The Elephant NOT in the Room at COP26

Brad Ack, Executive Director and Chief Innovation Officer at Ocean Visions
Dr. Sanjeev Khagram, Director General and Dean, Thunderbird School of Global Management

One of the biggest mysteries to us at COP26 was this: Where were all of the discussions, presentations, and negotiations on carbon dioxide removal?

Along with reducing emissions, carbon dioxide removal (CDR) is the only other known tool that can reduce the elevated atmospheric concentrations of CO2 that are driving so much dangerous change to our climate and ocean. The IPCC (the UN’s scientific body on climate) made clear in its special report on 1.5 degrees that to have any real chance of achieving the Paris Agreement’s target, large-scale CDR is necessary.

So why were the world’s governments and most other involved parties having almost no discussion about CDR at the most important climate policy event of 2021?

Part of the problem is that many leaders seem to be in denial about the state of the climate problem. It is painful and politically difficult to publicly acknowledge that climate change has happened much faster, and with more severe impacts, at current levels of atmospheric CO2 than predicted by global models. There is even more denial about the efficacy of global society’s main strategy – decarbonization.  We have spent 40 years trying to redesign CO2 out of nearly every part of our economy and modern lives, and so far we have largely failed. To wit, in 2021, 83 percent of global energy came from fossil fuels and global investment in fossil fuels actually increased.

If we were to own the fact that our current strategy is failing us as a standalone approach, we would conclude that we need additional strategies. Carbon dioxide removal is the most obvious. With it, we can directly remove CO2 from the atmosphere and the upper ocean and clean up our 200-year legacy of carbon pollution – pollution that is driving dangerous change to our world right now.

There are other factors that stifle the needed conversation. One is an oft-repeated fear that if we work on cleaning up carbon pollution, we will be providing “license” to the energy, transportation, building, agriculture, manufacturing, and other sectors to continue to avoid action. Perhaps a more realistic assessment would recognize that these sectors have already failed to decarbonize fast enough – without the existence of carbon dioxide removal as an excuse.

Another philosophical barrier to scaling up CDR is the notion that only nature-based approaches are acceptable. This sort of “technophobia” fails us as we contemplate the massive amount of CO2 that we have to remove and safely store. We will need to use all human ingenuity available to create the diverse approaches necessary for this massive job. Drawing lines in the sand between nature-based and technology-based approaches will not help.

While exponential decarbonization is an absolute necessity, leaders in this space, elected or otherwise, must face the very real probability that decarbonization alone is not a viable pathway to adequately reduce CO2 concentrations and cool the planet.  We need exponential decarbonization, yet we are on an incremental path that looks likely to be a multi-decade process. Meanwhile, CO2 concentrations will keep rising, and people and nature will keep suffering more and more. We cannot begin to contain the damage to our planet until CO2 concentrations decline.

At COP26, there were small glimmers of hope that the conversation on CDR is beginning to shift. For example, The Global Carbon Removal Partnership was formally launched, led by Thunderbird School of Global Management and co-chaired by the Government of Kenya and the City of Los Angeles, California. The Government of Kenya also announced its intention to submit a resolution on carbon removal at the UN General Assembly. And Ocean Visions unveiled road maps for accelerating research and development of ocean-based CDR pathways. A few other events were scattered throughout the two weeks as well.

But that is not enough. World leaders must start taking carbon removal much more seriously and acting. If we are going to mount a global clean-up of the legacy carbon dioxide that is choking the planet, we will need an enormous increase in CDR. The first steps are recognition of the importance and validity of CDR, followed by an exponential increase in the human and financial resources dedicated to testing and developing all appropriate CDR pathways – natural and engineered. Only by adding “removal” to our current agenda of “reduction” can we increase our chances of effectively addressing the scale of the enormous climate challenge that we face.

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