May 25, 2023 - Energy & Environment

Key UN climate panel casts doubt on future of carbon removal tech

Illustration of a ballpoint pen with a red "X"  in place of the ballpoint

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

An influential climate panel tasked with guiding the creation of a new global carbon market has sparked widespread concern in the nascent carbon removal industry, after it cast doubt on whether it would be counted as a carbon offset.

The big picture: On Wednesday, More than 100 companies and organizations sent a letter to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change's (UNFCCC) secretariat objecting to the draft guidance.

  • The draft includes a technical note that states that "engineered carbon removal activities... do not contribute to sustainable development," and fail to serve the goals of the carbon market under the Paris Agreement.
  • The language was written by what is known as the Article 6.4 Supervisory Body, part of the U.N. climate bureaucracy spearheading the future of global carbon markets.
  • The proposal, which is not formally approved yet, also calls carbon removal solutions "technologically and economically unproven, especially at scale," and says the technology poses "unknown environmental and social risks."

State of play: The language has provoked a rapid and growing backlash from the carbon removal sector, with the open letter submitted Wednesday and other objections filed before the comment period ends Thursday.

  • There are huge stakes for carbon removal companies and funders, if the current language were to find its way into rules being considered at COP28 in Dubai later this year.
  • It would mean that companies that have been pouring money into carbon removal, including most recently J.P. Morgan, may not be able to count their investments as carbon offsets.
  • This could chill the development of technologies such as direct air capture.

In its most recent climate science assessment, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded removal is needed in order to bring global carbon emissions to net zero, and eventually net negative, while also slashing emissions from fossil fuels and other sources.

Between the lines: "CDR is a new commercial sector, and the range of potential pathways are at varying stages of discovery, development, and deployment," the letter to the UNFCCC, coordinated by the Carbon Business Council, states.

  • Ben Rubin, executive director and cofounder of the council, told Axios the UNFCCC panel's definition of carbon removal differs markedly from the IPCC's.
  • “It would be excellent to see the UN rowing in the same direction on climate action,” he said.

What they're saying: Eve Tamme, founder and managing director at Climate Principles, was among the first to point out the technical note.

  • The critical language about carbon removal technologies"is a hugely surprising development because we know that the IPCC has made it very clear that removals are needed" to achieve the Paris targets, she said.
  • "It's also very clear that nature-based removal will not be enough. We need engineered removal as well," Tamme added in an interview.

The intrigue: Tamme described the controversy as far more than an internal disagreement within different parts of the U.N., or an issue confined to the weeds of climate policy.

  • The rules that are set for the carbon market may be in place for decades, she said.
  • The language criticizing "engineered removals" is not just at odds with the IPCC, but it may soon be contrary to countries' own plans for cutting carbon emissions.
  • "It just doesn't make sense because countries in their own climate targets are increasingly going to start including engineered removals," Tamme said.

Our thought bubble: One possibility for how the language originated is that the UNFCCC Secretariat, which provides text and instructions to the panel that wrote the language, may not yet have staff expertise in emerging carbon removal technologies.

  • Another factor is that the carbon removal industry may not have been paying close attention to the emerging provisions until now.
  • However, the backlash may make its input hard to ignore at this point.
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