As the need to cut carbon becomes more urgent, we are seeing more attention paid to technologies offering ways to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. At the risk of acronym overload, proposals include bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) and direct air capture (DAC). Most climate modelling which predicts how the goals of the Paris Agreement can be reached now includes these technologies, as this Nature paper explains. The UK’s Research Councils have just funded a set of projects exploring the feasibility of greenhouse gas removal technologies.
Sounds great – after all, we need to do all we can to combat climate change, don’t we? Surely anything which promises to cut the amount of carbon in the atmosphere has to be a good thing?
Answering these questions isn’t as straightforward as you might think – and this is where ‘mitigation deterrence’ comes in. Technologies don’t exist in isolation, but are embedded within technological, social, economic and political systems. We can’t just think of new carbon reduction technologies as adding an extra wedge of reductions, we need to think about the effects on the system as a whole. In particular, we need to ask whether these technologies have an effect on efforts to tackle climate change through reducing emissions at source. They might deter other mitigation efforts: hence ‘mitigation deterrence’.
We are all familiar with the idea behind mitigation deterrence from everyday life. You might eat an extra doughnut because you’ve been to the gym, thereby sabotaging your prospects of losing weight. If your lovely new bike is insured, you might be a bit less careful about locking it up – insurers and economists call this ‘moral hazard’.
For climate technologies, mitigation deterrence could take a number of forms. The mere promise of these new technologies, even though they are not yet proven at scale, might offer politicians a reason to delay some good old-fashioned emissions reduction, particularly if it helps them to avoid difficult decisions (like, say, taxing high-emission vehicles). Research investment, from the private or public sector, might be diverted into these new technologies, lessening the funds available for other climate mitigation measures. At the most fundamental level, some would say that talking up new technologies distracts us from examining whether climate change can indeed be solved while we cling to the dogma of economic growth.
Or could it work the other way? Perhaps the promise of new technologies might draw agnostic investors into climate finance. Perhaps a carefully-designed carbon market could benefit all carbon reduction technologies. Maybe providing climate hope rather than climate despair could re-energise the political debate. These potential positive feedback effects have tentatively, and rather clumsily, been called ‘mitigation galvanisation’.
So where do we stand? With colleagues at Lancaster University, I’m trying to find out. As part of the Research Councils programme I mentioned above, we will look into the question of mitigation deterrence, discussing the issue with scientists, policymakers and other stakeholders, and even trying to model its effects. We particularly want to look at whether and how greenhouse gas removal technologies could be introduced without resulting in mitigation deterrence.
No answers yet, as we’ve only just started. But our aim is a rather counter-intuitive one. By improving debates and understandings about mitigation deterrence, we want to ensure that there’s less of it about.