Your guide to carbon removal at the UN Climate Conference

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Setting the stage for COP23

This year’s meeting of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) will be an important step toward the implementation of the Paris Agreement, due to take effect in 2020. At this year’s annual negotiating session, the country of Fiji will be presiding over the negotiations, though the event will be held in Bonn, Germany. Fiji is known as an outspoken member of the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), a group of vulnerable countries that consistently presses for greater ambition in addressing climate change. Bonn is familiar turf for most climate negotiators, and the recently completed conference center and specially designed venue is well-equipped to support the negotiations. These factors set the stage for an ambitious and smooth-running meeting.

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In this post, I aim to give you a guide to the high points of the meeting, explain where carbon removal (a.k.a. “carbon dioxide removal”, “CDR”, or “negative emissions”) fits into the negotiations, point out some developments that may overshadow the negotiations, and describe how the Center for Carbon Removal (CCR) will be engaged at the COP. Stay tuned to CCR’s newsletter and website for updates on how it all plays out.

What is this meeting about?

This meeting is the 23rd annual meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP) on climate change, so it is one of many steps on the road to a safer climate. This will be the second COP meeting since the Paris Agreement was completed, and countries will be working out the nuts and bolts of that agreement. The structure of the negotiations  mimics the structure of the Paris Agreement, with separate negotiations for each Article of the Agreement occurring in parallel tracks. As each piece nears completion, the separate tracks will be brought together, much in the way that separate assembly lines converge in order to build a complex, interconnected product like a car.

At the heart of the Paris Agreement is a series of interrelated mechanisms that serve as an “engine” to slow and reverse climate change. In a simplified view, these mechanisms can be thought of as consisting of four essential parts: 1) country-level pledges to take action, called Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs); 2) a set of procedures to facilitate cooperation among countries; 3) a standardized way of reporting the outcomes of those actions, called the Transparency Framework; and 4) a process to regularly check collective progress, called the Global Stocktake (GST).

The theory behind the Paris Agreement is that these mechanisms will work together to harness the individual and collective action of countries, driving them toward the goal of keeping global warming well below 2 degrees Celsius. The first step of this process started with the initial round of NDCs pledged in 2015, which countries will begin to implement in 2020. Second, as they begin to take national-level actions, many countries will find it easier and more cost-effective to work together on some activities, such as exchanging technologies or investing in low-carbon solutions. Third, they will use the Transparency Framework to report their progress, allowing everyone to see what is working and not working. And fourth, the Global Stocktake process will then look at overall progress, illuminating areas where more effort is required, or where additional investments can accelerate approaches that are already succeeding. Like the cycles of a 4-stroke engine, this brings the process back around to the starting point; countries will take all of this information and pledge another round of NDCs to take effect in 2025, and the process will begin again. With each cycle, they will reduce overall greenhouse gas emissions and learn a great deal about how they can make their efforts more effective.

This approach builds upon past experience with the Kyoto Protocol and other policies, but as yet it is still untested. Therefore, it is crucial for countries to design these different mechanisms carefully, with an eye toward how they will all come together to function smoothly in the end.

Will carbon removal be part of the negotiations?

“Carbon removal” and “negative emissions” don’t appear anywhere on the formal agenda of the two-week meeting; however, several of the interrelated parts of the agenda could either pave the way or shut the door on negative emissions, depending on the outcomes of the negotiations.

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For example, many countries are including carbon sequestration from the land sector – forests, agriculture, wetlands, etc. – as part of their NDCs. This kind of sequestration has long been recognized by both scientists and policymakers as an effective way to remove carbon from the atmosphere. However, under the Paris Agreement, two different perspectives must be brought together smoothly in order for the land sector to play its essential role.

On the one hand, under the Kyoto Protocol, developed countries tended to take biological sequestration for granted, either automatically counting it towards their pledges or essentially ignoring it in their policies. Neither one of these approaches would give us what we need, which is a set of policies designed to stimulate and promote sequestration in the landscape, through such activities as reforestation, sustainable forest management, and conservation agriculture.  

The other perspective comes primarily from developing countries, where deforestation has been a large source of emissions over the past several decades and a hot-button issue. After a decade of advocacy, these countries succeeded in establishing a set of international policies, incentives, and safeguards to help reach two interlinked goals: 1. reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation, and 2. protect and enhance forests and other biological reservoirs of carbon. This body of work is known as REDD+, and it is enshrined in the Paris Agreement. Countries participating in REDD+ can seek support from international finance mechanisms aimed at supporting action on climate change, bringing much-needed resources to poor and middle-income countries. In practice, much of the focus in REDD+ has been aimed (appropriately) at reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation. Much less attention has been given to supporting sequestration by protecting and enhancing forests. Furthermore, despite several years of discussion, there has been very little tangible progress toward promoting carbon sequestration in agriculture.

These dynamics set up a delicate dance at the negotiations. Developing countries are keen to garner support for their efforts to control deforestation and degradation, but most probably don’t see a clear way to activate carbon sequestration as part of their policies and development planning. Meanwhile, most of the developed countries already feel that sequestration is on cruise control, and doesn’t require much additional attention from them. So in both cases, CCR will be working to bring more attention to the importance of sequestration, in the land sector and beyond.  

What activities at the COP are relevant for carbon removal?

Activities associated with the COP ramp up several days in advance, and several of them are relevant for carbon removal. Several roundtables are scheduled for specific agenda items – these are less formal meetings where civil society (e.g. non-governmental organizations) and country representatives can hear about recent progress or talk about opportunities and concerns. Roundtable discussions about the Transparency Framework, GST, NDCs, and mechanisms for cooperative action will all take place in the days before the COP begins. Hopefully, these roundtables will create momentum and foster a common understanding among the countries, so that the COP itself does not become bogged down in misunderstandings.

Once the COP begins, the main event will be the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Paris Agreement (APA). The agenda of this group will tackle the various pieces of the Paris Agreement in separate tracks, working to build up a set of decisions about how the Agreement will be operationalized and supported once it takes effect in 2020. In addition to the main event, two subsidiary bodies associated with the UNFCCC will also meet to address their own agendas: one focused on scientific and technical issues, the other focused on policy implementation issues.

Beyond the negotiations themselves, the COP provides a rich opportunity for the climate community to share their contributions and make connections. For instance, the COP supports a robust program of side events, often hosted by civil society groups, who share new insights about policy-relevant work. The Center for Carbon Removal will host its own event during the second week of the COP – the only such event explicitly addressing the role of negative emissions in climate policy.

The COP also features a space where business groups, innovators, and other members of the private sector can interact with country negotiators and civil society groups, usually by hosting exhibits, receptions, and other events.

In addition, media are on hand to report about the developments in the meeting, including regularly scheduled press conferences by all types of participants.

What recent developments might impact the dynamics of the COP?

Two recent developments are relevant, both U.S.-focused. First, this will be the first meeting since the Trump Administration announced its intention to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, and I expect the rest of the countries will respond to that announcement, perhaps in dramatic ways. This will create a good deal of ill-will toward the U.S., and the issue could disrupt the progress of the COP.

Second, the recent spate of tragic climate-driven disasters on US soil will certainly receive attention at the COP. The significance of the hurricanes that pounded Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico, as well as the wildfires that devastated parts of California and other states, will not be lost on anyone. Most countries will struggle to understand the disconnect between the obvious impacts of these events and the retrenchment by U.S. policymakers. In some cases, this could allow actions at the state and city levels to step into the policy vacuum and garner more recognition than they would otherwise. The recognition around the world that climate change is worsening the impacts of extreme weather events will spur greater urgency within the negotiations, but the cognitive dissonance coming from the U.S. might act to dissipate that sense of urgency.

What is CCR aiming to achieve at the COP?

CCR brings a fresh and positive message to the COP: the global community has an opportunity to build and utilize a set of carbon removal tools that can accelerate climate mitigation and tamp down the disruptive impacts of climate change faster than emissions reductions alone. Recent science points to greater potential for carbon removal than we had previously realized, if we activate natural climate solutions and protect existing forests. We will be delivering these messages to COP participants through our in-person engagement and a formal side-event.

Carbon removal opportunities will take a great deal of work if we’re going to reach the scale we need to affect the climate system. We can’t afford to delay action or to get bogged down in politics and procedures. At the same time, we need all countries to carefully consider how carbon removal fits with their other priorities  – such as sustainable development, food security, emissions reductions, and building access to new markets – to pave the way for smooth implementation at the right scale. COP 23 is a prime opportunity to elevate these issues on an international stage and accelerate progress. We don’t have any time to lose.