The case for carbon dioxide removal

Dr Rob Bellamy, Presidential Fellow in Environment in the Department of Geography, highlights the opportunity to spur a green recovery in the wake of COVID-19.

Although the coronavirus pandemic brought life to a virtual standstill, we’re still set to release 95% of the emissions we would in a normal year.

The policy choices that the government makes to support COVID-19 recovery will be crucial in shaping the emissions trajectory for decades to come – it’s clear that placing restrictions on individual behaviours can only do so much.

Now is the time to embrace carbon dioxide removal; not only to spur a green recovery by building a new industry and the associated jobs, but also to make emissions targets feasible, given that we can’t eliminate emissions from sectors like agriculture, steel and cement.

This lecture discusses carbon dioxide removal and the approaches policymakers should consider in order to use responsibly, reflecting diverse societal values and interests.

Recorded in August 2020

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Lecture transcript

The coronavirus pandemic has brought untold devastation to human life and the global economy. But as we begin to emerge from the crisis, what if we turn it into an opportunity to tackle another global problem, human-induced climate change.

The strict measures taken by governments around the world in response to the pandemic, produced the single largest reduction in carbon dioxide emissions on record. By early April, daily global emissions had decreased by 17 percent compared to 2019.

But this was only temporary, and emissions are now showing a strong rebound towards their pre-crisis level. The policies and incentives that governments now choose to fuel the recovery from coronavirus, are likely to shake the emissions trajectory for decades to come.

So, people are starting to ask why not use this as an opportunity to tackle climate change, to have a green recovery, to build back better? But the coronavirus crisis has also shown us that this will be difficult; despite the strict measures taken to contain the virus, global emissions are expected to be just 5.5 percent lower in 2020 than they were in 2019.

In other words, even as the global economy was brought to a virtual standstill, we're still set to release 95 percent of the emissions we would in a normal year.

So, placing restrictions on individual behaviours can only do so much and that's before you consider the social traumas that they've caused.

And when you consider this, alongside the decades of relatively fruitless efforts to reduce carbon dioxide emissions in other ways, it doesn't paint a very optimistic picture. But there might be another way.

New technologies and approaches are under development and could take carbon dioxide directly out of the atmosphere. These carbon dioxide removal techniques range from advanced engineering processes that suck carbon dioxide out of the air, to simply planting trees or restoring peatlands that absorb carbon dioxide as they grow.

Investing in carbon dioxide removal is exactly the sort of thing governments could be doing to spur a green recovery, building a new industry, the jobs that go along with it, while cleaning up the atmosphere.

What's more, it's actually impossible to achieve the government's new target of reaching net zero emissions without carbon dioxide removal owing to the fact that emissions from certain sectors like agriculture, steel and cement or aviation, either cannot be eliminated or can only be eliminated at very high costs.

But developing carbon dioxide removal must be done responsibly. Techniques carry risks and uncertainties, including around land space and resource requirements, which could affect livelihoods, security and biodiversity.

Then there is the issue of contending interests around the different techniques and how they relate to other options for tackling climate change, like reducing emissions or adapting to impacts.

Being responsible means that we need to have broad, societal participation, decision-making carbon dioxide removal. This is what my Presidential Fellowship at The University of Manchester is all about understanding how people evaluate carbon dioxide removal techniques, how government policies can shape the way people think about them, and how we can govern them in a way that reflects diverse societal values and interests.

This is why I think you need to get involved in the debate about the green recovery. Which carbon dioxide removal techniques should form a part of it? How should they be incentivised? And how should they be governed?

Policy makers need to understand the opportunities that carbon dioxide removal brings for helping us to build back better, but society needs to be a part of that conversation.