Is carbon dioxide removal politically feasible? Exploring the global prospects of CDR via an Australian case
Even if all the Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) pledges submitted under the Paris Agreement are implemented, the carbon budget consistent with preserving a high probability of limiting warming to 1.5-degrees Celsius will be exhausted by the mid 2020s and the 2-degree budget some 15 years later. In the absence of a radically abrupt shift away from fossil fuels, emissions reduction alone is no longer enough to achieve the Paris Agreement goals. Given these unfortunate realities, carbon dioxide removal (CDR) might serve two purposes. First, deployment of CDR in conjunction with aggressive mitigation could hasten progress towards the goal of net zero emissions. Second, since a period of overshoot beyond 'safe' atmospheric concentrations of CO2 now seems inevitable, CDR will likely be needed to decarbonise the atmosphere even after the goal of net zero emissions is reached. This thesis examines the political feasibility of large scale CDR within Australia. Moreover, it considers the global climate regime structures and the interplay between these structures and the potential for national policy action on CDR.
The thesis includes an Australian case study which examines the feasibility of large scale CDR being used to balance a national carbon budget. Feasibility is analysed from two perspectives: 1) is CDR technically possible at the required scales and 2) is there adequate motivation to advocate for its development and diffusion? Technical possibility is determined through analysis of international and Australian literature that address the various CDR approaches. The thesis estimates that Australia needs to sequester approximately 6 GtCO2 this century to balance its carbon budget and finds that CDR at this scale is technically possible. Moreover, the Australian continent could theoretically sequester significantly more CO2 should its people and leaders desire to do so. However, achieving this sequestration would require supportive policy to be enacted at a national, or at very least, at state level. This thesis uses public policy theory, specifically the Multiple Streams Approach (MSA), to evaluate the prospects for such policy. Interviews were held with potential policy advocates and policy developers to determine what, if any, motivation exists to include CDR as a strategic response to climate change. This qualitative research finds little interest in advocating for CDR with many respondents' primary focus being on promoting renewable energy or, in a few cases, carbon capture and storage. Until such time as policy elites' opinions towards CDR change, it seems likely that large scale CDR will not be politically feasibly in Australia.
This lack of Australian support for CDR is in part due to CDR's low profile within the international climate community. This creates a 'chicken or egg' dilemma whereby international legitimacy and incentives are necessary to generate domestic support for CDR, but an international CDR regime is only likely to emerge if it is prompted by strong representation from motivated nations and non-state actors. This thesis argues that it can be in the interest of a country such as Australia to establish and/or participate in international efforts to promote CDR. The thesis explores the merits of creating a 'CDR club' which, if properly constituted can benefit its members and provide the profile and legitimacy that CDR needs for broader diffusion. Where the motivation to advocate for CDR would come from is unclear. However, without such advocacy it appears that the prospects for CDR and consequently for the Paris Agreement's goal of limiting warming to well-below 2-degrees Celsius are bleak.