Glaciers are melting, sea levels are rising, hurricanes are more intense, and Chase College of Law Professor Anthony Chavez thinks lawyers can do something about it.
Professor Chavez, who teaches environmental law, has published and spoken internationally on how lawyers can enlist their skills to slow the effects of climate change.
For him, it is an across-the-profession approach and promotion of policies to encourage development of techniques to reduce the amount of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide that lingers in the atmosphere.
“Many sources of emissions contribute to climate change, and, accordingly, attorneys can contribute to minimizing it in many ways,” Professor Chavez says. “Litigators can enforce pollution regulations. Contractual attorneys can facilitate the deployment of renewable energy sources. Legislators can pass laws promoting cleaner energy, lower-emission vehicles and low-carbon building and agricultural practices. And, of course, all of us – lawyers and non-lawyers alike – can use more efficient devices, modify our diets and lower our carbon footprints.”
Within that array, Professor Chavez sees one approach that teams lawyers with scientists to create a pathway for public policies that encourage adoption of technologies known as carbon dioxide removal, or CDR, something of a backstop to cutting carbon dioxide emissions in the first place.
“Although mitigation, or reducing carbon dioxide emissions, is the preferred and least costly method to reduce climate change, scientists have begun looking at technological means to compensate for excessive emissions. One means is carbon dioxide removal. CDR consists of using natural or technological means to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and permanently sequester it underground,” Professor Chavez says. He has written most recently in the Fordham Environmental Law Review, the William & Mary Environmental Law & Policy Review and the New York University Environmental Law Journal about the need for public policies to accelerate adoption of those types of technologies in the climate change fight and spoken about it at conferences in the United Kingdom and the United States.
Why it is important
“Current projections indicate that the global mean temperature will likely rise at least 3 degrees Celsius (5.4 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels. Scientists have warned that a number of harmful and irreversible consequences will occur if the temperature rises at least this much (currently, it is 1.1 degrees Celsius above earlier levels),” Professor Chavez says.
Why carbon dioxide removal?
“CDR is the only practical means to return the climate to a temperature rise of 2 degrees Celsius if we overshoot that [projected] level. This is because carbon dioxide remains in the atmosphere for centuries, and scientists project that, once emissions effectively stop, the climate will not return to prior levels for up to a millennium.
“Addressing climate change will be much less expensive if we are able to remove some of the carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Otherwise, we will need to fully decarbonize every sector of our economy. Full decarbonization will be very expensive since several sectors will be difficult, if not impossible, to decarbonize fully. These include aviation and marine transportation; agriculture, especially livestock; cement production; and building structure heating and cooling.”
The state of the technology
“Although scientists have identified several CDR technologies, many of them still remain undeveloped, and none of them are ready to be deployed at scale (which climate assessment models indicate needs to commence before the end of the decade). Thus, policies need to be enacted to facilitate the research, development and deployment of CDR technologies.
“A similar problem arose decades ago regarding renewable energy. Wind and solar technologies were well known, but solar was still in its developmental stage, and both technologies were not yet being deployed at scale. Thus, neither yet had received the benefit of economies of scale, which reduce costs and facilitate large-scale installations,” Professor Chavez says.
Where policy and lessons from solar and wind intersect
“Two approaches arose to stimulate renewable energy development and deployment. Many states used renewable portfolio standards. These standards require electricity suppliers to source predetermined amounts of their electricity from renewable sources. Alternatively, many European nations enacted feed-in tariffs. These require utilities to accept electricity from designated sources at a predetermined rate, which exceeds the cost of generation, thereby assuring a profit. Despite their different approaches, each of these policies triggered sharp and lasting increases in renewable energy installations.
“Implementation of feed-in tariffs or portfolio standards, or a combination of both, could substantially accelerate carbon dioxide removal deployment. A combination of these two policies would probably work best,” Professor Chavez says.
Pluses and minuses
“Renewable portfolio standards can provide a helpful overall structure to ensure steady growth. Feed-in tariffs have proven to be very effective at deployment of new technologies. The guaranteed profit of feed-in tariffs help investors overcome their natural reluctance regarding untried technologies. However, experience has demonstrated that over time they can become crushingly expensive. Thus, after they have helped to stimulate carbon dioxide removal deployment, feed-in tariffs need to be phased out before their costs become too burdensome. A renewable portfolio standards structure, however, can assure that installations continue. Both policies have proven track records of fostering technological development and deployment. They differ, however, regarding the speed and costs of those increases.”
What Professor Chavez sees ahead
“Carbon dioxide removal technologies are becoming necessary, but alone they will not suffice to avoid dangerous climate change. Mitigation is the best and least expensive means to prevent climate change. However, we are on track to exceed tolerable levels of warming. Furthermore, certain industries will be difficult or expensive to decarbonize. Therefore, we will need CDR to keep (or return) atmospheric carbon to acceptable levels.”
About Professor Anthony Chavez
He joined the Chase faculty in 2009.
Before Chase, he was director of the legal research and writing program at the University of California, Davis School of Law.
The environmental law courses he has taught at Chase are Environmental Law, Climate Change and the Law, Energy and the Environment: Renewables, Environmental Aspects of Business Transactions, Environmental Law Seminar and Natural Resources Law. He has also taught Civil Procedure.