Carbon Dioxide Removal and Global Stocktake Agreement
Each year world leaders gather at the Conference of Parties (COP) to negotiate and discuss global climate commitments and the biggest questions surrounding the climate crisis. The conference is convened annually by the members of the U.N. with two goals: (1) to review the implementation of the conference, the Paris Agreement, and the Kyoto Protocol, and (2) to adopt decisions to further these instruments.
This year the 28th annual conference – “COP28” – was convened in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. COP28 progressively grew more contentious, as many stakeholders criticized the choice of Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, CEO of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (the world’s 12th-biggest oil company by production), as the leader of the conference. Participants also engaged in long debates about word choice, arguing between a “phase out” or a “phase down” of fossil fuels, which would have a major impact on how much nations reduce their dependence on fossil fuels in the years to come.
On the first day of the conference, a long-debated loss and damage fund was adopted to support developing nations, especially those that face the worst impacts of climate change, with industrialized nations committing around $700 million combined. While developing nations consider the establishment of this fund a success, they argue that they have been asking for this sort of fund for nearly three decades, the funding promised is not nearly enough to cover the need, and there remain open questions about long-term financing, governance, and accountability of the fund.
During the ministerial conference, an expanding list of countries committed or recommitted to reduce global methane emissions through the Global Methane Partnership. The timing of the final methane rule from the EPA (which ASBN advocated for) was undoubtedly an attempt of the U.S. government to demonstrate its commitment and leadership.
Global leaders continue to debate how to track and measure emissions reductions to meet the targets previously set. Many questioned the validity of the use of carbon removal to meet a country’s Nationally Determined Commitment (NDC). Proponents of carbon removal argue that because there is an extreme amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere now, existing CO2 must be removed in order to meet any of the emissions reduction targets. While carbon removal will not undo any of the damage that has been caused by emissions in the past, it will lower the warming potential that already exists and bring us closer to the ambitious targets necessary to protect the future of our planet. This is supported by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) scientific community in many of their reports throughout 2023. However, with highly scientific and specialized terms and special interests from industry groups, the terminology and subsequent regulations and tracking of necessary removal of CO2 can be confusing to interpret and separate.
Defining CO2 Removal vs. Carbon Capture Utilization & Storage
Two terms that are related to carbon removal have become linked together, but are important to differentiate: Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR) versus Carbon Capture Utilization and Storage (CCUS).
The U.S. Department of Energy defines Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR) simply as “approaches that remove carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere.” There are a wide range of approaches that fall into this category, but the most important thing to note is that the DOE makes clear that CDR “does not refer to point source carbon capture for the fossil fuel or industrial sector.” Instead, Carbon Dioxide Removal refers to removing CO2 that is already in the atmosphere, regardless of the source, and relies heavily on affordable, scalable, and often nature-based solutions. The ultimate goal of CDR is simply to remove CO2, and there are no motivations related to industry processes.
Carbon Capture and Utilization Storage (CCUS) is a process that captures and stores carbon dioxide resulting from industry processes before it can be emitted into the atmosphere. The utilization of stored carbon dioxide is where the biggest conflicts arise. The main distinction between CCUS and CDR is that CCUS addresses point source pollution, and therefore has direct ties to the industries that are generating emissions. The fossil fuel industry has found ways to use carbon dioxide once it has been removed via CCUS, a practice that would prolong global reliance on extractive industries. With its lobbying and market power, the fossil fuel industry was able to link together the removal of existing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and the storage of emissions created by industry processes. Critics of CCUS say that the process neglects to address the air pollution and other health risks caused by the oil and gas production process.
Common methods for removing carbon dioxide include nature-based solutions like reforestation, soil carbon sequestration, wetland restoration, biochar (charcoal), or more technological processes such as enhanced weathering, bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS), and direct air capture and storage (DACCS). Some of these methods are common in both CDR and CCUS, but the many details and regulations around the storage, transport, and potential use of the carbon remain unclear.
Achieving net zero carbon emissions has long been a goal that companies and governments strive to meet in order to uphold agreements and prevent planetary warming past a point of no return. In May 2023, the United Nations declared that technology to suck carbon from the atmosphere was not a proven solution because of unknown environmental and social risks, as well as untested scalability. Then at COP28 in December, the U.N. discussed this carbon capture technology as a potential solution once again, based on the support for this method by the scientific community as stated in recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports. However, some still hold concerns about the effectiveness and safety of this method, especially CCUS’ connection with the fossil fuel industry and its attempts to continue to grow and emit pollutants.
COP28 ended with an agreement that was made for the first time in the history of the conference; it called for moving global energy away from fossil fuels, specifically, “transitioning away from fossil fuels in energy systems, in a just, orderly, and equitable manner.”
The global stocktake report (an assessment of progress since the 2015 Paris Agreement) finds that while the Paris goals are still feasible, the implementation of past agreements has been lacking, and much work is needed to keep the 1.5-degree warming threshold laid out as a point of no return. This is a sobering reminder that the next two conferences, COP29 and COP30, will be even more important as details about accountability to this agreement will be negotiated and finalized.
Throughout ongoing negotiations, especially at the upcoming COP conferences, the international community must be clear and specific about the terminology used when referencing carbon removal and carbon capture and storage. This will avoid further confusion, and allow nations, businesses, and policymakers to separate the necessary removal of existing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere from the processes that will favor and strengthen the fossil fuel industry.
Fossil fuels are the largest single contributor to climate change, threatening our air, water, and public health. ASBN works with business leaders and other stakeholders to advocate for a transition to fossil-fuel free energy, climate change mitigation, environmental justice, and an inclusive economy.