2016 quietly ushered in a new global era in climate and land use

Future historians may look back at 2016 as a year that marked a significant shift in the land sector, leading to the acceleration of carbon sequestration around the world. It confirmed and widened the opportunities for countries to sequester carbon through better management of forests, croplands, pastures, and wetlands, while adding to the urgency of this opportunity as a key element of our efforts to prevent disruptive climate change. Fortunately, many countries have begun to take action at a large scale, and others are learning from their examples. At the same time, new resources to spur sequestration are being mobilized at an unprecedented scale. Although the year might be characterized as one of preparation and cultivation, rather than tangible, high-profile outcomes, the seeds of 2016 promise to bear significant fruit in the years ahead.


Global momentum on enhancing forest carbon is unleashed

After years of negotiations, the global climate community has aligned behind efforts to protect and restore forests, which have enormous potential to remove carbon from the atmosphere. Building on initiatives like the Bonn Challenge, the Warsaw Framework for REDD+, and the New York Declaration on Forests, 2015 concluded with worldwide consensus in the Paris Agreement that “Parties [to the Agreement] should take action to conserve and enhance, as appropriate, sinks and reservoirs of greenhouse gases,” including “biomass, forests and oceans as well as other terrestrial, coastal and marine ecosystems.” In 2016, we saw many countries begin to act on this commitment, individually and collectively, with a proliferation of new plans and policies, fueled by growing investments and practical science. More than 120 countries included forests in their commitments, with activities ranging from afforestation in Afghanistan to sustainable forest management in Zambia.

Many countries were already taking action toward reducing emissions from deforestation and enhancing forest carbon sinks, and 2016 gave them an opportunity to secure the gains they had made. For example, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, and Malaysia have each built a solid foundation for action in forests, by 1) developing monitoring systems that can track fluctuations in emissions from forests, 2) initiating processes for consultation with stakeholders, and 3) establishing official baselines for tracking progress, which have been reviewed by international experts. In 2016, we saw further progress, with nearly a dozen countries submitting forest baselines for formal review – as well as development of recommendations for how to make this process more accessible and streamlined, generated by an expert dialogue in which I played a role as a facilitator and co-author. These baselines and the associated accounting systems, used to track progress, are crucial early steps that set the stage for forest countries to secure financial support and implement policies that can build up forest carbon.  

  Experts met in Bonn in 2016 to discuss recommendations about constructing and reviewing baselines for forest emissions and sequestration. Source: Jason Funk

Experts met in Bonn in 2016 to discuss recommendations about constructing and reviewing baselines for forest emissions and sequestration. Source: Jason Funk

A number of countries stepped forward to support such efforts, often using dedicated multilateral funds designed specifically for this purpose. For instance, 14 countries, plus the European Commission and two independent organizations, have committed $1.1 billion to the Forest Carbon Partnership Facility, which in turn has leveraged at least one dollar of additional investment for every dollar it has allocated to the 19 countries in its pipeline of large-scale forest programs. Contributions like these will be directed toward the priorities set by countries in their own commitments, including forests and agriculture.


Agriculture is poised for transformative changes

Turning to agriculture, we saw nearly 120 countries pledge to address emissions from agriculture, often through measures that can pull carbon from the atmosphere and store it in soils. Scientific and technical breakthroughs will need to play a key role to make these pledges a reality. Toward that end, in 2016 the Global Research Alliance on Agricultural Greenhouse Gases continued its work, bringing together researchers and experts from dozens of countries to assemble collaborative research projects and develop best management practices in agriculture, including cropland and soil carbon management. Their work draws upon active research on the practices that can simultaneously sequester carbon, raise yields, and enhance agricultural resilience – some of which is occurring at the 15 research centers of the CGIAR network, through the Global Alliance on Climate-Smart Agriculture, and at dozens of academic institutions around the world.  Such work will be increasingly necessary to sustain the most vulnerable in a world with rising human populations and ongoing impacts of climate change.

  One example of an agriculture project in Haiti demonstrated that farmer livelihoods could improve while boosting carbon sequestration – with the largest benefits coming from watershed reforestation and perennial crop expansion. Source:  CGIAR Info Note

One example of an agriculture project in Haiti demonstrated that farmer livelihoods could improve while boosting carbon sequestration – with the largest benefits coming from watershed reforestation and perennial crop expansion. Source: CGIAR Info Note

Even with these critical inroads, progress will be difficult in agriculture, especially as climate impacts and rising incomes add to the existing pressure to increase productivity. Historically, increases in agricultural productivity have typically been associated with rising emissions and the depletion of soil carbon. However, many farmers in a range of contexts have bucked this trend, finding ways to improve the health of their soils and reduce their use of high-emissions inputs, while gradually improving their livelihoods. This body of practices and techniques is now being recognized as a distinct approach to farming, sometimes labeled “carbon farming,” and its champions are cataloging its characteristics and successes. The widespread adoption of this approach will require -- among other things -- demonstrating its advantages to millions of smallholder farmers and creating transition pathways from current practices to more climate-friendly ones.


2016 was a springboard for the land sector

The year 2016 marked the beginning of a new era for climate and land-use issues. This change has not happened overnight, but has been the result of long-term, dedicated efforts by land managers, researchers, investors, policymakers, and others. Its effects may not be fully realized for some time (or may be interrupted), but the signs point to a significant shift: the incorporation of forest and soil restoration into the climate and development strategies of most countries, the enshrinement of the land sector’s key role in the international climate agreement, the first fruits of coordinated research efforts aimed at integrating climate goals into land management, and the availability of large-scale financial investments to fuel the climate-related benefits of better land management. Each of these factors blossomed in 2016 and in combination, they comprise an unprecedented opportunity for transformative progress. Here at the Center, we plan to add our own efforts to building a new, sustainable paradigm for the land sector – a paradigm that turns carbon into a resource for feeding the world and restoring our precious landscapes. 

COP22 and Carbon Removal Preview

The Center for Carbon Removal team will be in Marrakesh, Morocco to participate in the 22nd annual meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (a.k.a. COP22). Here’s what to expect over the next two weeks of negotiations and side events, and why it is important for the carbon removal field.

Background: Last year’s COP21 meetings gave birth to the historic Paris Agreement (which officially came into force on Nov. 4th). After the Agreement was announced last December, I wrote about why it was a monumental achievement, but also only the first step in a long journey towards reducing emissions and cleaning up excess CO2 from the sky. A recent report from the UNEP reinforces this finding: the Paris Agreement provides a good framework and first step, but much more more action is needed to make the goals laid out in Paris a reality.

 The 2016 UNEP Emissions Gap Report shows that the Paris Agreement framework will need to inspire much greater climate action than currently pledges by participating countries in order to meet the climate targets the Agreement lays out.

The 2016 UNEP Emissions Gap Report shows that the Paris Agreement framework will need to inspire much greater climate action than currently pledges by participating countries in order to meet the climate targets the Agreement lays out.

Expect incremental steps at Marrakesh, which can have critical ramifications for carbon removal in the long-term. Over the past year, we have seen a number of incremental actions related to carbon removal, and it is likely that the COP22 negotiations will continue to iron out details left unfinished last year in Paris. The Carbon Brief has a good recap of many of the key issues on the negotiating table, including accounting, financing, and transparency. Carbon removal, however, is notably absent from this list of what is likely to keep the diplomats busy at COP22. While carbon removal will likely remain under the radar until the IPCC issues its report on the 1.5C temperature limit and efforts from the National Academies study on a carbon removal research agenda start to make it clear exactly what research priorities need tackling, the few COP negotiations will likely have significant ramifications for carbon removal solutions in the future. Most immediately, the COP negotiations can impact carbon removal through...

Agriculture and Forestry: A big area where are might see some real progress related to carbon removal at COP22 is in the agriculture and forestry sector. This blog from CIFOR does a great job of summarizing some of the key opportunities that international actors can influence around REDD+, financing landscape restoration and resilience, and Climate Smart Agriculture movement. Ensuring that land use conversations include discussion about how to measure and incentivize carbon sequestration in soils and biomass can help encourage such practices around the world.

Innovation and Carbon Capture Utilization and Storage (CCUS): Like the Paris Agreement Mission Innovation also turns 1 year old in Marrakesh. As more details get ironed out around Mission Innovation, large amounts of funding could become available for CCUS approaches that offer a pathway to large-scale carbon removal in the industrial sector in the future. There will likely be more CCUS-related activity this year at the COP than their have been in years past. For example, the launch of the Global CO2 Initiative CCUS roadmap, as well as a handful of events organized by the Global CCS Institute will build upon the launch of the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative (OGCI) last week.

Businesses and sub-nationals continuing play a prominent role: While civil society has long played a major role in COP activities, multi-national companies and elected officials from state and local governments pushed national-level politicians to take aggressive action at COP21. Events such as the Low Emissions Solutions Conference offer opportunities for these actors to continue to push the national-level conversation towards more climate action.

Want to keep up to date on what’s happening at COP22? Stay tuned here as the CCR team will be on the ground in Morocco and sharing updates on Twitter and via the blog.





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.

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?" 

Notes from Paris: COP21 initial impressions

Day 2 of COP21 is almost in the books here in Paris, and there's lots of good news to report.

First Impressions:

The show of support for climate action here in Paris is massive. Physically, the Le Bourget conference area where the COP meetings are taking place is enormous, and is filled with elaborate booths and displays from governments, NGOs, and companies. On day 1, around 150 heads to state assembled in Le Bourget to express their support for climate action--reportedly the largest gathering of heads of state ever. The rhetoric of these leaders has been unanimously powerful: "A once in a thousand year opportunity" remarked a official from the Chinese delegation earlier this evening at a side event. In and around Paris, there are numerous other climate-related workshops, art displays, protests, and other events hosted by businesses, universities, and NGOs -- I haven't heard of a single event where the message was against climate action. Everyone assembled is united in the desire and urgency for a positive outcome for these talks.

What, exactly, success is supposed to look like is much harder for me to figure out. Many of the delegation officials and NGO observers that I've spoken to are well aware that there is a large "emissions gap" from the actions we need to take to meet our stated 2C (let alone 1.5C) warming goal. They seem satisfied with this gap so long as the negotiations produce a mechanism to ratchet up commitments over time.

Why, exactly, the community seems largely to believe that a ratchet mechanism is plausible but steeper emissions commitments today are not remains unclear to me. The best explanation that I can think of is that multilateral action of any kind moves very slowly, and is built on trust developed through incremental action. Along the lines of Brad Plumer's great piece, all of the steps on display here in Paris show incremental progress towards building trust, which is all Paris really needs to achieve. Take the bilateral actions, the commitments from billionaires, the rhetoric (and presence) of heads of state, and non-state progress (with California a clear leader in this category) featured at COP21: it shows that real agreements are happening now, and greater action is possible in the future. Whether it is reasonable to think that this approach will produce the future action needed to close the emissions gap is a mystery to me, but there is little questioning going on here at COP21 whether this strategy is the best course of action for the negotiation.

So where, exactly, does that leave negative emissions? In urgent demand. If this multi-lateral strategy moves more slowly than is needed to curtail climate change, we will need negative emissions solutions--given how long it is likely to take for them to develop, it is urgent that we get started on this topic now. 

And there is growing talk of action on negative emissions, though it is still very below-the-radar in the mainstream conversation. For example, today was a big day for agriculture announcements related to carbon sequestration. There are also a number of forestry projects with sequestration potential on display, including the Great Green Wall project in Africa. And the role of bioenergy+CCS came up during one of the only officially-accredited events to focus on CCS. At the 2C Investing Initiative side event in downtown Paris yesterday, Ottmar Edenhofer even called out negative emissions technologies as being a key R&D priority today.

Moving forward

A lot more action still lies ahead here in Paris over the next few days -- and more updates to come once everything starts to become more clear. Until then, a few photos from the last few days:

 The organizers have gone all out for the COP21 meetings -- a mini Eiffel Tower marks the end of the negotiations halls.

The organizers have gone all out for the COP21 meetings -- a mini Eiffel Tower marks the end of the negotiations halls.

 Agroforestry offers myriad potential benefits, including carbon sequestration.

Agroforestry offers myriad potential benefits, including carbon sequestration.

 The French Government announcing its commitment to the  4 per 1000  initiative for soil carbon restoration.

The French Government announcing its commitment to the 4 per 1000 initiative for soil carbon restoration.

 The optimistic German pavilion

The optimistic German pavilion

 The Great Green Wall project had a virtual reality exhibit to see what the afforestation project in Africa would do for local communities.

The Great Green Wall project had a virtual reality exhibit to see what the afforestation project in Africa would do for local communities.

 Negative emissions was highlighted as a key reason we needed CCS technology by Tim Dixon of the IEAGHG

Negative emissions was highlighted as a key reason we needed CCS technology by Tim Dixon of the IEAGHG

 The US-China collaboration event at the China Pavilion showcased all of the bilateral ties between these two major emitters, with a nod to these bilateral talks paving the way for a multilateral agreement at the end of COP21.

The US-China collaboration event at the China Pavilion showcased all of the bilateral ties between these two major emitters, with a nod to these bilateral talks paving the way for a multilateral agreement at the end of COP21.

Why I'm going to COP21

From Nov. 30 – Dec. 11, the 21st meeting of the Conference of Parties (COP) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) will take place in Paris. The primary purpose of this meeting will be to craft a legally-binding accord to curtail climate change and its effects (The Carbon Brief has a great visualization of the actual text up for negotiation). But there are lots of other climate-related events happening in Paris over the coming two weeks, and I'll be headed there to see how the conversation at both the official and unofficial events reflects the growing importance of carbon removal solutions (i.e. "negative emissions" technologies capable of cleaning up excess carbon dioxide that has accumulated in the atmosphere).

Expectations for a climate accord. The primary reason for the COP21 meetings may be to agree on an internationally-binding climate agreement, but that's not the main reason I'll be headed to Paris. We already know that whatever deal is reached in Paris will not be the endgame for curtailing climate change. A recent UNFCCC report analyzed all of the national climate action plans submitted in advance of COP21, and found that these commitments are unlikely to reduce global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2030 -- they will only reduce the rate at which GHG emissions are growing. The consequence is that these climate pledges fall far short of our stated climate goal of limiting warming to 2C (3.6F) compared to pre-industrial times. 

What is critical to come out of COP21, then, is a framework for ratcheting up climate action over time, and discussion on what tools will be required to meet these more stringent goals.

The lack of official conversation on carbon removal. The conversation on what tools we will need to meet more stringent goals -- especially carbon removal solutions -- is the primary reason why I'm headed to Paris for the climate talks. Unfortunately, carbon removal appears to be quite under the radar in the official conversation at COP21. Take the officially accredited side events as well as the activities at the Climate Generations area at COP21 site: of the hundreds of events planned, not a single one is dedicated to discussing the role of carbon removal in meeting future climate goals. To be fair, there are a few carbon removal related events (such as discussion on carbon capture and storage, and on soil carbon sequestration) that could discuss the link to negative emissions, but any link to negative emissions is not clear from these events' descriptions.

The omission of carbon removal from the officially-accredited conversation at COP21 is a major gap in the international climate change discussion. Around 90% of the scenarios in the IPCC that are consistent with 2C of warming show net-negative emissions globally by the end of the century, and massive deployments of negative-emissions energy systems are projected to be deployed in only a few decades in many of the aggressive decarbonization scenarios. To not discuss the challenges associated with large-scale carbon removal systems is a big omission, to say the least.

Where carbon removal conversation is happening at COP21.

I am excited that a number of unofficial events will be bringing light to the important issues surrounding carbon removal. I will be speaking at a panel discussion hosted by the NGO Bellona on the role of  bioenergy+CCS in meeting negative emissions goals on Dec. 10th. And lots of others, such as the XPRIZE Foundation, the Virgin Earth Challenge, Project Drawdown, and All Power Labs, will be in town to share the progress they are making on their carbon management efforts. I also hope to attend many of the other events to help share the story of carbon removal, and to help build the necessary industry and policy support to catalyze action to develop carbon removal solutions. 


Have an event related to carbon removal at COP21 I should check out? Leave the details in the comments and I’ll do my best to attend and spread the word via our social media!

Recap: 6th Carbon Sequestration Leadership Forum Ministerial Meeting

The Center for Carbon Removal just returned from presenting at the Carbon Sequestration Leadership Forum (CSLF) Ministerial meetings in Riyadh. We went to the meetings to encourage the CSLF members to widen their focus to include carbon removal. In the process we got great feedback and learned a lot of interesting things about the state of the carbon capture and storage (CCS) field. The recap below delves into the key details and takeaways from the meetings.

What is the CSLF?

The Carbon Sequestration Leadership Forum (CSLF) is a consortium of energy ministers from 25 (mostly developed) nations, and a group of stakeholders that includes energy-focused companies and NGOs. The CSLF’s mission is to foster the development of carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies for the energy and industrial sector—that is, technologies that separate CO2 from the exhaust streams of power plants and other manufacturing facilities, and then store the resulting CO2 deep underground in impermeable rock formations. The CSLF’s technical and policy working groups meet semi-annually to share best practices and develop recommendations for energy ministers, who gather every two years to share updates. The US chairs the Forum, and has played a large role in the organization since its formation in 2003.


What was the CSLF meeting that just took place from Nov. 1-5 in Riyadh?

The Riyadh meetings were the 6th ministerial-level gathering of the CSLF, bringing in high-ranking energy and climate change officials from the CSLF member nations, as well as business and NGO experts in CCS that contributed to Policy, Technology, and Stakeholder working group meetings. The US Secretary of Energy co-chaired the event with the Minister of Petroleum and Natural Resources from Saudi Arabia. Major NGOs and companies that attended included:

Why was this CSLF Ministerial meeting important?

The CSLF Ministerial meetings help set the direction for research and policy priorities related to CCS around the globe. Energy ministers—as well as the major energy companies, government research units, and NGOs that participated in this meeting—have significant power to shape national and international action to develop CCS technologies. With mounting evidence that CCS will provide a critical tool to not just stop emissions, but to also clean up carbon that has accumulated in the atmosphere, it is increasingly urgent that the CCS community get the support it needs to develop swiftly and effectively.

How did the conversation at the meetings relate to carbon removal?

The CSLF meeting provided interesting insight into the zeitgeist among influential energy ministers, companies, and NGOs about the role that CCS—and fossil fuel use more generally—will play in a world increasingly committed to curtailing climate change.

To start, nearly all of the CSLF meeting participants were bullish on the outlook for fossil fuel consumption, expressing the view that fossil use would increase over the next several decades due to a combination of demand factors (e.g. population and economic growth) and supply factors (e.g. lack of cost-competitive renewable energy). While many outside the CSLF group do not see prolonged fossil energy use as an inevitability, that opposing viewpoint was not voiced at this CSLF meeting.

In addition, the meeting participants voiced a very narrow conception of “carbon sequestration” that was almost entirely confined to technologies that capture CO2 emissions from fossil fuel use coupled with underground geologic CO2 storage—and did not include other carbon removal approaches. This narrow interpretation of the term “carbon sequestration” is striking, as a much broader set of technologies and processes hold potential to capture and store carbon from the atmosphere, including:

  • In the energy sector: CO2 capture from non-fossil fuel sources, including bioenergy and ambient air; and storage via utilization in building materials
  • And outside the energy sector: Biological CO2 capture via photosynthesis and storage in ecosystems (e.g. forests, grasslands, wetlands, oceans) and/or agricultural lands (e.g. soils, biomass); and chemical CO2 capture via enhanced weathering of rocks that natural react (albeit quite slowly) with CO2 in the air.

The bottom line is that, in this influential community, the link between CCS via fossil energy and geological storage and CCS via other carbon removal approaches is largely non-existent.

How does the "CCS = fossil energy" paradigm impede the development of CCS systems?

The participants in the CSLF meetings repeatedly stressed that the problems facing CCS systems are not technological in nature, as the major components of CCS systems have been commercialized over decades of related fossil fuel refining and enhanced oil recovery activities. Instead, the CCS field faces a political problem: there are scant markets and government programs to support CCS projects.

 There was plenty of space at the CLSF Stakeholder table for more voices thinking about carbon sequestration beyond systems related to fossil energy with geologic capture.

There was plenty of space at the CLSF Stakeholder table for more voices thinking about carbon sequestration beyond systems related to fossil energy with geologic capture.

While there was considerable discussion of potential policy, regulatory, and communication tactics that could help build support for the CCS field,  there was no discussion of fundamentally re-framing the conception of CCS to one of “zero- and negative-emission energy (and non-energy) sector technologies.” Such a re-framing could expand CSLF stakeholders and advocates, bringing much needed support for CCS of all kinds. And while I'm proud to report that the CSLF stakeholders unanimously adopted the Center's recommendation to explore opportunities for expanding the definition of "CCS" to include non-fossil fuel sources, we still have a long way to go to make a broader, coordinated "carbon sequestration" discussion a reality.

Recap: Oxford Conference on Carbon Removal

Background: The Oxford Martin School convened a “Greenhouse Gas Removal Conference” over the three days spanning September, 30 to October 2, 2015. Around 100 people from academia, industry, and NGOs attended to share updates on promising carbon removal research and innovation, and to discuss strategies for the field to gain the policy support it needs to flourish. Being one of, if not the only, conference dedicated to the concept of carbon removal, the event provided a good look into the state of the carbon removal field today. Here’s are the three most important things I took away from the event:

  Researchers from across the world gathered in Oxford for the Greenhouse Gas Removal Conference hosted by the Oxford Martin School.

Researchers from across the world gathered in Oxford for the Greenhouse Gas Removal Conference hosted by the Oxford Martin School.

1. Research and development of carbon removal solutions is progressing in a number of the carbon removal fields. For one, there was encouraging data presented by the community of researchers that are investigating ways to enhance the natural ability of silicate minerals to sequester carbon directly from the air. While there still were a number of presentations that relied on back-of-the-envelope calculations to suggest the potential of this technique for carbon removal, work such as that by Dutch researcher Francesc Montserrat is staring to show real laboratory-scale enhanced weathering processes actually doing what the scientists have suggested they will do.

In addition, the direct air capture (DAC) field is commercializing rapidly. Climeworks announced closing a commercial sales contract on a 1,000 t/yr plant in Germany, Carbon Engineering talked about getting close to inking commercial off-take contracts for solar fuels; Global Thermostat showed calculations showing how they could get below the $50/t price point for DAC CO2. The big caveat here is that DAC developers aren’t focusing on carbon removal in the short-term, as the markets for DAC sequestration aren't large enough. That said, many of the practitioners in the DAC companies that I spoke with expressed confidence that as soon as carbon prices (or other mechanisms for supporting carbon sequestration) rise considerably, DAC companies will have a clear path to delivering net-negative carbon emissions.

2. But there are still numerous uncertainties surrounding all of the carbon removal solutions, particularly around the sustainable scale potential. Biosequestration (e.g. reforestation, soil carbon sequestration, bioenergy with carbon capture and storage) still remains a highly uncertain prospect for carbon removal. Guy Lomax from the Nature Conservancy shared details of his most recent analysis that estimated that such biosequestration approaches are likely quite large, but not enormous – "you can't sequester the geosphere in the biosphere" was the quote that resonated the most with me from his talk. On the bioenergy with carbon capture front, scientists from Greenpeace and from DAC company Carbon Engineering alike shared the view that the sustainable biomass potential is likely constrained significantly,given the indirect land use considerations and potential competition for land with food crops. This view on biomass constraints doesn't seem to be shared with the climate modeling community: Andy Wiltshire from the UK Met Office shared that the average build out of bioenergy with carbon capture in modeling scenarios sequesters over 160 billion tons of carbon dioxide over the next century (equivalent to four times current emission levels today) -- which would involve bioenergy production on land larger than all of India.

 Tim Kruger moderates a panel discussion on biological carbon sinks at the Oxford Greenhouse Gas Removal Conference.

Tim Kruger moderates a panel discussion on biological carbon sinks at the Oxford Greenhouse Gas Removal Conference.

3. The policy and governance conversation around carbon removal is fairly advanced – likely much further advanced than the actual solutions are themselves. This is both a good and bad thing. On the one hand, these discussions are critical for thinking through potential future impacts of carbon removal and how to provide incentives to scale up carbon removal solutions in an appropriate and ethical manner. On the other hand, because there are still so many uncertainties as to which solutions are even going to be viable, these discussions are founded on numerous hypothetical situations and assumptions, making it difficult to extract the most relevant conclusions. This is reflected most in the conversations where carbon removal was still conflated with solar geoengineering, much to the detriment of the overall conversation.

Conclusion: The impact of events like this will hopefully be to stimulate further research and collaboration – building the networks necessary for growth of the field. What’s needed now is to expand the conversation to involve new voices, scale up research, and get deployments happening. To this point, my favorite presentations was from Ned Garnett from the UK's Natural Environment Research Council, who shared his advice on how to get this research funded, telling the audience:

  • Don’t just identify the problem, identify the innovative carbon removal research needed to address the problem;
  • Identify any international development angles to carbon removal, as these are seen as higher priority in funders' minds today;
  • Find independent forums to deliver advice; and 
  • It is critical to have a competitive process for awarding research grants in this field

Bottom line: a very interesting three days of carbon removal conversation in Oxford, and I look forward to more conferences in the future to continue to track the progress of the field and see how it grows over time.


What "Deep Decarbonization" Tells us about Carbon Removal

Here's a common question we hear at the Center for Carbon Removal: if it is technically feasible to prevent climate change without carbon removal (i.e. climate solutions capable of removing and sequestering carbon dioxide that has accumulated in the atmosphere), why bother investing any time and capital to develop carbon removal solutions?

This is the exact question begged by the findings of the Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project (DDPP), a collaboration among climate and energy experts from 16 countries representing around 75% of global greenhouse gas emissions. The recently-released 2015 DDPP synthesis report found that:

  1. "Deep decarbonization of today’s highest emitting economies is technically achievable and can accommodate expected economic and population growth." In other words, it is possible to invest in the clean energy technologies that would prevent global mean temperatures from rising more than 2C by 2050.
  2. "All deep decarbonization pathways incorporate “three pillars” of energy system transformation: energy efficiency and conservation, decarbonizing electricity and fuels, and switching end uses to low-carbon supplies." That is, carbon removal solutions are not included in the DDPP projections.
  3. "Deep decarbonization accommodates the energy services needed to meet countries’ economic growth targets and social priorities."
 The DDPP analysis shows that achieving deep decarbonization by 2050 is possible without carbon removal, but it doesn't argue against developing carbon removal solutions in parallel. 

The DDPP analysis shows that achieving deep decarbonization by 2050 is possible without carbon removal, but it doesn't argue against developing carbon removal solutions in parallel. 

Just because it is possible to achieve deep decarbonization without carbon removal solutions, however, doesn't mean that it still isn't highly valuable to develop carbon removal solutions today. Here's a few reasons why:

  • The limit used to define "dangerous climate change" in the DDPP analysis may be too high. The DDPP analysis defines dangerous climate change as a mean global temperature increase of 2C compared to pre-industrial averages. However, many leading climate experts have suggested that 1.5C is a more reasonable limit. Using a limit lower than 2C requires even more aggressive decarbonization, which in turn makes carbon removal solutions increasingly important. It's also worth noting that whatever temperature limit the international community eventually defines as acceptable, it is a limit, not a goal—it is always best to stay as far below that limit as possible, and carbon removal can only help with that effort.
  • Even though deep decarbonization is technically feasible, political constraints may prevent decarbonization from happening as quickly as is needed. As David Roberts asked in his recent Vox article, "if [curtailing climate change] makes so much economic sense, why are we not [curtailing it]? Why, when study after study has found that we ought to be acting aggressively to transition to clean energy, does actual movement in that direction remain tentative, halting, incremental, and insufficient?" The answer is: politics. If society proves unable to overcome the political constituencies allied against decarbonization, then decarbonization is likely to proceed too slowly to prevent temperature increases above 2C. In this event, carbon removal solutions will be necessary to reduce atmospheric CO2 concentrations back to acceptable levels. And if carbon removal solutions take decades to become commercially viable, then research and development efforts have to begin now to ensure these solutions are ready in the future when they might be necessary.
  • Carbon removal solutions may help build political will to decarbonize more quickly. The more carbon removal solutions that exist, the more tools companies and governments have for fighting climate change. Developing carbon removal solutions, then, can enable greater political commitments to deep decarbonization—even if carbon removal solutions only become a small portion of the overall effort to decarbonize.

Taken collectively, these reasons make a strong case to invest in developing carbon removal solutions today alongside GHG emission abatement approaches today, even though carbon removal isn't technically necessary for deep decarbonization. 

Bonus section for Direct Air Capture month: The DDPP analysis has interesting implications for the direct air capture (DAC) field. The large-scale build out of intermittent renewable generation resources (listed as one of the three "pillars" of the DDPP analysis) holds the potential to create market conditions where DAC systems could thrive. Because DAC systems can turn on and off relatively quickly, they hold the potential to utilize inexpensive energy generated in peak sun/wind periods, while avoiding expensive energy charges during peak demand periods by pausing operation, reducing their overall operating costs substantially. 

INDC metrics: the need for measuring climate pledges on “net”

The road to Paris is filled with hope and anticipation as nations continue to submit their intended nationally determined contributions (INDCs) for the upcoming United Nations Framework on Climate Change (UNFCCC) meetings in Paris. So far, there has been significant press coverage about which countries have and have not submitted INDCs, and the strength of each pledge. Much of this coverage suggests that these UNFCCC negotiations will result in a meaningful global commitment to fight climate change. Largely missing from this coverage, however, is a discussion about the structure of the INDCs that each country has submitted. More specifically, there has been little coverage on how INDCs are measured, particularly whether emission reductions are on “net” (e.g. include carbon sequestration / removal efforts). This post explores the importance of communicating net reductions in INDCs, especially when thinking about developing carbon removal solutions.  

Background: What’s in an INDC?

INDCs are submitted as a packet of commitments, explaining each individual country’s climate mitigation and adaptation strategies. However, only the main INDC metrics, which are measured in absolute reductions from a base year or emissions intensity of GDP, are typically explained and analyzed by the media. Thus, it is especially vital that these main INDC metrics clearly envelop all verifiable climate action listed in the full INDC, including carbon removal/sequestration efforts.

 Image Credit: Wikia

Image Credit: Wikia

Case study: Carbon Sequestration in China’s INDC

Incorporating all relevant climate commitments into a single main metric for an INDC can be challenging. Take China’s INDC proposal, for example. In addition to its main goal of lowering the carbon intensity of its GDP by 60% to 65% below 2005 levels by 2030, China also committed to carbon sequestration by planning to expand forest carbon stocks by 4.5 billion cubic meters from 2005 levels. According to the World Resources Institute, this amounts to increasing forest cover by 124 - 247 million acres, creating a natural carbon sink with the capacity to sequester one gigaton of carbon per year. Although this forestry commitment is a significant contribution to China’s mitigation efforts (yes, the IPCC defines such carbon removal techniques as “mitigation”), this reforestation project is not captured by the main metric of China’s INDC (the GDP carbon-intensity target), potentially leading observers to think China’s commitments are weaker than they truly are.

Moving towards “net” INDCs

Since the main metric of the INDC does not encompass all relevant climate action, commitments can appear unrepresentative. This, then, is problematic because the success of UNFCCC negotiations hinges on the collective strength of climate commitments.  While no metric will be perfect, measuring commitments on “net”, taking into consideration both emissions put into the atmosphere (or lack there of) and legacy carbon emissions removed, can more accurately reflect all actions taken to reduce the threat of climate change. Such a metric could encourage participation from developing countries who can bolster action through these carbon sequestration projects without sacrificing growth.

Thinking in “net” terms can encourage countries to develop and deploy more carbon removal strategies, and the more climate solutions we have, the more action we will be able to take to curtail climate change. Setting INDCs in “net terms” can help capture all of the action that countries are pledging to take to fight climate change. It is critical to provide the correct incentives for countries to take all of the action they can to mitigate climate change, and to reflect accurately these commitments in international negotiations.


Silver Linings, Not Silver Bullets

Many carbon removal techniques have benefits beyond storing carbon that touch upon health, agricultural vitality, and environmental benefits. These benefits aid in the implementation of carbon removal techniques and help to create more sustainable lifestyles.

Carbon Budget Overshoot and the Implications for the Carbon Dioxide Removal Field

This past November, the UNEP released the 2014 edition of their annual "Emissions Gap Report," which highlighted the important role that carbon dioxide removal ("CDR") solutions are likely to play in preventing climate change. In particular, the UNEP report finds that the global economy has come precariously close to going "over-budget" on CO2 emissions -- that is, humans are on track to emit more CO2 into the atmosphere than the planet can handle without warming significantly. If we do overshoot our carbon "budget" in the next several decades, the only way to return atmospheric CO2 concentrations to levels that avoid climate change will be to deploy large-scale CDR projects capable of generating net "negative" emissions:

UNEP Gap Report 1
UNEP Gap Report 1

Above: the blue-shaded regions of the graphs from the UNEP Emissions Gap Report 2014 show that we are on track to overshoot the "budget" of carbon we can emit into the atmosphere without triggering significant climate change.  The only way to reduce CO2 levels back under "budget" in these scenarios is to deploy large-scale CDR projects (orange-shaded regions).

The UNEP report notes a large caveat associated with these overshoot scenarios, namely that:

"although scenarios routinely assume a substantial amount of global negative emissions, the feasibility of these assumptions still needs to be explored."

To put this another way, many overshoot scenarios assume large-scale CDR deployments, but we currently do not have any CDR technologies that are proven in their ability to remove large amounts of CO2 from the atmosphere.

In many regards, planning to overshoot our carbon budget before developing scaleable CDR solutions is like planning to jump out of a plane before learning how to work a parachute: it is possible to figure out how to operate a parachute on the way down, but it is much more prudent to jump only after learning how to operate it.

And the UNEP report repeatedly advises readers of the benefits of avoiding overshoot scenarios if possible:

"taking more action now [to reduce GHG emissions] reduces the need for taking more extreme action later to stay within the 2 °C limit."


"the quicker emissions are reduced now, the less society will be dependent on negative emissions later"

But the UNEP report also shows that most of the world's governments are ignoring this advice, and are failing to plan for large enough emission reductions to prevent climate change without overshooting carbon budgets:

UNEP Gap Report 2
UNEP Gap Report 2

Above: the projected emissions gap in 2030 in the UNEP report shows that countries are not planning to make the necessary GHG emissions reductions to avoid overshooting our carbon "budget", meaning that large-scale CDR would be necessary to fill the gap and prevent climate change.

So with our carbon "budget" rapidly dwindling, it is increasingly clear that now is the time to accelerate both GHG emissions reduction activities and research and development of CDR solutions. In other words, we are about to reach the edge of our carbon budget, so we have no time to lose in developing a "CDR parachute..."

Lima COP Negotiations Recap: Interesting Implications for the CDR Field

The COP 20 meetings in Lima have officially come to a close, and reactions to the outcomes from the negotiations are mixed.

Above: UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon at Lima COP Negotiations

On the bright side, some commentators are still more optimistic than ever that a meaningful deal will be reached in the next COP negotiations in Paris in 2015. This optimism springs from a proposed plan to have individual nations to develop their own emission-reduction commitments, rather than have negotiators develop a legally binding carbon “budget” (as was attempted in previous COP negotiations). The fact that the US Congress would not need to approve such “bottom up” emission reduction plan gives hope that the US can be part of a comprehensive global treaty next year in Paris.

Todd Stern

Above: Todd Stern speaking at Lima COP 20 negotiations

On the other hand, some commentators are worried that “peer pressure” isn’t going to be enough to get countries to propose meaningful emission reduction targets, and that the Paris negotiations will result in an agreement that won't actually prevent climate change.

How the continued negotiations play out over the next year will have important implications for the carbon dioxide removal ("CDR") field. In an encouraging sign, some options in the draft Lima text include language arguing that the world should aim for net zero emissions by 2050 and/or net negative emissions by 2100. This language closely echoes the findings of the latest IPCC report, and implies the need for large-scale CDR by midcentury. For this to actually happen, individual nation's commitments will need to include proposals for large-scale CDR projects -- it will be interesting to see how nations discuss their eventual plans for incorporating negative emissions into their reduction targets.

In addition, it will be interesting to see how CDR is discussed in the event that the proposed emission targets by each nation do not add up to an amount needed to prevent climate change. CDR will only grow in importance as countries delay action on overall GHG emission mitigation, and CDR could potentially gain more exposure if the negotiations in Paris result in outcomes that fail to meet our hopes.