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COP28: A stocktake year and a time to reflect on the need to reduce and remove emissions

Written by Christoph Beuttler, Chief Climate Policy Officer at Climeworks

Once again, all eyes are on the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Conference of the Parties (COP), which begins on November 30. COP is the foremost event for governments to take decisions and actions to address climate change. This year’s event, held in Dubai, is set to attract 70,000 people from all around the world. It will bring together policymakers, national leaders, climate experts, and other visitors for two weeks of discussions, events, and on-the-ground meetups. This year’s discussions are expected to range on a broad array of topics, including limiting greenhouse gases through fossil fuel phase-outs, loss and damage via climate reparations, and the need for increased international cooperation to combat the climate crisis.

Stocktake year: A time to reflect on the need for rapid action

2023 is the concluding year of a two-year process known as the “stocktake cycle,” and will conclude the “stocktake” at COP28. This began in 2022, when the UNFCCC started assessing the progress that has been made in relation to the 2015 Paris Agreement for the first time. Per design, a stocktake process will occur every five years and examines progress made so far, as well as necessary measures to drive further progress towards the achievement of the temperature goals via increased mitigation, adaptation, and financing.

The stocktake process summarizes all action from all Paris Agreement signatories and takes stock of how all of them together are progressing on a globally aggregated level. This underscores the worldwide significance of climate change – while individual NDCs and domestic efforts are important, assessments must also review an overall “track record” of emissions reductions as part of a pathway to meeting climate goals. Still, given the bottom-up architecture of the Paris Agreement, each country needs to deliver an update on its current status, as well as future ambitions.

Leading up to this review process, several reports have been published, citing an alarming need to increase mitigation efforts fast. Documents and white papers released in recent weeks, including by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the World Resources Institute (WRI) and the World Economic Forum (WEF) all point to a clear need to rapidly reduce emissions.

The UNEP’s report is fittingly titled “Broken Record” . It points to several concerning statistics:

  • In 2022, Global GHG emissions were the highest ever at 57.4 GT CO₂, an increase of 1.2 percent from the previous year;

  • Global GHG emissions must decline to levels between 33 – 41 GtCO₂e by 2030 in order to reach a “least-cost pathway” to the target of the Paris Agreement;

  • Despite an increased number of countries having national net zero goals, overall trust in countries’ ability to reach said goals has declined.

Following a brief decline in emissions during the COVID-19 pandemic (4.7%), current, record-setting emissions clearly require even stronger cuts to meet the temperature targets set out by the Paris agreement (5.3 per cent beginning 2024 to meet a 2°C pathway, and 8.7% reductions for the 1.5°C pathway.)

The role of CDR and the need for a reductions and removals separation

Failure to reduce emissions fast enough has been central to the increasing need of carbon dioxide removal (CDR), which is now assumed to reach gigatonne scales by mid-century, and substantially more in the second half of the century to realize net-negative CO₂ emissions. However, we certainly believe that this year’s COP must not be a “removals-focused” COP. Carbon removals are an important puzzle piece in the fight against climate change, but they must complement, rather than substitute emission reductions. In line with the goals of the Paris Agreement, we see three key roles for CDR:

  • To support the reduction of emissions targets in the short-term. This, expanded on below, requires a clear distinction between the two targets

  • Deployed in a large-scale, equitable and sustainable way, CDR should realize net zero, by counterbalancing residual emissions.

  • Finally, once a net zero equilibrium has been reached, CDR can be used for net negative CO₂ (and GHG) emissions.

Due to the side-by-side focus on both emission reductions and carbon removals, and both being given a voice in the climate mitigation discussion, it feels necessary to re-articulate Climeworks’ main message for this year’s stocktake COP: There must continue to be a clear separation of carbon emissions reductions and carbon removals.

In spring 2023, Climeworks initiated a letter with over 100 signatories which highlighted the following points:

First, countries and institutions/organizations must clearly differentiate reductions and removals, exemplarily via the establishment of separate targets. While both have an important role to play in the fight against global warming, carbon removal cannot be used to substitute for emissions reductions. Reductions must take precedence, in order to avoid an “inverse proportion” scenario. This possibility, outlined below in more detail, suggests that a failure of proper emissions reductions necessitates a disproportionately high amount of carbon dioxide removal (CDR). In a supply-constrained CDR market, this would beget many further challenges. As advocated by the SBTi and stated in the letter, emissions must thus decrease by at least 90% by 2050.

Furthermore, this separation addresses the often-discussed moral hazard/mitigation deterrence issue – i.e. investing in CDR today might distract from further emissions reductions. By creating clarity about the role, timing and foreseen share of removals, the risk of moral hazard can be avoided. Additionally, clear separation adds further integrity to global carbon markets and allows for a more responsible deployment of carbon removals, allowing for removals to co-exist amongst clear emissions reductions and avoidance goals. Ultimately, emissions reductions and CDR will need to be distinguished in climate pathways, target setting and industry standards.

The WRI’s recent report “State of Climate Change 2023” has made it clear that alongside emissions reductions, an immense scale-up of removals is needed. The report addresses the growth need for a wide variety of nature-based and technological carbon removal solutions, including direct air capture. In line with Climeworks’ views, the report stipulates that current barriers to scale, including cost, will decrease alongside increased deployment and capacity, and subsequent learning and improvement. Further to this point, the report suggests that the ultimate amount of carbon removal needed will be “inversely proportional” to the emissions reductions occurring in parallel. In simpler terms, the more globally adept we are at limiting GHG emissions over the next years, the smaller the scale of carbon removal that is necessary will be – thus allowing CDR to scale-up in a responsible manner and deliver on counterbalancing a limited overshoot.

What will we be watching for:

We hope this COP28 can be a productive meeting of nations and stakeholders and are looking forward to seeing positive outcomes from the many ongoing discussions. We hope to see not only intense dialogue, but also clearly defined ambition and action regarding reductions. Likewise, we will closely follow discussions around Article 6.4 and hope to see a robust framework that places CDR alongside reductions in Article 6. And finally, we hope to see a thorough and honest assessment of if the world is globally on track to meet climate goals, as well as clear action plans on what can be done to improve for the future and keep the 1.5 degree goal in sight.

With 70,000 people in one place, all passionate about fighting climate change – let`s be true to its motto and unite, act & deliver!

If you are interested in meeting up with Climeworks’ representatives attending COP28, please reach out to us at [email protected] to schedule a conversation or meeting on-site.

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