6 things I learned at COP21 about carbon removal

It’s official: COP21 is in the books, and the Paris Agreement is the world’s new international framework for curtailing climate change. There has been lots of great analysis on what’s in the deal and what it means for our prospects for fighting climate. But what, specifically, are the implications of this deal for carbon removal (i.e. “negative emissions”) solutions? Below are six things I learned at COP21 about carbon removal.

1. UN negotiators understand the magnitude of the climate change problem, and have left space for carbon removal to contribute to climate action in the future. The final text coming out of Paris recognizes the need to a) stay “well below 2C” warming, b) to peak emissions “as soon as possible,” and c) “balance” carbon emissions and “removals by sinks in the second half of this century.” All of these goals are in line with the scientific consensus of what’s needed to curtail climate change. The inclusion of carbon sinks as part of the “balancing” language (an ambiguous term that most commentators are interpreting as synonymous with “net-zero” emissions) paves a pathway for a wide-range of carbon removal solutions to contribute to compliance with the agreement in the future.

International climate negotiators understand the magnitude and urgency of the climate change challenge.

International climate negotiators understand the magnitude and urgency of the climate change challenge.

2. The “ratchet” approach of the Paris Agreement makes it even more urgent to develop carbon removal solutions. The text of the Paris Agreement recognizes that current national climate commitments are not strong enough to meet the 2C goal, let alone the 1.5C aspiration identified in the text. To address this issue, the text includes mechanisms for ratcheting up the ambition of national climate commitments over time. To enable increased ambition in the future, it will be critical for the world to invest in low-carbon and carbon removal technologies to make deeper emissions reductions more politically feasible. Carbon removal solutions can also provide an insurance policy in the event that we do not ratchet up climate commitments as quickly as is needed…

At a side event at COP21 in Paris, leading IPCC scientist Ottmar Edenhofer argues that R&D for carbon removal should be a key priority of governments across the world

At a side event at COP21 in Paris, leading IPCC scientist Ottmar Edenhofer argues that R&D for carbon removal should be a key priority of governments across the world

3. Bilateral and subnational climate actions make local efforts to develop carbon removal solutions critically important.  US-China. Cities for Climate Action. California! These examples of bilateral and subnational climate action were cited again and again at COP21 as key enabling factors for multilateral international cooperation. The central role of bilateral and subnational actors in the climate conversation makes local action to develop carbon removal solutions all the more critical. If local/regional governments can demonstrate success with integrating carbon removal into climate action plans, future COP negotiations can help propagate successful strategies across the globe.

Cities are helping to lead the way on developing aggressive climate action plans.

Cities are helping to lead the way on developing aggressive climate action plans.

4. Carbon removal could really benefit from some civil society love. Hundreds of observer NGOs participated at COP21, and every group I saw seemed to be pushing hard for the Paris Agreement to be as ambitious as possible. But when I talked to representatives from environmental NGOs about carbon removal, I frequently got suspicious looks and comments about negative emissions--in particular, about industrial carbon capture and storage (including negative emissions technologies such as bioenergy+CCS and direct air capture). For scientists, industry, and governments to unlock the potential of these industrial carbon removal solutions, they are going to need to understand how these technologies can benefit communities beyond their carbon removal benefits, and engage civil society early on to ensure that carbon removal can become a viable complement to the existing portfolio of climate solutions.

Giant animatronic polar bears should be big supporters of carbon removal, but many environmental NGOs remain very hesitant about the idea of negative emissions solutions.

Giant animatronic polar bears should be big supporters of carbon removal, but many environmental NGOs remain very hesitant about the idea of negative emissions solutions.

5. Business is poised to help drive forward carbon removal solutions. One of my biggest takeaways from COP21: industry is no longer a net impediment to climate action. Today’s corporate climate champions are actually taking meaningful action to fight climate change: 114 companies have committed to science-based climate targets, and companies such as Unilever are demonstrating aggressive climate action and corporate both are not mutually exclusive. Even many corporate climate laggards are calling for carbon pricing. This increased industry engagement creates a big opportunity for carbon removal projects that offer businesses more options for taking aggressive climate action. In particular, terrestrial carbon removal approaches such as landscape restoration and soil carbon sequestration projects gained impressive momentum coming out of Paris, and stand poised to offer businesses cost-effective ways to offset their emissions to zero and below in the near term. To deliver on this promise, it will be critical to ramp up the development of accounting and measurement & verification protocols to ensure that “negative emissions” offsets are as reliable as possible, as businesses need to be assured that their actions will translate into the aggressive climate impacts they seek.

Carbon-negative energy on display at La Galerie of climate solutions for industry at COP21

Carbon-negative energy on display at La Galerie of climate solutions for industry at COP21

6. Communications around how carbon removal fits into the broader climate picture will be critical. The goals laid out in the COP21 agreements are aggressive. And as the Australian Climate Councilor and author Tim Flannery likes to say, the climate is going to get way worse before we see it starting to get better, even though we will be making more climate-smart decisions all the time. Consumers must understand that all of the little decisions they make really will add up to meaningful climate impact,s even if the connection isn't immediately evident. Otherwise, we risk losing the momentum for fighting climate change that we see coming out of Paris. This “morale hazard” is also relevant for carbon removal, where initial demonstration projects will likely prove expensive and challenging. It will be critical for proponents to set expectations appropriately, and make sure carbon removal moves forward as swiftly as possible without over-promising its true potential.

Tim Flannery's "Atmosphere of Hope" hopefully displayed at a talk at the Virgin Management HQ in London.

Tim Flannery's "Atmosphere of Hope" hopefully displayed at a talk at the Virgin Management HQ in London.