Overline: Climate
Headline: Broader Debate on Negative Emissions Technologies Needed

The international community's current plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions do not go far enough to curb global warming. As a result, many governments are considering the use of so-called "negative emissions technologies" that would remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and sequester the captured emissions. A new study outlines some of the strategies available to open up the current debate around these emerging technologies with the aim of developing a responsible regulatory framework for their use.

Too much CO2 is in the atmosphere - is it a solution to remove the emissions technically?
Too much CO2 is in the atmosphere - is it a solution to remove the emissions technically? istock/Olivier Le Moal

If international efforts to limit the global temperature rise to well below two degrees are to succeed, countries must reduce their greenhouse gas emissions to net zero within the near term. In concrete terms this requires that we offset any remaining emissions by removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Under the Paris Climate Agreement, countries have pledged to "achieve a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century"; however, technologies capable of achieving this are still far from deployable.

Economic and political feasibility are dominating the debate

The involvement of various actors and interests in the debate on negative emission technologies (NETs) will shape the development of responsible governance frameworks for these emerging technologies. The study's author, Miranda Boettcher, examined the discourse on NETs in the United Kingdom – one of the few countries where debate on this subject is relatively advanced – in a series of interviews with representatives from politics and industry. "My aim was to distil the underlying perspectives and structures from individual statements," explains the political scientist. The interviews focussed in particular on the policy instruments that interviewees considered appropriate for the development and governance of NETs.

According to the Boettcher’s analysis, three overarching discourses characterize the debate: a political discourse in which political climate goals take centre-stage, an economic discourse that considers NETs in terms of a pragmatic weighing of overall costs against overall benefits, and an ethical discourse that focuses on a deliberative development process, rational argument, and social acceptance. In general, the economic and political feasibility and potential benefits of NETs loom large in the debate. And while interviewees did mention ethical considerations and issues of justice, these considerations were not held to be crucial.

Broad discussion needed to foster responsible governance

In her analysis of the NETs debate, Boettcher identifies the same power and knowledge structures that dominate climate policy more broadly. In light of the sluggish pace of progress on climate issues, she warns that efforts to develop appropriate governance for NETs could meet a similar fate. Moreover, pinning hopes on new technological solutions in climate policy could further delay the decarbonisation of society.

Boettcher’s findings underline the need for for increased recognition of the way in which the discourse around NETs shapes policy development. "Mapping the structure of this discourse can reveal the kind of knowledge that is lacking in the current debate and that could be injected into policy advice processes with the aim of advancing more responsible governance approaches and involving other stakeholders," says the IASS researcher. This would ensure that the governance of negative-emission technologies is not shaped by the same economic and power-political dynamics that have stymied efforts to pursue more effective climate policies.


Boettcher, M., Coming to GRIPs With NETs Discourse: Implications of Discursive Structures for Emerging Governance of Negative Emissions Technologies in the UK, Frontiers in Climate, 30 November 2020, https://doi.org/10.3389/fclim.2020.595685