Feasibility of Greenhouse Gas Removal is social as well as technical

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Photo by Steven Kamenar on Unsplash
May 14, 2020

Social and governance aspects of greenhouse gas removal technologies, including biomass energy with carbon capture and storage and large-scale afforestation, are currently under-represented in integrated assessment models, according to a study led by Johanna Forster of the University of East Anglia School of International Development and the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, with colleagues from the School of Environmental Sciences and Tyndall Manchester.

Biomass energy uses plants, crops, or trees for energy generation. Carbon capture and storage technology captures the carbon emitted from this energy generation from biomass before it enters the atmosphere and stores it underground.

Large scale afforestation is a process where vast new forests are planted across land currently without trees. These new forests naturally remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Both biomass energy with carbon capture and storage and afforestation are used in pathway scenarios to limit global warming to 1.5०C.

Rapid decarbonisation and greenhouse gas removal technologies and practices are needed to meet the net zero goal of the UN Paris agreement. However, the feasibility or potential of most greenhouse gas removal technologies is questioned as most are in early stages of design and have not yet been demonstrated at a large scale.

Integrated Assessment Models mathematically generate future greenhouse gas emissions to help explore how the world could avoid warming above 1.5०C or 2०C .  The models represent the relationships between energy economies, society, and future greenhouse gas emissions but do not capture a range of societal and political aspects.

“It is important to open up discussions of future worlds that greenhouse gas removal will bring not only technologically and economically but also socially and politically. Our study explores perceptions on greenhouse gas removal technologies from experts and practitioners in different sectors,” said Johanna Forster.

The research team held a one day workshop with participants from policymaking, non-government organisations, business and industry. The participants were given two main questions: 1) “What are the key issues related to using large-scale afforestation and biomass energy with carbon capture and storage to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere?” and 2) “What criteria should we use to judge the feasibility of large scale afforestation and biomass energy with carbon and capture storage for greenhouse gas removal?”

Three groups of topics emerged. The first, already well-represented in the integrated assessment models, include the technical aspect, economics and policy incentives, greenhouse gas accounting, land use and population and development. Some of the concerns of the participants included the availability of large scale land availability and sustainable biomass as the feedstock for biomass energy with carbon capture and storage. 

The second group of topics, which integrated assessment models also represent but less extensively, include impacts on agriculture and food production, water use, and food security. The third group of topics, not typically represented in integrated assessment models but identified by participants as important, are social issues encompassing justice and ethics, public acceptance, leadership and political will, legislation and land rights and ownership. The participants raised questions such as, “Who gets to decide on policies and why?” and “What are the impacts on communities like indigenous people who are already using the land?”

“Our research found that social, political, and equity issues and criteria need to become central to the feasibility of greenhouse gas removal technologies in modelled assessments. Currently, these issues are routinely excluded from climate assessments and decision-making processes,” adds Naomi Vaughn, the research project lead.

“These perspectives and issues must be recognised and accounted for to understand the feasibility of large-scale afforestation and biomass energy with carbon capture and storage. These allow for deeper and broader discussions on possible and desirable futures beyond net-zero emissions,” she added.

The paper outlines a range of approaches which can help to open up assessments of greenhouse gas removal and climate futures, or complement integrated assessment models scenarios by offering different ways of being responsible about and attending to social and political dimensions; including participatory integrated assessment, a peer review of integrated assessment models framings through public and stakeholder participation; participatory democracy and deliberation; and responsible innovation and governance.

 

Read the full paper here.