by Matthias Honegger, Research Associate, Perspectives Climate Research

Negative Emissions Technologies (NETs) or carbon dioxide removal is a category of climate change action that is to complement emissions reductions in order to achieve net-zero emissions in the second half of this century – as per the Paris Agreement, by 2050 – as per the proposal of 10 European countries, or even by 2035 – as per demands of the Fridays for Future movement.

In light of the immediacy of the “net-zero emissions” milestone – at which remaining emissions ought to be balanced out by continuous removal of CO2, one might assume that there are massive political efforts underway to research, develop and deploy a diversity of NETs in order to ensure that despite uncertainties of their efficacy, an ensemble of measures would end up producing the necessary results.

However, this is far from political reality. While some countries are discussing concrete policy proposals toward incentivizing the application of NETs, these discussions are at an early stage and the general level of enthusiasm is rather limited. To date there is no systematic inclusion of NETs in national mitigation targets and only a handful of 2050 long-term strategies include a rather unspecific mention of NETs. Why is this so?

NETs have since 2009 frequently been subsumed under the term «Geoengineering» thereby characterising them as «deliberate, large-scale interventions in the climate system to counteract climate change alongside truly large-scale global interventions by so-called Solar Radiation Modification (SRM). By consequence, any discussion of potential benefits or harm from the use of NETs took place under the premise of their application at billion-ton (gigaton, or Gt) scales. At such scales, the potential effects on various dimensions of sustainable development can in many cases be expected be very serious. These concerns have correspondingly dominated discussion of NETs – no matter how small their present application and no matter how incremental realistic future applications may be.

By consequence, it is no surprise that political actors have at best shown lacklustre appetite to address NETs proactively and that multilateral negotiations on NETs – including most recently at the 4th UN Environment Assembly (UNEA4) in April of this year – have not shown much success. Opponents to serious deliberation on potential roles of various NETs are calling for a blanket moratorium or ban for fears that a serious role for NETs would weaken the impetus of emissions reductions policies. The dynamic around what was a simple request for an assessment, report or information collection to be undertaken by UN Environment Program leadership can only be properly explained as a battle of conflicting paradigms: One paradigm generalizes the very different ideas subsumed under ‘geoengineering’ as dangerous distraction from acceleration of established mitigation actions and suspects any actor attempting serious open deliberation of perpetuating such distraction. The other paradigm builds on the possibility that some NETs might contribute meaningfully to mitigation action and sees a need to explore the specificities of various NETs to achieve a nuanced shared understanding of their potential role in various countries’ policy ensembles as well as their respective risks and governance challenges.

As I’ve written elsewhere, I found the intensity of this clash worrisome insofar that “the differences in framing by way of preambular language were allowed to trump the substance of the proposal, given that it could have benefited countries in particular that have not themselves built up resources and expertise to dedicate to a national or regional exploration of these issues.”

It would appear that many Parties to the Paris Agreement are at a crossroads with regard to NETs. While only very few countries have yet made explicit commitments to a net-zero emissions target, and even less have anticipated a need for carbon removal in their 2050 long-term climate strategies; the US may presently be the only country, which has put in place incentives that could in principle enable some carbon removal. And while in some cases the need for NETs is recognized at a technical level (e.g., the EUs 2050 long-term strategy), political action is lagging behind given that viewing NETs as complements of emissions reductions rather than substitutes corresponds to a climate policy paradigm shift. However, there is growing political pressure – not the least from thousands of youth protests all over the world in recent months – to set net-zero targets in line with Paris Agreement long-term goals. Ten European countries have already expressed strong support for a net-zero target by the EU (Denmark, Finland, Sweden, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Slovenia, Portugal, Spain, Italy and France). In response to this, German chancellor Merkel recently stated that the German government would discuss how, rather than if, the country would seek to pursue a 2050 net zero emissions goal. Such developments may lead more and more leaders to explore how such net-zero targets could be achieved. Such exploration would likely reveal that inclusion of NETs would render their achievement much more feasible, thus potentially triggering development of some kinds of NETs policy measures.

Matthias Honegger researches policy instruments for negative emissions technologies (NETs) and the governance and politics of NETs and solar radiation modification in UN negotiations and domestically. He is currently a research associate with Perspectives, the IASS and a PhD candidate at the University of Utrecht.