Positive Discussions on Negative Emissions

Looking back on the Oxford Conference on Negative Emissions Technologies (NETs), September 2013.

By Nigel Moore

In September of this year the Oxford Conference on Negative Emissions Technologies (NETs) was held at the University of Oxford; a gathering of top minds from a variety of disciplines as well as key stakeholder representatives that were brought together to discuss methods for removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.  While its scope included only a subset of climate engineering techniques, the conference in many ways reflected the approach for CEC14. That is, it aimed to bring together a broad audience of participants with varying experiences and skill-sets to constructively discuss an emerging area of mutual interest.

The conference was timely, as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was about to release the first of its three forthcoming assessments of climate change. In the IPCC report, two negative emissions technologies—Biomass Energy with Carbon Capture and Sequestration (BECCS) and afforestation—are explicitly included in scenarios for staying below the internationally agreed 2°C temperature rise target within the 21st century. This notwithstanding, the potential effectiveness and impacts of large scale deployment of these two technologies are largely unknown. The Oxford NETs conference was aimed at reviewing these and other greenhouse gas removal technologies in order to generate a critical discussion of their potential effectiveness, drawbacks and possible consequences for various human and natural systems.

In addition to BECCS and afforestation, other greenhouse gas removal methods discussed included land-use management techniques, biochar, ocean fertilization, direct air capture, oceanic and terrestrial enhanced weathering, and methane removal. In the context of the conversation at the conference these methods all have the same overarching goal: removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere at a scale that can reduce the magnitude of climate change. However it became clear that their impacts—including what interests might be served or put at risk from their deployment—raise a variety of questions that go beyond technical issues and are in need of mutual exploration by experts from multiple disciplines and backgrounds. Constructive interaction with non-academic stakeholders thus is of critical importance to understand the wider context in which these techniques exist, making transdisciplinary engagement a necessary component of the research process.  

While scientific experts can offer tentative answers to technical questions such as how much carbon a technique could theoretically remove, how fast this could take place, how much it would cost, where the ideal locations for deployment are, how ecosystems might be impacted, and where the carbon that is captured could be stored and for how long, many non-technical questions require the input of a broad audience.  These questions include the degree to which different technologies might be perceived as being unethical and therefore unacceptable to some political and cultural groups, the acceptability of including negative emissions in emissions trading schemes or accounting for them in global climate change negotiations, and what considerations of culture and tradition would be impacted by changes in land use and agricultural practices.

Having these conversations is not easy. The technical jargon that natural scientists often use is an issue that was highlighted at the conference. One prominent speaker said that “the term ‘negative emissions’ means nothing” to most members of the public. Reacting to this, conference participants debated renaming the term to ‘Greenhouse Gas Removal’, which they argued was both more straightforward and technically accurate.

When we talk about negative emissions technologies as a form of climate engineering, it means we are talking about global scale deployment. Massive projects like those envisioned by scientists in the climate engineering field exist in a complex context of linked areas such as water, energy, trade, infrastructure, international relations, agriculture, fisheries, and development. These are broad areas of mutual concern for humankind. While the direct costs of implementing greenhouse gas removal technologies are likely quite large, this context and the interactions that occur within it will be significant in determining who wins and who loses, and to what degree their deployment may in reality contribute to a thriving low-carbon world that makes sense for people and the planet. A better understanding of these issues and their interdependencies benefits from critical global discussions around climate engineering technologies, and will be a central focus at CEC14.

If you are interested in participating in CEC14, you can submit a proposal to host a session here. Please check back regularly to this blog for updates in conference planning, including opportunities to apply for travel funding.

Nigel Moore is currently a Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies, and a member of the CEC14 Steering Committee. He co-leads a research project which is exploring the potential role a registry of CE research projects and activities might play in enhancing transparency, and the difficulties and trade-offs associated with this.