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This Is CDR Episode 21: Governance, Law, and Policy of CDR

This Is CDR is an ongoing series of online events to explore the range of carbon dioxide removal solutions that are currently in development. And while we’ve covered many exciting...

This Is CDR is an ongoing series of online events to explore the range of carbon dioxide removal solutions that are currently in development. And while we’ve covered many exciting developments in the technology of carbon removal, any carbon removal solution however technically sound will have to mesh with (and possibly push forward) a quickly changing legal and regulatory landscape. Joining us to illuminate some of these complex interactions is Dr. Wil Burns, one of the world’s leading experts in carbon removal governance, law, and policy.

As an example of one such complex interaction, Dr. Burns highlights how ocean-based CDR might be complicated by national or international regulations protecting oceans from hazardous dumping. We’ve covered several companies that seek to re-alkalinize the ocean, thereby allowing it to absorb more carbon dioxide. In terms of intentions, these companies are pretty far from the kinds of operations international laws like the London Convention of 1972 were designed to prevent. But international law doesn’t always make a lot of room for intention, and to be fair, these technologies may well have unforeseen or undesirable side effects regardless of how necessary they may be.

In fact, as Dr. Burns goes on to explain, such side effects might be the deciding factor in what kinds of ocean CDR the London Convention will allow. A 2008 decision under the law ruled that as long as you were putting iron in the ocean for research, not disposal, your actions wouldn’t constitute dumping – as long as there were no negative impacts. Moreover, your goals need to constitute “legitimate scientific research,” not an attempt to sell carbon credits. Both of those are worthy distinctions, except that one, potential negative impacts on the ocean need to be measured against the cost of doing nothing (which will be disastrous for the ocean, with ever-increasing CO2 levels in the atmosphere causing devastating ocean acidification); and two, scientific research, however legitimate, cannot exist without funding. As we’ve discussed before, CDR is currently quite expensive and will need to find intermediary funding to allow further gains in efficiency and drive down prices.

This is just one example of how complex the legal landscape for CDR can be, and one problem ahead of us is that law tends to move a lot slower than technology. In 1972, when the London Convention was written, CDR wasn’t really part of the conversation! In fact, as Dr. Burns argues, maybe the best thing we can do to push laws to evolve is to start more conversations about CDR. The more the potential benefits and risks of CDR enter the discourse, the more nuanced regulations will become in response. To learn more about how regulation will affect the future of CDR, please watch Dr. Burns’ presentation above, and be sure to check back next week for more This Is CDR. For more, you can watch the whole This Is CDR series on our resources page.

Peter Malamud Smith Peter Malamud Smith is a writer and editor based in Brooklyn.

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