Leaders in Carbon Removal: Wil Burns

Welcome to the January edition of "Leaders in Carbon Removal"! This month we sat down to chat with Wil Burns, the Co-Executive Director of the Forum for Climate Engineering Assessment in the School of International Service at American University and a research fellow at the Center for Science, Technology, Medicine and Society at University of California, Berkeley. Read below to learn more about his experience in the carbon removal field. 

Center for Carbon Removal: What inspired you to get involved in carbon removal?

Wil Burns: I became interested in climate geoengineering issues about thirteen years ago when I needed one final topic to incorporate into a class that I was teaching at Williams College on international environmental law. It turned out to be such a fascinating topic, that it’s become the cynosure of my research agenda ever since. When I became the Director of the Energy Policy & Climate program at Johns Hopkins, I became increasingly aware of how the topic had moved from the fringes to the corridors of power in Washington, DC. At that point, I formed a think tank with a colleague at American University, the Forum for Climate Energy Assessment, which is now based at American University’s School of International Service. In recent years, my primary area of interest in the field has focused on carbon dioxide removal (CDR) options because I believe they are likely to be the most viable from a political perspective, as well as critical to achieve the objectives of the Paris Agreement.

CCR: What are you working on in relation to carbon removal today?

WB: The primary area of my research revolves around how we ensure that CDR options are operationalized in a way that protects justice, equity and human rights interests. My focus currently is on BECCS, which could require large diversions of agricultural and forest land, as well as water. This potentially has huge implications for human rights in the context of interests (e.g. food, water, and sustainable livelihoods). I’ve written on how we might use the human rights language in the Paris Agreement to ensure that we apply a Human Rights Based Approach framework to scrutinize proposals for BECCS at the project and program levels at both the domestic and international level. I’m also working on a report on how CDR options might be addressed within the Paris Agreement.

CCR: What is the one thing that you are most excited about in the carbon removal field today?

WB: I’m excited by the fact that CDR options are being actively discussed in important international fora, including the IPCC, the UNFCCC, and other treaty regimes like the Convention on Biological Diversity and the London Convention, which addresses introduction of substances into the world’s oceans (the regime has addressed ocean iron fertilization, and a new amendment to its Protocol expands the potential scope of regulatory review to all geoengineering options with a nexus to oceans). I think this will help to galvanize the world to address the potential benefits, risks, and logistical challenges associated with large-scale carbon removal options. While the focus currently is on BECCS and ocean iron fertilization, I think the discussion will quickly expand to other carbon removal options.

CCR: What's one thing you'd like to see the carbon removal community do differently?

WB: I think the community needs to develop outreach materials that will more effectively communicate the nature of carbon removal options to the general public, as well as policymakers. As is true with the climate geoengineering community in general, it’s a bit insular and “clubby” in its orientation, and I include myself in that criticism. We need to develop a public outreach strategy that clearly and honestly explains the need for carbon removal research. This should include development of public deliberative mechanisms. For example, we’re working with the Danish Board of Technology to develop a “World Wide Views” deliberative forum that could involve over 10,000 citizens in almost 100 countries to engage on climate geoengineering issues. We also need to make a more effective case to policymakers on why we need basic R&D funding for carbon removal technologies.

CCR: What do you need in order to achieve your goals around carbon removal?

WB: Collaboration with members of the science community to discuss benefits and risks of these options, and how this can be incorporated into legal mechanisms, including risk assessment and human rights assessment protocols.

Wil Burns is Co-Executive Director of the Forum for Climate Engineering Assessment in the School of International Service at American University, as well as a research fellow in the Center for Science, Technology, Medicine and Society at University of California, Berkeley. You can reach Wil on Twitter @wil_burns and on LinkedIn

Want to learn more about Wil's work? The Forum for Climate Engineering Assessment is hosting a Carbon Dioxide Removal/Negative Emissions Technologies Workshop in Berkeley on February 8th. Learn more and register for the event here