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The IPCC pathways run the risk of reproducing historical injustices, according to a new thesis

People protesting. Photo: istockphoto.
Natalia Rubiiano's thesis presents a number of findings connected to justice. One relates to ideas of land availability and the definition of marginal land, that might be used for afforestation or BECCS.

A new thesis explores how justice, which is a core principle of the global climate agreements, is considered in the global mitigation pathways assessed by the IPCC for staying within climate policy targets such as the 1.5-degree target. It shows how value-laden assumptions inform many of the pathways, representing a tangible risk to reproduce historical injustices.

– Modelled mitigation scenarios are presented as value-neutral, and do not explicitly deal with justice, but the way they define different concepts, or set up different parameters, and assumptions, tell a different story. Often, they end up favoring vested interests, says Natalia Rubiano, who recently defended her thesis in Sustainability Science at Lund University Centre for Sustainability Studies.

She has studied two specific carbon dioxide removal methods: afforestation – where trees are planted to bind carbon dioxide, and BECCS, bioenergy with carbon capture and storage – which involves capturing and permanently storing carbon dioxide from processes where biomass is converted into fuels or directly burned to generate energy.

Used analogy of land use change to analyse pathways 

Since there exist no large scale BECCS or afforestation deployment, she used the analogy of land use change in relation to soy production in the Brazilian savannah, the Cerrado, to analyse some of the implications of scaling up these carbon removal options, as envisioned in some scenarios.

Her thesis presents a number of findings connected to justice. One relates to ideas of land availability and the definition of marginal land, that might be used for afforestation or BECCS.

Using the accelerated transformation of the Cerrado into agribusiness, she highlights that similar events will most likely unfold if large-scale afforestation and BECCS scenarios are implemented at the scale envisioned in some scenarios, thus representing a real risk of reproducing historical injustices. The biggest impact will be felt by vulnerable groups and Indigenous Peoples who have already seen their land decrease or experienced violent land grabs.

– This is a clear indication of the absence of a justice perspective. Of course, we need to think of how to use land in smart ways to capture carbon, but the use has to be informed by a plurality of perspectives, says Natalia Rubiano.

Another finding is that the integrated assessment models used by the IPCC to quantify mitigation scenarios are very unrealistic, with some scenarios suggesting to use 40 percent of the world’s landmass for afforestation. Yet, the imaginary of using carbon dioxide removal large scale is taking a growing hold in society, notes Natalia Rubiano.

– The mitigation scenarios assessed by the IPCC have huge political and industrial influence across the world. It worries me that the modelers have put forward scenarios that are both grossly unjust, and will never work in the real world.

Broadening the models: a way forward

Is there a way to integrate justice dimensions into the IPCC pathways? Natalia Rubiano reflects that broadening the models that are used as their basis is one way forward.

– We need other, more diverse methods to be able to envision other sets of futures. We also need to expand underlying assumptions in modelled scenarios, for example by introducing other economic paramenters, e.g. degrowth or behavioural change as parameters, rather than this prevailing focus on cost efficiency.

She would also like to see more diversity in the models and methods used to produce these scenarios, and also an explicit consideration of justice.

– The whole point is to promote another layer of complexity, where justice is an important parameter. For that we need people with different backgrounds and viewpoints, she concludes.

Download the thesis: Missing Paths to Justice: The Knowledge Politics of Carbon Dioxide Removal

Natalia Rubiano Rivadeneira


Natalia Rubiano is a recent doctorate at Lund University Centre for Sustainability Studies (LUCSUS). She holds a Master’s degree from University College London in Environment and Sustainable Development. Prior to joining LUCSUS, Natalia worked on environmental and development projects and governance of geoengineering.

Read more about Natalia and her research