Jesse Reynolds, Utrecht University

It is well known that the Paris Agreement aims to keep global warming to within 2 degrees Celsius. Many people point toward the scenarios used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and conclude that this is feasible if only our leaders had the political will to do what’s necessary. However, what’s less known is how challenging – and arguably unlikely – it will be to achieve this through reductions of greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, the IPCC scenarios – called “Representative Concentration Pathways” – assume the use of technologies to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere at very large scales.  As global emissions have not reduced in the six years since the scenarios’ development, more recent projections to stay within 2 degrees rely upon both increasingly aggressive emissions cuts and larger scales of “negative emission technologies” (NETs). Yet not only are NETs’ actual development and scalability still uncertain, the technologies would present social and environmental risks of their own. Therefore, and unsurprisingly, NETs are sometimes controversial.

To that end, the INOGOV COST Action supported* a workshop on “The Politics and Governance of Negative Emissions Technologies: Between the Paris Agreement and the Anthropocene,” which took place in June at the Utrecht University School of Law in the historic center of Utrecht, The Netherlands. The objective was to bring together diverse European scholars in the social sciences to deepen the understanding of the challenges and opportunities of NETs’ research, development, and possible implementation. Twenty-nine participants from six countries made the workshop a success in achieving this goal.

Participants at the Utrecht workshop. Photo: M. van Rijswick.

The three keynote presentations established a fitting framework for the workshop’s dominant themes. First, modeler Detlef van Vuuren of Utrecht’s Geosciences Faculty and the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency (PBL) and lead author on the 2011 paper that presented the IPCC scenarios, described the roles that negative emissions – particularly bioenergy with carbon capture and storage – play in these scenarios, as well as how knowledge has advanced in the years since the scenarios’ development. Second, Steve Rayner (with coauthors Oliver Geden and Stefan Schäfer) of Oxford University’s Institute for Science, Innovation and Society was critical of this process for what it may have obscured. He argued that it could be considered a type of “magical thinking” that has persisted in the climate change discourse. Finally, Frank Biermann of Utrecht’s Copernicus Institute for Sustainable Development and the Earth System Governance Project, looked toward the future, focusing on how the scaling up of NETs’ might be governed, including by strengthening international institutions to manage global challenges such as this.

Most of the workshop’s time was dedicated to presentation of fifteen draft papers from five panels covering diverse areas including law, policy, domestic and international politics, the sociology of knowledge and expertise, ethics, and public perception. Common themes across the papers included: To what extent is useful to (dis)aggregate NETs and related technologies? How can both elite expertise and stakeholders’ perspectives be appropriately integrated into decision-making? What are the roles of existing governance mechanisms and institutions, and are new ones needed? What relevant lessons can be drawn from other emerging technologies? These themes will be explored more fully as papers from the workshop are developed into articles. These will appear in a special issue of Global Sustainability, a new interdisciplinary journal on Cambridge University Press.

* The Utrecht Centre for Water, Oceans and Sustainability Law provided additional support.

Image credit: Flickr/Anthony Grieveson

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