For Carbon Gap, the most exciting developments at COP27 came from the Blue, Green, and Innovation zones. In these more civic, less structured spaces, ideas from around the world came to the fore and gained traction. In parts two and three of this COP retrospective, Eli and Kayla reflect on their experience navigating COP, highlighting areas of progress.
Love or loathe COPs, beyond the often depressingly political negotiations (see our first blog), they are unrivalled opportunities to take the pulse of global climate action and discourse; to learn from people’s lived experience of climate impacts; and to workshop ideas that could make a big difference. COP27 had a record 45,000 attendees registered, which gives you a rough count of just how many ideas get generated, and how many perspectives get shared across cultures, industries, and academic disciplines. At Carbon Gap, where we work to scale up governance structures to regulate and stimulate carbon dioxide removal (CDR) activities, we keep tabs on the subset of ideas related to CDR. Now, two weeks after official talks ended, we shift our analytic lens from negotiations to the civic zones where several CDR developments took place.
But first, a sentimental tangent. One year ago, at COP26, Carbon Gap launched. In Glasgow, we hosted a gathering of leading carbon removal thinkers, technologists, and researchers to co-develop a vision for 2030. Beyond our event and a few others, discussion of CDR at COP26 was relatively ad hoc and nascent.
COP27 saw an order-of-magnitude increase in the quantity and quality of carbon removal activity. This year, in addition to partaking in various Blue Zone events and hosting our own event, we enjoyed being part of the growing ecosystem of organisations collectively driving, deepening, and diversifying CDR discourse. Together with the UN Climate Change High-Level Champions Team and Rethinking Removals (and with the support of many more implementing partners), Carbon Gap co-founded [email protected], an initiative to consolidate all carbon removal activities at COP27 under one banner. The website and virtual platform serve as a one-stop shop for all things CDR, listing in-person and online events and centralising publications released during the conference. [email protected] also funded climate activists from the Global South working on CDR to attend the conference. Skimming the seventy-two listed events, it’s striking to see just how many topics and angles were explored, from CDR in “cli-fi” to carbon removal policy developments and ethics research. The Virtual Pavilion also hosted daily interviews, featuring Carbon Gap alongside many other expert voices.
So, given all this activity around carbon removal at COP27, what stands out in retrospect? There are the obvious developments (new legislative proposals and funding announcements) and then there are the more subtle advancements that are more visceral than quantifiable (shifts in discourse and the platforming of under-represented perspectives). We’ll discuss the former category in this blog and the latter in the next.
During COP27, three legislative propositions were announced in support of CDR by politicians based in Luxembourg and the United States. MP Deputy Sven Clement submitted new legislation titled “The Luxembourg Negative Emissions Tariff” to the Luxembourg parliament. The goal of this tariff is to add financial muscle to local and global efforts to scale up CDR. Its design is inspired by Germany’s feed-in tariffs that aimed to boost innovation of renewable energy technologies by making the sector more financially viable and profitable. Co-designed by groups of experts convened by the Open Air Collective with input from Carbon Gap and others, this bill is the first of its kind worldwide, and we will follow its progress closely in the upcoming year.
In the United States, Massachusetts State Senate Majority Leader Cynthia Stone Creem and California State Senator Josh Becker announced proposals to introduce the Massachusetts Carbon Dioxide Removal Leadership Act and the California Carbon Dioxide Removal Market Development Act, respectively. Both bills propose to meet state-wide net zero targets through a ratio of 85% emission reductions and 15% negative emissions. This is exactly the kind of detailed breakdown of net zero plans that Carbon Gap advocates for among European states and at the EU level, especially with regards to countries’ Nationally Determined Contributions under the Paris Agreement. Inspired by legislation proposed in New York State almost one year ago, the Massachusetts bill is framed as a “jobs bill” with environmental justice at its core, engendering extensive engagement with communities disproportionately impacted by climate change. Similarly, the California bill sets out to stimulate technological innovation, with some finance reserved for in-state CDR developers and a business plan that increasingly requires polluting industries to foot the bill. Both legislative proposals are “method-agnostic”, meaning that a range of CDR methods will be supported so long as they adhere to stringent criteria. In Massachusetts, care will be taken to exclude CDR methods deemed to facilitate the extraction, refinement, delivery, or perpetuation of fossil fuels, and, in California, negative emissions will be validated according to additionality, durability, measurability and verifiability factors.
Despite featuring CDR in its 2050 net-zero plan, the United States is yet to set separate emission reduction and carbon removal targets. However, according to the U.S. long-term net-zero strategy, most pathways under consideration require scale up of CDR capacity on the order of ~0.5 gigatons of CO2 equivalent per year, if the country is to succeed in reducing net emissions to zero by 2050. State level action can help meet this goal, but ultimately federal targets should be legislated for.
When it comes to multilateral progress, all eyes turn to the Carbon Dioxide Removal Mission established at COP26 under Mission Innovation. Supported by the European Commission, the United Kingdom, India, and several other governments, the goal of this coalition is to “enable CDR technologies to achieve net reduction of 100 million metric tons of CO2 per year globally by 2030.” This year, the Mission announced its first big initiative: the CDR Launchpad. Spearheaded by the European Commission, Canada, Japan, Norway, the United Kingdom, and the United States, the long-term aim of the Launchpad is to increase CDR capacity to “at least a gigaton per year globally within two decades”.
Let’s take a moment to understand these two goals in relation to each other. From 2030 to ~2040, the coalition proposes to ramp up global CDR capacity from 100 to 1000 million metric tons of CO2 per year. That’s growth of an order of magnitude. At the moment, CDR operates at a scale of only hundreds of thousands of tons per year, and so the Mission’s 2030 goal already signifies a leap of three orders of magnitude this decade. If that sounds ambitious, that’s because it is. But, some argue it’s not ambitious enough. At COP27, the UN Climate Change High-Level Champions announced its “CDR Breakthrough” 2030 goal of 3.5 billion tonnes per year, with a portion of 500 million tonnes stored durably for centuries to millennia. Whichever statistical North Star you choose, all point to steep exponential growth over the next two decades. How does the CDR Launchpad propose to facilitate this curve?
As a first step, Launchpad members committed to the following: “building at least one 1,000+ tonne CO2 per year CDR project by 2025”; “collectively contributing at least $100 million by 2025 to support CDR pilot projects and demonstrations globally”; and “advanc[ing] robust measurement, reporting and verification efforts for CDR projects through a new working group within the Mission.” These commitments do not amount to a roadmap for how to exponentially scale CDR, but they’re a start. The only commitment pertaining to actual carbon removed from the atmosphere is 6,000(+) tonnes in 2025 – a drop in the ocean – and it will be hard to measure whether this initiative makes a difference at all, given that the “1,000+ tonne” pledge can be met through “commitments and projects already underway that have the potential to meet the target.” But the goal of the coalition is not to scale CDR to needed proportions but to enable that growth. In this way, it will be important for members to publicly share non-proprietary data and learnings from their projects.
At the risk of overstating the importance of the CDR Mission, it would have been good to understand how the coalition plans to divide its $100 million fund. A key takeaway from COP27 for Carbon Gap was a call from some countries in the Global South to enable their CDR efforts, which we’ll discuss in more detail in Part Three of this blog. For myriad justice-based reasons, it’s our opinion that CDR finance should not be concentrated only in high income countries. Upon which principle will Launchpad members distribute their millions? It makes sense that funds should be reserved for low-income countries (those that want local CDR industries), where potential may otherwise go unrealised.