Creating and enhancing carbon sinks has become the newest pillar of climate policy in the era of the Paris Agreement, which calls for a ‘balance of sources and sinks’ on route to the ambitious temperature targets of 2C – or even 1.5C – by century’s end. Collectively known as ‘carbon removal’ (also, greenhouse gas removal or GGR, and negative emissions technologies or NETs), these approaches are envisioned to buy time for more stringent mitigation efforts, balance ‘residual’ (hard-to-abate) emissions, and clean up ‘legacy’ emissions already in the atmosphere. Carbon removal is being taken up at multiple levels of governance: from a renegotiation of the structure of carbon accounting and offset markets, to the Paris Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), to a wave of Net Zero commitments aiming at carbon neutrality by 2050 sweeping across companies in the global North, to the European Commission’s initiative on ‘carbon farming’.
Carbon removal presents a novel topic for the Earth System Governance community, as it could narrowly lock in incentives to delay decarbonization or offer opportunities to remake and catalyse climate governance efforts across multiple issues and regimes. We envision a ‘big tent’ approach to this topic that encompasses critical and policy-driven perspectives. How are carbon removal systems being set up as catalysts or distractions for just and effective climate, energy, biodiversity, and food governance? What are the key actors, discourses, and challenges? Can carbon removal be implemented and governed in a way that avoids new technofixes, and that confronts and repairs deep global inequities across the global North and South?
What carbon removal approaches are being considered?
The breadth of governance dimensions to be addressed reflects the diversity of proposed carbon removal approaches, and a global spectrum of stakeholders.
Forestry and agricultural management, from afforestation and reforestation to bioenergy production for carbon capture and storage, invoke trade-offs in land use between agriculture, fuel, and carbon storage – a particular nexus of poverty alleviation and food provision in the global South. To reverse previous trends towards monoculture plantations and land-grabs, the Glasgow COP26’s Leaders’ Declaration on Forests and Land Use renews focus on avoided deforestation – the preservation of bio-diverse carbon stocks, with co-benefits for ecosystems services to local, often indigenous populations.
Meanwhile, technological approaches like direct air capture call for a massive upscaling of energy inputs, storage reservoirs, and pipelines – but it is unclear whether these will rely on the stranded assets of the fossil fuel industry, or new renewable systems. Enhanced weathering could enhance agricultural production by reducing fertilizer reliance – but could lock in massive new shipping and dredging economies. Terrestrial approaches are even being transported into marine systems, with blue carbon (marine ecosystems restoration), ocean alkalinization (marine enhanced weathering), and marine biomass for carbon capture and storage.
Through the following lenses of the Earth System Governance project, some of the questions our Working Group focuses on include:
Architecture and Agency:
Democracy and Power:
Justice and Allocation:
Anticipation and Imagination:
The Working Group is open to all and is not exclusive to members of the Earth System Governance network. To join our mailing list, please contact the working group coordinators Sean Low or Miranda Boettcher.