Dispatch from COP21: Week 1 Recap

Week 1 is in the books at COP21 in Paris! The first week saw the negotiators make some progress in drafting a climate accord (latest draft of the text), as well as LOTS of side events that drew impressive crowds around a wide range of climate-related topics. Here are my key takeaways from the week’s events related to carbon removal:

Landscapes: the belle of the (COP21-Part-1) ball

I’ve been amazed about how much discussion there has been--and $100M's pledged--over the past week around climate mitigation and adaptation through sustainable land management practices. Agriculture, forestry, ecosystem restoration, and other land use climate strategies have been featured a numerous side events and official announcements, such as:

  • 4 per 1000 Initiative: increasing global levels of soil organic matter by 0.4% per year holds the potential to sequester around 75% of global emissions over the next decades. The 4 per 1000 initiative announced on the second day of the COP by the French Ministry looks to unlock this potential through international research and deployment collaborations, as well as funding for global deployment of soil restoration projects.
  • Agro-ecology/Agro-forestry pledges: as detailed in this recap of the announcements on Agriculture Day at COP21, nations across the developing world are seeing opportunities from holistic agriculture and forestry practices as a economic development, environmental protection, and climate adaptation strategies.
  • Global Landscapes Forum: Overflow crowds filled the Palais de Congres in downtown Paris to hear about a range of forestry, agriculture, and ecosystem conservation and restoration approaches. This event didn't focus directly on carbon sequestration, bi
  • Regenerative Ag Forum: Even the small communities at this event hosted by Project Drawdown and Regeneration International that have been thinking about soil carbon sequestration for years were surprised and excited with how much of a boost COP21 was providing for soil carbon sequestration. 
Agroforestry on display in the Blue Zone at the Le Bourget COP21 site

Agroforestry on display in the Blue Zone at the Le Bourget COP21 site

I've been so surprised at all of the action on this topic because of the enormous elephant in the room when it comes to potential land-based carbon sequestration approaches: measurement, accounting, and verification of that carbon sequestration is HARD. Sequestration permanence, soil carbon storage dynamics, and indirect land-use change all make accounting for biosequestration techniques difficult. With few carbon markets or regulations to provide incentives for implementing this accounting, land restoration and "carbon farming" projects are being funded for other reasons, primarily the co-benefits they offer like sustainable/just economic development opportunities and climate resiliency. 

The "Ratchet" and non-state influence

The COP21 negotiations will not produce commitments to reduce emissions swiftly enough to prevent dangerous climate change. Instead, COP21 is hoping to enshrine modest emissions reduction commitments that nations have already made, as well as a plan to increase—i.e. ratchet up—our ambition for emissions reductions to levels that are sufficient to curtail climate change. The government, industry, and civil society actors engaged in the COP21 process seem to all have bought into this approach. But if we want to actually prevent climate change, we will need to go back to work soon and convince the signatories to any Paris agreement to ratchet up commitments. So has everyone been up to over week 1 at COP21 to make it more likely for national governments to ratchet up commitments in the future? A number of things, including:

Cities represent ~70% of global emissions -- mayors can collectively have a huge impact on ratcheting climate ambition.

Cities represent ~70% of global emissions -- mayors can collectively have a huge impact on ratcheting climate ambition.

Developing carbon removal has largely been missing from the picture... though it certainly offers new ways to help countries increase their climate ambition.

What else is missing?

Many topics have been much further under-the-radar here at COP21 that I would have expected. For one, carbon capture and storage (CCS), biofuels, and nuclear have had relatively little presence. There have been a handful of side events and displays, but no major announcements around commitments. More interesting, civil society seems incredibly skeptical about the potential for any of these techniques—I have heard few calls expressing disappointment in this lack of these big technologies.

AllPowerLabs Bio-CCS display is one of the few exceptions to the "No-CCS" rule at COP21

AllPowerLabs Bio-CCS display is one of the few exceptions to the "No-CCS" rule at COP21

In addition, there has been more excitement around funding innovation for renewables than deployment. India announced a massive solar energy commitment, but the funding commitments have been slow to trickle in for official climate finance vehicles. 

Lastly, carbon pricing is unlikely going to be at the heart of the deal. Bankers, companies, and development groups have called for carbon markets to be central to future climate action. But The World Bank Special Envoy for Climate Change, Rachel Kyte, put it well when she said the carbon-pricing “Dumbledore” is unlikely to appear in the deal that hopefully will emerge next week.

Onward to Week 2

Looking forward to seeing how things evolve over the next week as the negotiations go into crunch time, with tons more official and unofficial side events planned!

Bonus--Favorite moment of the day: Richard Branson's almost Freudian slip at the Sustainia annual awards gala, where he opened by saying he was happy to be "here in Copenhag...Paris."

Spotted at UN climate negotiations: "Un cafe?" or "U.N. cafe?" 

Spotted at UN climate negotiations: "Un cafe?" or "U.N. cafe?"