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A fresh study suggests that governments depending largely on carbon dioxide removal (CDR) to achieve their climate goals might be contravening international law. Carbon emissions must reduce to net zero to curb global warming. However, states overusing CDR could face several risks, including CO₂ leakage, not meeting Paris Agreement targets, and agricultural land competition. That is what scientists of the Imperial College London found. Their research highlights the tension between immediate action and long-term reliance on CO₂ removal.

  • Excessive reliance on carbon dioxide removal (CDR) for climate goals may violate international law, and lack of legal guidance on CDR limits raises the risk of climate action failure;
  • Overuse of CDR poses risks such as CO2 leakage, overshooting Paris Agreement targets, and competition for land;
  • IPCC warns that heavy reliance on CDR could contradict international law.

The legal quandary of climate strategy

As nations strategize to mitigate climate change, the legal framework within which they operate becomes increasingly crucial. A recent investigation by academics from Imperial College London warns that excessive reliance on CDR strategies may not only be environmentally precarious but also potentially illegal. With international law setting the boundaries for permissible actions, the overuse of CDR as a climate solution is now under scrutiny.

Professor Joeri Rogelj, one of the study’s lead authors, argues that the absence of legal guidance on the limits of CDR use in climate targets might lead to a scenario where over-reliance on removals could constitute a failure of climate action. This concern is echoed by Dr. Rupert Stuart-Smith, who insists on the necessity of CO₂ removal but warns against its overuse. These experts highlight the imperative balance between immediate emissions reductions and futuristic removal technologies.

Risks associated with carbon dioxide removal

The study brings to light multiple risks associated with the over-reliance on CDR. Potential deployment at lower levels than anticipated, the threat of CO₂ leakage, and the very real possibility of overshooting the targets set by the Paris Agreement are among the highlighted concerns. Moreover, CDR strategies could directly clash with agricultural needs, competing for precious land and resources.

Legal challenges have previously ensued from inadequate climate action, as demonstrated by the landmark case of Urgenda Foundation v State of the Netherlands, which compelled the Dutch government to reduce emissions by a significant 25 percent. Professor Lavanya Rajamani emphasizes that states seeking to dodge the tough work of near-term mitigation by banking on future removals are likely to breach international law norms.

International law and climate targets

Further to the findings from Imperial College, a Carbon Pulse report also highlights the legal implications of heavy reliance on CDR technologies. The uncertainties surrounding the scalability and efficacy of these technologies, coupled with the potential to detract from essential emissions reductions, positions these climate targets in a legally dubious area.

This predicament is not exclusive to any one nation but is an international issue. As the European Union seeks to implement policies in line with the Paris Agreement, there is a growing consensus that the established targets may be dependent on CDR. The European Parliament has consistently advocated for prioritising emissions reductions over CDR, stressing the importance of conserving biodiversity and enhancing natural sinks and reservoirs.

Science backs legal concerns

An article published in Science magazine underscores the scientific foundation for these legal arguments. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has made it clear that to hold global warming to 1.5°C, consistent with the goals of the Paris Agreement, global CO₂ emissions must reach net zero by mid-century. Emission-reduction pathways that heavily depend on CDR could be at odds with the norms and principles of international law.

The study spotlights that nearly all pathways to limit warming below 2°C require some form of CDR; however, the scale and timing of these removals are pivotal. While some pathways involve deep, immediate cuts in gross CO₂ emissions, others focus on ramping up CDR and thus could be seen as de-prioritising gross emissions cuts. This approach could be deemed incongruent with the Paris Agreement.

The future of CDR in climate policy

The contrast between the need for CDR and the legal and practical risks it entails paints a complex picture for climate policy. As Dr. Thom Wetzer points out, many countries’ climate policies would be incompatible with the Paris Agreement unless huge amounts of CO₂ are removed from the atmosphere in the future. This necessitates a nuanced understanding of the role of CDR in a comprehensive climate strategy.

Adopting a forward-looking perspective, the European Union has embraced the European Green Deal with the aim of achieving a climate-neutral Europe by 2050. The European Commission acknowledges the critical role of CDR but shows a clear preference for nature-based solutions. In doing so, the EU recognises the need for a regulatory framework that balances immediate emissions reductions with the long-term potential of CDR technologies.

Conclusion: A call for balanced action

The discourse around CDR and its legal ramifications poses a significant challenge for states as they navigate the complex interplay of climate science, policy, and law. The urgency of the climate crisis demands both immediate and sustained action, with a clear understanding of the potential legal consequences of over-relying on carbon removal technologies. As countries continue to develop their climate strategies, they must ensure that these are not only environmentally sound but also legally robust, reflecting a commitment to immediate emissions reductions and a judicious use of CDR.

The debate is far from over, but the conversation around the legal limits of CDR usage is a crucial step towards ensuring that climate action remains accountable, effective, and within the bounds of international law. With the stakes as high as the future of our planet, it is imperative that climate strategies are developed with a keen awareness of both their potential impact and their legal implications.