Just getting started: launching Carbon Gap at COP26

December 6, 2021
Carbon Gap’s launch event at COP26 brought together stakeholders from around the world to develop a roadmap for the future of carbon removal.

Welcome to Carbon Gap! We’re a new, independent climate not-for-profit focused on eliminating the carbon dioxide that’s already heating up the planet. We exist to drive essential climate action by making Europe a leader in carbon removal, working with governments, scientists, NGOs, and businesses to unlock policy support for the full spectrum of carbon removal techniques, storing carbon safely in trees, soils, oceans, rocks, and the built environment.

Over the last year, we’ve seen increasing recognition of the critical role of carbon removal in climate action, alongside more funding flowing to carbon removal solutions from governments and investors. But as the field grows, we need to be frank about what it will take for carbon removal as a field to make a meaningful difference for the climate. In this post, we’ll share with you some of the work that went on during Carbon Gap’s official launch event during COP26. The “Carbon Removal Hub at COP26” brought together a diverse group of people for a one-of-a-kind event to celebrate the launch of Carbon Gap and co-create a roadmap for the future of carbon removal, including:

For Carbon Gap, it was important that we field a diverse set of voices. Carbon removal needs to be inclusive and collaborative so it can grow quickly and be a part of creating a better, healthier, more sustainable, and more prosperous world, as well as a world with less planet-warming carbon in the atmosphere. This means bringing together stakeholders from every sector that carbon removal touches to shape that future. At Carbon Gap, we will work to bring in those voices and to identify opportunities to grow carbon removal rapidly but sustainably, focusing on the role that Europe must play in developing carbon removal techniques and in shaping the norms and standards that will define the industry.

The rest of this post is dedicated to a detailed review of the ideas generated by panellists and participants in Carbon Gap's launch event. Reading on, you’ll find:

Together in removing,

the Carbon Gap team


Event Summary: Carbon Removal Hub @ COP26

Panel

Carbon Gap's Eli Mitchell-Larson speaks with the four panelists.


Dr. Jennifer Wilcox, currently serving as Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Office of Carbon Management and Fossil Energy at the U.S. Department of Energy, was able to speak to the recent announcement of the Carbon Negative Shot, a new initiative by the U.S. DoE to accelerate innovation for long-term carbon removal and storage and bring the price of carbon removal technologies below $100/ton. She acknowledged the work required to bring along her colleagues in the federal government and get such a significant commitment made, and noted the importance of having a strong voice for carbon removalat the table in order to spur government action. 

James Mwangi, Executive Director of the Dalberg Group, highlighted the incredible opportunities for growth and economic development that carbon removal could bring, especially to the African continent. He sees carbon removal as an emerging industry perfectly suited for African leadership, with large potential sources of renewable energy to tap, a growing pool of young talent looking for high-quality jobs, and an extensive land area for deploying a variety of carbon removal techniques. 


Nan Ransohoff, Head of Climate at Stripe, shared the perspective of a company that is an early and first-of-a-kind financial supporter of the carbon removal industry. She emphasized that while early financial supporters such as Stripe can be highly valuable as “proof points” for the viability of nascent carbon removal techniques in particular, ultimately what these purchases are doing is buying time for policy to create a large-scale compliance market, with clear rules and expectations that that market can be built around. Taking this logic a step further, she discussed what early carbon removal leaders can do to provide a larger demand signal for the ecosystem, suggesting Advance Market Commitments (AMCs) that guarantee a viable market for a product that has not yet been developed, stimulating investment and speeding up development.


Dr. Edda Aradóttir, CEO of Carbfix, brought the perspective of a critical piece of the carbon removal supply chain: the safe and durable storage of carbon. Carbfix’s solution is to store CO2 underground in basalt formations, where it rapidly mineralizes into solid rock. Carbfix was the storage partner for Orca, the recently commissioned direct air capture plant in Iceland that is now the world's largest. As she emphasized, “the Earth has undergone the straightforward process of geologically storing carbon for millions of years,” and we should be working with the Earth’s natural geochemical processes to create balance and restore the atmosphere be safely returning carbon back where it came from. She also emphasized the need for more policy incentives and cross-sector partnerships like those proposed by Dr. Wilcox and Nan Ransohoff.


James Mwangi and Dr. Jennifer Wilcox

Cutting across all these discussions were the critical issues of community engagement and the non-carbon co-benefits of carbon removal. Carbon Gap explored these areas prior to COP by hosting a series of "listening sessions" with experts who apply different and essential lenses to the topic of carbon removal. Dr. Holly Jean Buck, Dr. Rudra V. Kapila, Michael Thompson and Dr. Jose Maria Valenzuela brought perspectives on environmental justice, culturally adapted innovation, the relationship of the Global South and Global North, and the critical issue of equity in climate action. 

Those concerns were reflected by some of the concrete issues raised by the panelists. For James Mwangi, that meant the opportunity for carbon removal projects in African countries to provide high-quality jobs, support economic prosperity through joint ventures and investment, and enable community access to renewable energy. For Dr. Wilcox, that meant ensuring that fence-line communities have a seat at the table in shaping co-benefits like job opportunities and improved local air quality, and demonstrating that technological carbon removal methods are fully distinct from point-source carbon capture techniques applied to fossil fuels. And for Carbon Gap, it was clear that we need to maintain a global perspective, because despite our focus on European policymaking, the rules, standards, and practices developed for carbon removal in Europe will influence and impact communities around the world. The way that global perspective manifests itself in our work will grow and evolve, but highlighting and championing diverse voices on carbon removal will be a critical part of what we do.

After the panel discussion, we launched into a co-creative session on the future of carbon removal, facilitated by Dr. Gabrielle Walker from the Rethinking Removals initiative. We took advantage of the carbon removal “brain trust” we assembled to document today’s state of carbon removal, before building a vision for where carbon removal needs to be in 2030 to ensure we are on track to stop harmful climate change.


Ideas and insights from the panel, captured by an illustrator, Fernanda de Uriarte.


Roadmap 

Next, we split into four groups to create pillars of an overall “carbon removal roadmap” from four perspectives: policy, standards, narrative, and increasing demand. Opinions among participants differed, sometimes strongly, reflecting a healthy debate in the carbon removal community about the best way to move forward. The outputs from each group thus reflect only the suggestions of their members. Explore the illustration and read our summary of participants' findings.


A vision for carbon removal, 2021-2030. Participants explored four distinct challenge areas: policy, standards, narrative, and increasing demand.


Policy

Small groups work on separate pillars of the 2030 carbon removal roadmap.

Beginning with the Policy workstream, there was a focus on opportunities to embed carbon removal in the Paris Agreement and future COPs. Participants called for Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs, the commitments each country makes to reduce emissions as part of the Paris Agreement) to include carbon removal targets, and suggested taking advantage of the upcoming Global Stocktake to revise what is included in NDCs. Ideally, dozens of countries would include carbon removals in their NDCs by 2023.

Demand pull - Participants agreed that carbon removal cannot scale on the basis of voluntary purchases alone; policy is necessary to generate and bolster a clear market signal to spur investment and deployment of removals, across multiple removal techniques.Policies must generate market signals, increase demand for carbon removal, and spur further investment and deployment by a variety of pathways. Options for government bolstering of demand for carbon removal included reverse auctions, contracts for difference, feed-in tariffs, direct purchases, procurement rules that favour lower-carbon products, price floors, tax credits, and more. 

Policy approach - Participants highlighted the importance of “pathway neutrality” in policy design, ensuring that policymakers do not "pick winners" by supporting specific companies or techniques, and instead create policies that differentiate between carbon removal techniques only based on the quality of the removal and storage. That said, there was shared acknowledgement that some families of carbon removal techniques are at different levels of maturity, and differentiated support will be needed for a period of time. Other recommendations included moving from an input-based approach (such as innovation funding) to an output-based approach (such as solution-specific targets for carbon removal), international cooperation to coordinate on standards and shared infrastructure for storage and transportation, the inclusion of carbon removal targets in IPCC inventory guidelines, the creation of both long-term and interim targets for carbon removal, and the creation of fair, unbiased Measuring, Reporting, and Verification (MRV) methods for transparent accounting.

Political momentum - There were multiple suggestions for how best to attain these policy goals. One intriguing approach was to leverage subnational jurisdictions or small nations to take the lead in developing policy and the accompanying standards, then allowing those rules to inspire and shape blueprints for larger geographies. Participants raised the precedent of state renewable energy policies in US states like California and New York, which went on to shape policy at the US national level and around the world. 

The group highlighted several examples of this kind of decentralized policy leadership. We were joined at the event by a California State Assembly member who is pushing for California to become a carbon removal leader. Separately, proposals for a carbon removal feed-in tariff in Luxembourg and significant procurement of carbon removal in New York State, both created in collaboration with the Open Air Collective, demonstrate what this kind of decentralized policy action can look like in practice. 

Responsibility - Participants also recommended an increase in ambition and scope for policymakers in the Global North, or “minority world,” suggesting a ‘geopolitics of responsibility’ where wealthy countries take responsibility for their historical emissions and commit to the policy measures necessary to achieve significant net-negative emissions, not just net-zero.

That the largest historical emitters have a deep responsibility to repair the damage they have done to the planet is unequivocal. But as James Mwangi emphasized, this responsibility does not mean that countries in the Global South which are not major contributors to climate change need to wait for solutions to be provided for them. Instead, we should seize opportunities for these countries to lead on carbon removal and climate restoration, supporting their growth even as we address legacy emissions already in the atmosphere.


Narrative

That focus on responsibility highlighted some of the outcomes from the Narrative workstream. By 2030, participants said, carbon removal needs to be fully embraced as a critical part of the solution to climate change, with many different projects together removing millions of tons of carbon from the atmosphere and clearly demonstrating that carbon removal can be a tool to restore natural ecosystems and oceans, a source of economic prosperity for communities around the world, and the missing piece in our ability to reach net-zero emissions and stop climate change. As experts, scientists, entrepreneurs, policymakers, and advocates, participants highlighted that everyone in carbon removal needs to contribute to an inspiring, accessible vision for what carbon removal can bring to the world. 

Embracing carbon removal - It was also clear to participants in the narrative group that a scarcity mindset in climate action is holding carbon removal back, and that we need a clear commitment to “both/and” thinking, where all important climate solutions are invested in simultaneously, including carbon removal. To do this, we need to transition from an "adapt or mitigate" dichotomy to an "adapt, reduce, remove" narrative that highlights carbon removal's complementary role. For this narrative shift to be successful, transparency needs to be built into the DNA of all carbon removal projects. This means agreeing on clear definitions, calling out greenwashing, and building frameworks to ensure that removals accelerate emissions reductions, and never deter them.

Doing carbon removal right - This group explored the need to situate best practices for carbon removal deployment in a global context to ensure these actions contribute to sustainable, equitable outcomes, echoing the discussions in Carbon Gap’s pre-COP listening sessions. As cross-border projects are developed, “joint ventures” and “job creation,” should be valued over “technology transfers” and “offset opportunities”, foregrounding the need to equitably share the value that is created, including financial value, climate value, and non-carbon co-benefits.


Standards

Gabrielle Walker moderated the synthesis session, collecting findings of the groups.

In developing the Standards workstream, participants grappled to determine the best trajectory for standard-setting. Setting credible standards for carbon removal is urgent, and corporate buyers, investors, and policymakers alike are desperate for guidance. At the same time, scientists, activists, and veterans of previous carbon credit standard setting are wary of moving too quickly or allowing the views of conflicted market participants to dominate the process. A careful balance must be struck: use live implementation and real-world deployment to experiment and iterate quickly, while ensuring that science and ever-improving MRV remain the basis for decision-making.

As shown in the illustration, developing standards needs follow a process, flowing from clear principles (e.g. disclosure, transparency, permanence, quality, safety, equity, and tech-neutrality), to guidelines, to standards, and finally to clear MRV that governs project development and deployment. Participants also suggested incorporating carbon removal within the Science-based Targets Initiative, called for an IPCC process to develop carbon removal guidelines for individual countries' NDCs, and explored options to include demonstration of co-benefits within standards regimes, establishing clear expectations for carbon removal projects.

Demand

Finally, participants saw Demand Aggregation as the best near-term option for the market to provide stable demand for carbon removal providers and an accessible entry point for new carbon removal purchasers. Government procurement could provide the foundation around which a purchasing vehicle is created, but in the absence of that, voluntary purchasers could take the lead, possibly by establishing an Advance Market Commitment (discussed during the panel by Stripe’s Nan Ransohoff). After exploring a number of routes, participants settled on a number of priorities: flexible standards that guarantee quality removals for all purchasers, standards-based portfolios, an at-scale purchasing vehicle with significant private involvement (voluntary purchase commitments from companies), and government participation via steadily increasing procurement values.

Participants optimistically set a goal of a compliance market in 2030 with 1 billion tonnes of removals at an average price of $100/ton - a target that all recognized could only be obtained with significant coordination among actors, and deep policy support and government participation in particular.

The "Children's Fire" took participants onto the grounds to reflect on the world that we will leave for future generations.


Summary

Across these four pillars of policy, narrative, standards, and demand for carbon removal, the central role of policy and government action was clear. Legislators and policymakers need to understand carbon removal better in order to intervene on critical issues, including standards, incentives, and direct procurement. The carbon removal community needs to work harder to ensure that policymakers are prepared to make these interventions and have the resources and advice that they need to do so. 

Baronness Bryony Worthington
Lord Deben

Some of this work began at Carbon Gap's Carbon Removal Hub @ COP26 itself, as we had the opportunity to share this commentary directly with the lawmakers and civil servants who attended. Discussions continued through the afternoon and into the evening, when we were joined for dinner by Baronness Bryony Worthington, lead author of the UK's groundbreaking Climate Change Act, and by Lord Deben, Chairman of the UK Climate Change Committee, both members of the UK House of Lords. Each brought with them a valuable perspective on the way we can accelerate policy action on carbon removal, and on how to work with existing climate commitments to do so. We're deeply grateful to both of them for joining us for Carbon Gap's launch, and look forward to working with them to create the policy support that carbon removal needs.

But even in the absence of those policy interventions, the sector can still lead. Participants saw that by organizing demand aggregators and independent standards bodies, frameworks can be created that will support and accelerate the needed growth in the carbon removal industry - not to the level necessary, but to a point where policymakers would be forced to engage on the topic proactively and substantively.

At Carbon Gap, we are committed to working with this community of thinkers and doers to bring this 2030 carbon removal roadmap to life and ensure that Europe supports the rapid progress on carbon removal that is so urgently needed. Again and again, participants recognized the knowledge, policy, and ambition gaps facing carbon removal as a field. Without more people working to make sure that everybody understands the scale of the opportunity and what can be done to address it, we won’t make the progress that we need to make, with dire consequences for the climate and for vulnerable people around the world. Our role is to make sure that these gaps are closed, whether by Carbon Gap, by allies and fellow carbon removal travellers, or by new organizations and individuals entirely. With the launch of Carbon Gap, we are committing to be constructive, collaborative, and creative in closing these gaps, all in service of restoring a safe climate for everyone.