Governing-by-aspiration? Assessing the nature and implications of including negative emission technologies (NETs) in country long-term climate strategies

Jacobs, Heather; Gupta, Aarti; Möller, Ina


In order to address the pressing challenge of climate change, countries are now submitting long-term climate strategies to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) process. These strategies include within them potential future use of ‘negative emissions technologies’ (NETs). NETs are interventions that remove carbon from the atmosphere, ranging from large-scale terrestrial carbon sequestration in forests, wetlands and soils, to use of carbon capture and storage technologies. We assess here how NETs are discussed in 29 long-term climate strategies, in order to ascertain the risk that including the promise of future NETs may delay the taking of short-term mitigation actions. Our analysis shows that almost all countries plan to rely on NETs, particularly enhanced use of natural carbon sinks, even as a wide array of challenges and trade-offs in doing so are highlighted. Many strategies call for improved accounting systems and market incentives in realizing future NETs. While no strategy explicitly suggests that NETs can be a substitute for short-term mitigation, most estimate substantial potential for future use of NETs even in the face of acknowledged uncertainties. This, we suggest, may have the consequence of resulting in what we describe here as ‘a spiral of delay’ characterized by the promise of future NET options juxtaposed with the simultaneous uncertainty around these future options. Our analysis highlights that this inter-connected delaying dynamic may be intrinsic to what we term ‘governing-by-aspiration’ within global climate politics, wherein the voicing of lofty future ambition risks replacing current action and accountability.