International Governance of Ocean-Based Carbon Dioxide Removal: Recent Developments and Future Directions

By Romany M. Webb

With the impacts of climate change intensifying, and progress in reducing the greenhouse gas emissions that cause it continuing to lag, the parties to the Paris Climate Agreement have emphasized the need to accelerate efforts to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, while simultaneously curbing emissions. As the parties have recognized, the ocean is already a major carbon sink, and could play an important role in future carbon dioxide removal (“CDR”) efforts. Scientists have proposed a variety of ocean-based CDR approaches, but most require further research to fully evaluate their efficacy, benefits, and risks. In-ocean testing of the approaches, and their subsequent deployment (if deemed appropriate), could prove challenging for a number of reasons. This paper focuses on the governance challenges associated with ocean CDR research and deployment. Because those activities will take place in the ocean, which is a shared resource, they may be subject to a large body of international law, including various international agreements. Most of the relevant agreements pre-date discussion of ocean CDR and adapting them to this new class of activities has proved difficult.

This paper discusses recent efforts to regulate ocean CDR under three long-standing international agreements: (1) the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (“UNCLOS”), (2) the 1972 Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping of Wastes and Other Matter (commonly known as “the London Convention”); and (3) the 1996 Protocol to the London Convention (commonly known as “the London Protocol”). As we will see, the latter two agreements have recently been used to restrict ocean CDR activities, even while those same activities are being encouraged under the Paris Agreement. The paper will discuss options for promoting greater coherence in international governance of ocean CDR, including the possibility of using the new Agreement under UNCLOS on the Conservation and Sustainable Use of Marine Biological Diversity of Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction to comprehensively regulate ocean CDR.

Read the report, International Governance of Ocean-Based Carbon Dioxide Removal: Recent Developments and Future Directions, in Columbia Law School's Scholarship Archive.