The world’s first commercial plant to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere went online last May in the Swiss countryside. It’s one of several carbon dioxide removal (CDR) strategies companies are deploying to help confront climate change. But could the knowledge that such strategies are possible pose a risk to climate mitigation efforts broadly? A team of researchers from the University of Chicago and University of Michigan discovered the answer is ‘yes’. Their study appears in this month’s Climatic Change.
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“There were two possible conclusions,” explains study co-author Kim Wolske, a research associate and assistant professor at the Harris School of Public Policy. “On one hand, the very fact that we need to remove carbon from the air could be a signal of just how critical of an issue climate change is—increasing support for climate mitigation policies. On the other hand, if people perceive carbon dioxide removal strategies as a climate solution, they could be less likely to support efforts to reduce emissions from fossil fuels. We found the latter to be true.”
Wolske and her colleagues discovered this result through a survey of close to 1,000 adults in the United States. Reading about carbon dioxide removal technologies, such as bioenergy with carbon capture and storage and direct air capture, reduced the perceived threat of climate change, which, in turn, eroded support for climate mitigation policies. And, this link between a reduced perception of the threat and reduced support for mitigation policies existed across the political spectrum, though it was especially strong among conservatives.
“Surprisingly, our study found that even when you’re talking about CDR with moderates or liberals, who generally support climate policies, it undermines their support for those policies,” Wolske says.
Along with CDR, the researchers told respondents about mass reforestation as an option for capturing carbon. However, sharing this information had no effect on support for mitigation policies. In fact, it increased support among conservatives. One reason could be because reforestation would remove a low amount of carbon, and so could have been perceived as having little impact on the climate threat. Further, reforestation could be seen as a more natural approach.
“Proposing technological fixes like CDR may lead people to think that we don’t need to take aggressive action to confront climate change because we can continue to burn fossil fuels and remove that carbon later,” Wolske says. “But, we don’t know if these technologies are realistic or if they will ever survive in the marketplace without a price on carbon. They may never happen, and it will be too late to take action.”
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