February 19, 2024
Two of our co-founders, CEO Marta Krupinska and Chief Scientist Gabrielle Walker, were on the ground at COP28, speaking at and listening in on pavilions and event spaces across the massive blue, green and innovation zones, Goals House and many side events and here are their ten takeaways:
1. Fossil fuel phaseout goes hand-in-hand with carbon removals
Discussions about fossil fuel phaseout took centre stage, and the final result, while imperfect – historically called on the parties to transition away from fossil fuels. While many were disappointed that the word phaseout didn’t make it into the final draft, one thing became very clear at this COP. Fossil fuel phaseout and carbon removals must go hand in hand – we can’t stay below to 1.5 degrees without both. Johan Rockstrom (Director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research) argued for this in a recent interview with Gabrielle saying: “We need to get serious about scaling up carbon removals, alongside different buckets of climate action”. And more than 100 scientists from around the world, including Professor Rockstrom, released a statement during COP28 both calling for the phase-out of fossil fuel and highlighting that carbon removal at scale will be critical to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement.
2. Carbon removals made it into the global stocktake text
In a groundbreaking COP first, a commitment to scale carbon removals is also part of the final agreement. The final text of the COP28 Global Stocktake includes a call for “accelerating zero- and low-emission technologies” including “removal technologies”. Since every word of the agreements is meticulously negotiated, this phrase sends a significant signal that carbon removals will be a more substantial part of future UNFCCC requirements. Corporate actors please take note. In a panel that Gabrielle chaired on the Climate Action stage called ‘Carbon Removals: What goes up must come down’, Kerry Constabile, one of the co-founders of Frontier Fund said: “the time is now for strategic corporate buyers to move; we need to start defining good corporate action by what is needed and not by what is easy.”
3. But … carbon removals are not the same as Carbon Capture and Storage
Carbon dioxide removal is often conflated with “carbon capture and storage (CCS)” and that was particularly true in the language of the final stocktake. This matters because CCS is often seen as a shorthand for continuing fossil fuels business as usual, without the need to change infrastructure or practices, and many were suspicious that the keenness by some governments to insert CCS in the text, and muddle it with carbon removals, was another expression of the desire to keep fossil fuel resources in play.
In fact removals and CCS are two different things. Though a few carbon removals approaches including direct air capture do use similar geological storage, removals take CO2 out of the air after it has been emitted whereas CCS more typically refers to ways to prevent carbon dioxide from reaching the atmosphere in the first place e.g. by intercepting it from flue gas in a smokestack. In other words, these two sets of technologies have different outcomes, and need to be considered, measured and targeted in different ways. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change emphasises the difference in their landmark climate report and we should too.
And just to be clear *neither* of these are an excuse to keep fossil fuel business as usual – see point 1!
4. The end of the circular firing squad?
In recent years it has felt as though the various climate movements had splintered into conflicting and inter-warring divisions, battling for the moral high ground, or scarce resources or both. The upshot has been a “circular firing squad” that has made progress a lot harder to achieve. At this COP it felt as though the various communities united against the sort of tribalism we have been witnessing (reductions vs removals, nature versus tech, Global North vs Global South, activists vs pragmatists etc) and we saw much more effective collective action – akin to the united fronts that helped lead to the historic Paris Agreement at COP21.
CUR8 was immensely proud to sign letters spearheaded by The B Team, Corporate Leaders Group UK, Global Optimism and the CRCF Trilogue: Calling for Tech-openness. The fabulous leaders behind these efforts managed to get a staggering number and range of signatories, building pressure on the COP28 presidency and helping to get a more ambitious agreement over the line.
We also had many fascinating meetings with climate activists and leaders from across the spectrum who were eager to share their plans, to learn more about carbon removals, and to think about what good collective climate action actually looks like when all solutions are put into action together. And Gabrielle was honoured to chair a historic panel of 40 heads of UN agencies pledging to work more closely together on climate action, under the aegis of UNEP and the UN’s environment management group.
5. Nature front and centre
Nature is and will always be a key part of the climate story. At this COP we witnessed a much greater appetite to move on from the tired old “nature vs tech” debate. Instead much of the focus shifted to what good climate action looks like in combination – not just reducing emissions and building the removals industry but also protecting nature in tandem. After the various meltdowns experienced by discredited carbon projects this year, many of them related to nature protection, CUR8 had many conversations focused on the importance of finding the right ways to drive capital towards the genuine protection of natural resources. This also applies of course to carbon removals – even many of the approaches on the more technological end of the spectrum can and must contribute positively to protecting and restoring nature.
6. Demand for removals is growing
During COP28 McKinsey published their latest report which states we need to remove an additional 0.8 to 2.9 gigatons (billion tonnes) of CO2 per year required by 2030. This is between a 3-10x increase in the volume of removals currently estimated to be on stream and sequestering by that date.
Investment is needed to support innovation, to drive down costs and to support project development. It was during COP28 that the largest purchase to date of carbon removals was announced by Frontier Fund; JPMorgan, H&M, and other corporates paying $57.1 million to spread crushed rock on farmland. Our co-founders spoke to multiple buyers, investors and policymakers in climate and carbon removal – and the interest is very palpable.
7. Bridge to bankability
According to the same McKinsey report, the funding gap to build out the carbon removals industry is between $6 and $16 trillion. The industry is in its early stages and needs to scale exponentially. However, accessing funding can pose a significant challenge, even for the most promising carbon removal suppliers. While grants and venture capital are generally available in the early stages, traditional banking products required for scaling, such as commercial debt, are far more challenging to secure.
During COP28, we therefore launched a First-of-A-Kind financing pilot vehicle in partnership with British Airways, UNDO and Standard Chartered Bank. The collaboration aims to create a blueprint to support both ambitious suppliers and buyers. Suppliers can sustainably scale their operations using capital in the form of debt financing, secured on future client demand via advanced purchase agreements. Buyers can access carbon removal credits through multi-year purchases. See the deal overview here.
Our co-founders also took part in several events focused on how to bridge the funding gap. At the Sustainable Innovation Forum, Gabrielle chaired a panel discussing how to get financing to known technologies that need to scale, and unknown ones that need to be created – noting that a greater risk-sharing appetite among both financiers and governments would be transformative.
And on the Climate Action Stage, Marta took part in “De-risking the transition to unlock speed and scale” discussing providing finance to scale carbon removals through educating financial institutions on supplier business models and risk profiles, providing concessionary capital, creating new data sets to derisk investments and therefore creating a bridge to bankability for new providers and building out the carbon removal capital stack.
8. Getting global, though still not global enough
The message finally seems to be hitting home that carbon removals need to be geographically diverse and include the global south, both from a social justice perspective and to maximise the speed and efficiency of methods that are perfectly suited for certain parts of the globe. This point was strongly made in a meeting Gabrielle had with Eng. Festus K. NG’ENO, Kenyan Principal Secretary for Environment Ministry – who emphasised that Africa is very much open for business when it comes to carbon removals projects.
As Gabrielle pointed out during her address at the McKinsey Pavilion, there is an abundance of opportunities, with fantastic examples of African countries stepping up to claim this space for their continent of young, dynamic entrepreneurs, declaring: This will not be done *to* us, and this will not be done *for* us. It will be done *by* us.
Alongside geographic diversity, the gender lens is equally important, with women often historically excluded from leadership roles and investment opportunities. ‘We won’t find and create the critically needed solutions to climate change without the help of at least 50% of the population’ said Marta in the the panel; Gender and climate-smart investing: the key to advancing climate solutions, held during Finance day at COP28, alongside Sarabeth Brockley, Christine Amour-Levar and Nisaa Jetha.)
9. Carbon projects need to share benefits fairly
It is vitally important that benefits are fairly shared with the communities creating removal projects and that these innovative communities are playing a central role in the decisions that will impact them. The global north must not dictate the global south.
This point was powerfully made by Pauline Nantongo Kalunda, during a high-level roundtable that Gabrielle and Marta attended at Goals House. Future policies and market conditions need to be both fair and sustainable if the projects are to survive and scale at the pace we need, while also delivering on climate justice.
10. Failure of Article 6.4 puts the spotlight on the voluntary markets
The biggest disappointment of COP28 with regard to carbon removals was the failure of the parties to agree on the rules for Article 6.2 and 6.4 of the Paris agreement. Though it sounds arcane, it does matter. Broadly speaking, Article 6 allows countries to co-operate to reach more ambitious reduction targets by exchanging carbon credits across country borders, including carbon removal credits. Article 6.2 provides for bilateral agreements and article 6.4 was supposed to set the rules for a global market, which could have been a big boost to the carbon removals industry. The reasons for the failure come down to a mix of clashing ideologies around the role that markets should play in climate solutions, and clashing opinions about how stringent the quality rules should be. Intense work will now begin again to resolve these differences and hopefully lead to a better outcome soon. In the meantime, the voluntary carbon markets and regional rule-setters such as the EU will continue to take the strain of providing the seeds for global benchmarks and standards.
In summary, it’s been a very busy and productive COP. We can’t fail to recognise the irony of almost 100,000 people flying to Dubai to discuss next steps for avoiding the climate catastrophy, but we’re encouraged by the spirit of collaboration, plans for action and strong relationships that we will carry into 2024 and beyond. For more details on events and developments on carbon removal, check out the Carbon Removals at COP website run by our sister NGO Rethinking Removals for the full overview, interviews with key players and detailed summaries of what happened at COP28.
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