Climate Change

COP27: Experts flag proposals to include carbon removals in UN trading mechanism

The recommendations, made at the beginning of COP27, provide a broad definition of removals and do not distinguish between them, according to civil society groups

By Rohini Krishnamurthy
Published: Thursday 17 November 2022
A vast majority of indigenous peoples see carbon markets as a false solution, one indigenous leader told DTE. Photo: UNFCCC

Many concerns have been raised over recommendations to include carbon removals for carbon-trading mechanisms under the United Nations. Civil society groups said carbon removals do not align with the 1.5-degree goal of the Paris Agreement.

Article 2.1 of the 2015 Paris Agreement aims to hold increasing temperatures to “well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels” while “pursuing efforts” towards the more ambitious limit of 1.5°C.

They also worry that these recommendations provided by the supervisory body of 6.4 could lead to the violation of the rights of indigenous peoples.

Article 6.4 establishes a mechanism under the United Nations to allow countries to voluntarily cooperate to meet their climate targets. A country that has earned credits by reducing greenhouse gas emissions can sell them to another country to help it meet its climate target.

The supervisory body is responsible for framing recommendations around the types of activities (methodologies) allowed under 6.4 and how they should be verified. It is also tasked with making recommendations on carbon removals, including reporting, monitoring and addressing concerns over the technology and social impacts.

These recommendations will be approved by the Conference of the Parties serving as the meeting of the Parties to the Paris Agreement (CMA).

Once approved, a developer (a country, a business, or an individual) can start issuing the UN-recognised credits for a project only after getting approval from the host country and the supervisory body.

‘Carbon removal’ means removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. It can be land-based like afforestation or reforestation, direct air capture (where big machines suck CO2), soil carbon sequestration using no-till agriculture and other practices, sequestering carbon from biofuel, and the like.

Some ocean-based removals include pumping CO2 into the ocean by spreading iron (ocean fertilisation) or pumping nutrient-rich waters from the depths to the surface and pumping surface waters downward to transport carbon to the ocean depths.

The supervisory body has proposed methodologies under land-based, and engineering-based approaches, such as direct air capture and ocean fertilisation for ‘removals’ in the initial days of the 27th Conference of parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change  summit began.

These recommendations provide a broad definition of removals. It does not distinguish between types of removals, including each activity’s requirements, risks and implications, according to Geoengineering Monitor, a project of Biofuelwatch, Heinrich Boell Foundation and the Global Forest Coalition.

The supervisory body’s recommendations could “potentially throw open the door to geoengineering schemes that risk undermining the integrity of the Paris Agreement and setting the world on a course to blow past 1.5°C,” senior attorney Erika Lennon from the Center for International Environmental Law, said in a statement.

Geoengineering Monitor argued that issuing credits based on land-based removals is problematic because these ecosystems are not permanent.

For example, they can be wiped out by wildfires induced by climate change, the group added.

Oceans and indigenous peoples

Oceans have a vast potential for storing carbon dioxide naturally, Ken Buesseler from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution said at a side event on ocean-based removals at COP27.

Nutrients like iron can increase photosynthesis among phytoplankton, which then incorporate carbon into their system, according to scientists. The remaining uneaten planktons sink to the bottom and lock up the carbon.

“It is a quick process of removing carbon from the atmosphere,” Buesseler said. “In addition to slashing emissions, we must remove carbon to reach Paris Agreement goals,” he added.

But we don’t know the impacts of dumping more CO2 into the deep oceans. With iron fertilisation, we transport carbon and nutrients into the deeper ocean, Carol Turley, a senior scientist and head of international affairs at Plymouth Marine Laboratory, said at the side event.

“We have living things down there; they will break down the carbon. There is a risk that this could transfer acidification to the deep ocean,” she warned. We also don’t know how long the carbon will remain at the ocean’s bottom. This needs to be verified before issuing carbon credits, she explained.

Scientists at the event called for a code of conduct for ethical research on ocean removals.

There are also concerns over human rights violations. Recommendations by the 6.4 supervisory body warned that poorly implemented afforestation or other approaches could adversely impact local livelihoods and the rights of indigenous peoples.

However, there are issues with the recommendation. “There is a caveat at the end about these safeguards being potentially dependent on the national context,” Jonathan Crook, policy officer at Carbon Market Watch, told Down To Earth.

This raises questions on whether exceptions could be made to the rules on respecting human rights, he added.

“A vast majority of indigenous peoples see carbon markets as a false solution,” Ghazali Ohorella, negotiations team leader on Article 6 at International Indigenous Peoples Forum on Climate Change, told DTE.

“But we know carbon markets are happening. We need to be at the table to ensure that it happens the right way,” he added. He highlighted that people might risk losing their lives or land due to a project even when they have sustainable development on paper.

He also said benefit-sharing should be the bare minimum. “Some indigenous peoples want to participate in the market mechanism to gain financial incentives to do their sustainable development projects,” he said.

A member of the supervisory body said they were expected to submit their recommendations on methodologies this year.

We had three meetings in the last four months. We covered only a part of our mandate. Methodological guidance is in the works and needs to be completed by next year, the member told DTE, adding that the body needed extensive time as there was a massive amount of work.

Crook also said the body had less time for their recommendations on removals. Crook added that a rushed and poorly defined definition could have potentially far-reaching consequences.

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