Incentivize negative emissions responsibly

Nation states need to incentivize negative emissions technologies if they are to take the decarbonization of whole energy systems seriously. This incentivization must account for public values and interests in relation to which technologies to incentivize, how they should be incentivized and how they should be governed once incentivized.

The Paris Agreement requires nothing less than a fundamental transformation of whole energy systems, ranging from the decarbonization of electricity generation, heat and transport to reductions in energy demand across all economic sectors and smart energy storage and grid management1. Yet, even with such changes to energy production, consumption and distribution it may not be possible to achieve the targets of the Paris Agreement. Indeed, the intended nationally determined contributions on climate action pledged under the agreement still suggest a median warming of between 2.6 and 3.1 °C by the end of the century2. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) maintains that meeting the targets is possible, but nearly all of their successful integrated assessment model scenarios rely on the widespread deployment of prospective negative emissions technologies (NETs) for the net removal of CO2 from the atmosphere3,4.

The principal NET on which the IPCC’s scenarios rely is bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS), which would involve energy production through burning biomass coupled with the capture of CO2 and its storage in geological or other reservoirs. Other NETs currently under consideration include afforestation, reforestation and forest management, direct air capture and storage, soil carbon sequestration, biochar, enhanced weathering and ocean fertilization5. Not all NETs would produce energy, but they do all seek to remediate the negative externalities — those wrought by greenhouse gas-induced climate change — of energy production. If we are to take the challenge of whole-system transformation seriously, then we need to broaden our understanding of the energy system to consider remediation symmetrically alongside production, consumption and distribution. This is all the more crucial given that, despite growing recognition of the increasingly likely need for NETs, they are given a low priority by state and non-state climate policy actors around the world6 and are far from resembling the complete sociotechnical systems — the combination of technical apparatuses and social arrangements that act together as a single system — that would be needed for their deployment.

Responsible incentivization

To determine the potential contributions of NETs to the transformation of whole energy systems there is therefore a clear need to responsibly incentivize research, development, demonstration and (hypothetically) deployment (RDD&D) into NETs and to establish such incentives directly as an explicit policy goal. Policy instruments — the methods by which governments exert their power to effect change — would then need to be applied to achieve this goal. Wider climate policy goals and instruments, such as plans for a new land use, land use-change and forestry regulation in the European Parliament that integrates greenhouse gas emissions and removals, might also contribute to the incentivization indirectly by creating carbon removal targets that can only be met by developing the technologies capable of delivering on those targets. Of course, the bottom-up architecture of the Paris Agreement makes it essential that the goal and instruments of incentivizing NETs RDD&D would not be set internationally, but rather by individual states to be reflective of diverse national political cultures and priorities. The key to responsibly incentivizing RDD&D lies with the extension of this attention to diversity from the level of nation states to their citizens. This will require the participation of citizens in choosing which NETs to incentivize in the first instance; which policy instruments to perform the incentivization; and under what principles of conduct the incentivized RDD&D should be implemented.

We already know that diverse public participation in decision making is vital to engendering the pluralism and humility that is needed to overcome problems of contending interests and uncertainty surrounding new technologies7. But this is equally vital for overcoming problems of contending interests and uncertainty surrounding the ways in which technologies are governed. The means to incentivizing NETs must therefore be established through diverse public participation in the very definition of those means. There will nevertheless be pressures to bypass citizens, owing to the sheer scale and speed of transformation that is required. But with effective, acceptable and democratic decision making at stake, it will be important to resist such pressures. Publics contribute knowledge that experts miss, lend legitimacy and have the right to influence decisions that will affect their interests8. In other words, if incentivization is not done responsibly — that is to say, if publics are not involved — then we risk taking ineffective, opposed and technocratic decisions that are both scientifically and socially unsound.

Technology selection and governance

Though there has been far less research into public perceptions of NETs than there has for their more controversial taxonomic cousins, that is, geoengineering by solar radiation management (and in particular stratospheric aerosol injection), scholars of public engagement with science (PES) have begun to identify the criteria under which NETs may or may not be judged publicly acceptable and, through this, which of them may or may not be legitimate objects for incentivization. Public workshops, deliberative mapping and survey experiments with sociodemographically representative citizens have found that afforestation and biochar, for example, while raising concerns about biodiversity and land-use conflicts, have been deemed acceptable on several fronts including environmental safety, reversibility and locality9,10,11. Direct air capture and storage is more ambiguous, being seen as contained, reversible and well understood, but at the same time as aesthetically intrusive, end-of-pipe and technically difficult to scale up9,10,12,13. Ocean fertilization, however, has been roundly condemned as posing irreversible and unknown transboundary risks that interfere with natural ecosystems9,13. While much less is known about perceptions of enhanced weathering, early results suggest more support than opposition13. With the exception of research into United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) delegate and stakeholder perceptions of BECCS6, very little is known about public perceptions of BECCS and soil carbon sequestration.

Research into public perceptions of NETs has also begun to elicit principles for the good governance of RDD&D, assuming NETs were incentivized. Table 1 draws together five such principles from across different public perception studies. Transparent purposes, activities and reporting and the minimization and monitoring of risks posed to the environment and ecosystems are consistently voiced in public deliberations as such principles of conduct9,10,13,14,15,16,17. These are often accompanied by a vocal mistrust of corporate or otherwise private interests, underpinning further principles of independence and/or regulatory oversight13,14,15,16,17. Starting with smaller-scale activities before moving to those that are larger scale has also emerged as a principle9,14, but ‘scale’ has also been shown to function as a proxy for the more elastic notion of controllability13. If scale is to be used as a marker of governance, then it must always be considered in relation to, and qualified by, other dimensions of control, including level of containment, reversibility of impacts, uncertainty of outcomes and scientific purity or intent. Irrespective of the scale of RDD&D activities, some studies have revealed a desire for multilateral governance at the international level9,15. Others, however, have shown governance preferences to be technology and RDD&D specific, with self-governance or independent oversight at the national or local levels often being selected as more appropriate than blanket international principles of conduct13.

Table 1 Public principles for the good governance of NETs RDD&D

Instrument choice and packaging

While research on public perceptions is yielding answers to the questions of which NETs to incentivize and under what principles of conduct RDD&D should be implemented, there has so far been no empirical research into which policy instruments should be used to perform the incentivization itself. Policy instruments come in three forms18: economic ‘carrots’ (which involve giving or taking away material resources), regulatory ‘sticks’ (which involve prescribing or proscribing actions through rules) and informational ‘sermons’ (which involve transmitting encouraging or warning signs about certain actions). Given the absence of an evidence base, empirical research into policy instrument choice among diverse public perspectives and interests must be funded to make progress. In the meantime, we can nevertheless theorize about which instruments might and might not be acceptable, and to whom19.

We know that publics are diverse and so too are their preferred styles of decision making. At least three approaches have proven particularly salient for NETs RDD&D: individualistic, consensual and majoritarian (Fig. 1)13. ‘Individualistic citizens’ prefer that decisions be left to individuals and firms and are therefore likely to support instruments that remunerate RDD&D into NETs. This would include economic instruments but not regulatory or informational instruments that would threaten autonomy. ‘Consensual citizens’, on the other hand, prefer that decisions are not left to individual actors and are therefore likely to support instruments that uniformly coerce RDD&D into NETs. This would include strict regulatory instruments, regulated economic instruments and informational instruments that are used to hold individual actors to account. ‘Majoritarian citizens’ prefer that decisions be left to elected regulators and are therefore likely to support instruments that variably remunerate and coerce RDD&D into NETs. This would include flexible regulatory instruments, regulated economic instruments and informational instruments that reinforce regulatory tasks.

Fig. 1
figure1

Policy instrument preferences among different styles of public decision making.

We know then that for NETs to be responsibly incentivized, they will need to be so with a combination of policy instruments that satisfies diverse attitudes towards decision making. The horizontal packaging of instruments — where two or more instruments are targeted at the same actor — most clearly attends to this problem of contending interests18. By way of example, if BECCS were deemed an appropriate technology to incentivize, we might consider incentivizing RDD&D by fossil fuel companies through the combined application of standards, subsidies and moral suasion. This could involve placing a direct obligation on certain new and/or existing fossil fuel power plants to be converted to biomass and fitted with a CCS facility from a specified date. To facilitate compliance with these standards, the government might offer financial assistance in parallel by providing a loan guarantee to repay the principal and interest on loans taken out from traditional lending sources. This could be simultaneously accompanied by pressuring from government officials on the fossil fuel industry, persuading key decision makers and appealing to the reputation and corporate social responsibility of the industry. Of course, the present high cost of building CCS points to another area in need of incentivization, though there is some cause for optimism that costs will be lowered as a result of the recent update to the US tax credit for CCS, 45Q.

Implications for research and policy

If we are to take the challenge of decarbonizing whole energy systems seriously, we need to broaden our understanding to consider NETs as part of a remediation strategy and to address the empirical gaps in our understanding of how to responsibly incentivize that strategy. Specifically, we need to know much more about which NETs we should incentivize, how they should be incentivized and how they should be governed once incentivized. This enterprise will need to be interdisciplinary, bringing together PES scholars with the scientists and engineers developing the NETs, as well as economic and legal scholars working in the energy policy and governance landscapes. Dedicated funding for this research needs to be a priority for national energy ministries and research funders committed to the Paris Agreement. The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy in the United Kingdom, for example, has already identified NETs, and in particular BECCS, as an area of research interest, which could be expanded to consider the questions of responsible incentivization surrounding them. Energy companies and NET start-ups have a clear interest in advancing these technologies too, and funding research to help with their responsible incentivization will build trust between providers and consumers. To foster multilateral coordination, bodies such as the UNFCCC should also fund international research collaborations through their commitment to capacity building for technology development. Such endeavours will help us to instil the pluralism and humility that is needed to responsibly bring about whole energy system change.

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Bellamy, R. Incentivize negative emissions responsibly. Nat Energy 3, 532–534 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41560-018-0156-6

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