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How the big themes up for discussion at COP28 impact carbon removals

Delia Meth-Cohn, Co-Founder of Rethinking Removals, identifies the big themes at COP28 and the impact on efforts to scale up carbon removal.

COP28 looks set to be big on high-level declarations about tripling renewable capacity, setting targets on adaptation and enhancing climate finance flows. That’s important for setting ambition levels and the direction of travel — but the hard work is getting to negotiated outcomes. 

These will focus primarily on four areas, each of which has implications for scaling up carbon removals:

The Global Stocktake: This is the first five-year review of Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) and it shows we will need more climate ambition in the next round of NDCs that need to be ready for review by 2025. Part of that ambition will be getting serious about incorporating carbon removal into NDC commitments to match the scientific consensus that it’s unavoidable. 

To avoid carbon removals from impinging on reduction pathways or providing an excuse for delay, governments need to introduce separate targets for emission reductions and negative emissions. This allows for specificity in net zero pledges about how much carbon is being removed from the atmosphere and how much is being reduced.

Fossil Fuel Phaseout and abated emissions: Discussions about the phaseout of fossil fuels (responsible for 75% of global warming) will be a central focus of the COP28 negotiations. Some countries are calling for a complete phaseout and others are arguing for phasing down “unabated emissions” — in other words using carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology to reduce emissions by around 90%. 

CCS is often confused with carbon removal, but the outcomes are very different. CCS helps heavy emitting industries to avoid putting CO2 into the air, while carbon removal removes CO2 from the air. That’s still the case for those carbon removal approaches, like direct air capture and BECCS, that make use of CCS technology to remove CO2. 

The distinction is important because confusing the two suggests that carbon removal can keep fossil fuels in play —the reality is we need both fossil fuel phaseout and scaled up carbon removal.

Article 6: Article 6 of the Paris Agreement allows countries to cooperate to reach more ambitious reduction targets by exchanging carbon credits across country borders, including carbon removal credits. After lots of detailed technical work this year — especially on how to handle carbon removals — a crediting mechanism is ready for implementation in 2024. These details now need approval from the countries that signed the Paris Agreement and that can only take place at COP, so failure to agree will delay action for another year. 

Loss & Damage: Agreement was reached in principle at COP27 to set up a fund to support countries suffering most from the impact of climate change. This year’s COP has to agree on a set of recommendations on financial transfers and there are still disagreements between developed and developing countries on how this will work. That might spill over into discussions around responsibility for historical emissions. Listen for calls at COP28 from countries in the Global South for developed countries to be held responsible for emissions reductions and to remove them from the atmosphere.