afforestation. Forests remove carbon dioxide and through the trees within, and have the potential to store that carbon for long periods of time.

Mass Timber: A method that involves utilizing specialized wood products to construct buildings, therefore replacing emission-intensive material such as concrete and steel. Further, this wood stores carbon that was captured from the atmosphere through photosynthesis. 

Ocean Alkalization: A process involving adding alkaline substances, such as olivine or lime, to the seawater to enhance the ocean’s natural carbon sink.

Soil Carbon Sequestration: Also referred to as “carbon farming” or “regenerative agriculture.” This process involves managing land in ways that promote carbon absorption and sequestration within soils, especially prominent among farmland.

By reviewing each of these succinctly written fact sheets, it is possible for one to gain a solid understanding of what is happening in the world of carbon removal; the good, the bad, and the misunderstood.

NGO Engagement with Carbon Removal: Announcing a New Project for the Institute for Carbon Removal Law and Policy and the Union of Concerned Scientists

Authored by Allison Tennant, Project Assistant, Institute for Carbon Removal Law and Policy & Union of Concerned Scientists

Two years ago, The Institute for Carbon Removal Law and Policy (ICR) convened a group of representatives from over 20 national environmental groups at the Wingspread Center in Racine, WI. The goal was to spark and facilitate an ongoing sharing of perspectives and resources about carbon removal. Space was created for meeting attendees to probe various carbon removal approaches and issues, with the intent that information and findings from the meeting would inform exploration of carbon removal in their home institutions. 

Now, ICR has partnered with the Union of Concerned Scientists for a new and newly imagined round of work with the NGO community. In my new position, created with the kind support of the New York Community Trust, I will be reconvening the group that gathered at Wingspread and working with them to imagine and promote more just, equitable, and inclusive understandings of carbon removal. We will be seeking to expand the carbon removal conversation to draw on the knowledge, interests, and perspectives of a wider array of voices, recognizing that different carbon removal approaches are poised to have implications across a diverse set of sectors and communities.

As the IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C makes clear, carbon removal will need to be a part of the approach to keeping warming under 1.5°C; emissions reductions alone will no longer be enough. Governments and companies must now make large investments in R,D&D of carbon removal approaches to get technologies up to scale. Just as importantly, we need robust forms of evaluation and assessment of carbon removal options to ensure that any developments in this fast-moving field are attending to social and environmental imperatives. Careful evaluation of what carbon removal can and can’t do won’t happen without increased attention by civil society actors. 

With an upcoming US presidential election, there is opportunity for increased funding towards carbon removal, but there are also equity issues and guardrails to be considered. Over the next weeks and months, we’ll be working with the Wingspread group and an expanding set of civil society actors to find out what carbon removal questions still need to be addressed and work with them to try to figure out answers. They don’t all have to be on the same page, but the dialogue will help expose existing issues and workshop potential solutions. It’s going to be a big project, and I’m excited to see what will come out of it.

If you’re interested in finding out more about this new joint project between the Institute for Carbon Removal Law and Policy and the Union of Concerned Scientists, please contact me: ATennant@ucsusa.org. 

The Democratic Party’s Draft Policy Platform and the Potential Role of Carbon Dioxide Removal/Negative Emissions Technologies to Combat Climate Change

Authored by Wil Burns, Co-Director, Institute for Carbon Removal Law & Policy, American University

The Democratic party’s draft policy platform, drafted by the Democratic National Committees platform drafting committee, was released this week. The platform will be considered by the delegates to the upcoming Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee convention next month, where the delegates will make final decisions on the text of the non-binding policy document.

The draft’s climate section contains a number of provisions pertinent to carbon dioxide/negative emissions approaches, including the following:

  • In seeking to develop a “thriving, equitable, and globally competitive clean energy economy,” the United States should seek to “develop and manufacture next-generation technologies to address the climate crisis …” [p.44]. These technologies include “direct air capture and net-negative emissions technologies,” as well as “carbon capture and sequestration that permanently stores greenhouse gases …” [p. 48). The platform also calls for support for “the most historically far-reaching public investments and private sector incentives for research, development, demonstration, and employment of next-generation technologies …” [p. 48];
  • In pursuit of the objective of eliminating power plant carbon pollution by 2035 to “reach net-zero emissions as rapidly as possible [and no later than by 2050],” decarbonization strategies should include carbon capture and storage [p. 45];
  • In the context of the agricultural sector, the platform calls for a partnership to help farmers develop new sources of income including through, inter alia, lower-emission, and regenerative agricultural practices.” [p.47] While the contours of these practices are not outlined in the document, one would presume that it would include methods to rebuild soil organic matter, such as no-till agriculture and cover crops;
  • There are also several provisions related to public lands stewardship that, albeit vague, might help facilitate enhanced carbon sequestration. The platform calls for the development of a youth corps to conserve public lands. [p. 45] Moreover, it advocates full funding of the Land and Water Conservation Fund to ensure conservation of public lands, as well as programs to incentivize conservation initiatives on private lands, “including through private sector ecosystems markets.” [pp.48-9];
  • There is only one reference to the potential role of afforestation/reforestation in climate policy, with a focus on temperature impacts, with the platform calling for the planting of “millions of trees” in urban areas to “help reduce heat stress.” [p. 47]

The drafters’ engagement in the potential role of CDR/NETs approaches in climate policymaking is laudable, and reflects a potentially expanded role for such options compared to that contemplated in the New Green Deal, which briefly discussed tree-planting as a carbon sequestration strategy. At the same time, the draft platform is also an extremely underdeveloped set of proposals in terms of fleshing out potentially requisite levels of funding, necessary regulatory frameworks to facilitate research, development, and potential deployment of many of these options, and the daunting issue of how to integrate such approaches into the current climate policymaking domain at the state, national and international level. It is also notable that one of the most widely discussed potential carbon dioxide removal approaches, afforestation/reforestation, is given extremely short shrift in the document, with the only reference to tree planting focused on albedo effects rather than carbon sequestration potential. While the delegates will have the opportunity to hone the document, it’s unclear if they will have the expertise to address some of these concerns.

However, in the end, perhaps it’s helpful in itself to have a major party acknowledge the potentially important role of CDR/NETs options in pursuing the critical objective of net emissions neutrality in the next few decades. The platform establishes a foundation for the hard work that would inevitably need to follow to make this a reality.

 

 

 

Carbon Removal Corporate Action Tracker

The terms carbon neutral, carbon negative, and net-zero, long familiar to scientists and environmentalists, are beginning to pop up in corporate press releases. Recently, corporations from sectors ranging from aviation to finance to retail have made commitments to an emerging form of climate action called carbon removal. Carbon removal, also known as carbon dioxide removal or negative emissions technologies, has been receiving increased attention from corporations since the landmark IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C identified it as crucial to limiting global warming below 1.5°C and warned that the world can no longer hit this target without it. 

As a response to the growing number of corporate climate pledges, the Institute for Carbon Removal Law and Policy at American University has created an Action Tracker outlining some interesting moves regarding climate action in aviation, energy, heavy industry, and other harder-to-abate sector, as well as large financial actors and retail companies. The Action Tracker includes companies that have made climate pledges that entail some use of large scale carbon removal. Some of these  companies have pledged to become carbon neutral or reach net-zero emissions, while others have plans to become carbon-negative, meaning that they will be removing more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than they emit. Companies with carbon negative pledges include Ikea, Microsoft, Starbucks, AstraZeneca, and Horizon Organics. 

Also included in the Action Tracker are companies in harder-to-abate sectors such as aviation, steel, and cement that are making carbon neutral commitments without any apparent commitment to carbon removal. Given how challenging it is to decarbonize these sectors, any pledge to carbon neutrality in those sectors invites questions about how a particular company aims to become carbon neutral and what role, if any, carbon removal plays in each company’s plan. 

A few companies in the retail sector, such as Horizon Organics and Starbucks, have independently pledged to be carbon-negative (confusingly called “carbon positive” in a few cases) using carbon removal. Many more retail companies have committed to becoming net-zero as part of the Certified B Corporations Net-Zero by 2030 pledge but lack specific plans for fulfilling their commitment.

Finally, the Action Tracker includes actors in the financial sector, such as Barclays and Harvard’s endowment, that have pledged to make their investments carbon neutral, meaning that the net carbon footprint of the activities they finance will be zero. These plans are likely to take different forms. Harvard, for instance, has indicated that its endowment managers will finance carbon removal to balance investments in greenhouse gas-emitting activities, whereas Barclays has aligned itself with the International Energy Agency’s Sustainable Development Scenario, which explicitly excludes carbon removal. Given the importance of finance to reaching net-zero or net-negative emissions globally, the Institute finds these sorts of pledges worth tracking.

The Action Tracker is an ever-evolving resource and will be updated as new commitments are released, current pledges become more detailed, and mechanisms to achieve outlined commitments are specified.

Please email icrlp@american.edu if you have other interesting examples of carbon negative or carbon-neutral-with-carbon-removal pledges.

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.