Where to now from COP28? Historic summit missed half the problem

Now, more than ever before, Canada needs to step up as a part of a global effort to clean up the excess pollution that we are pouring into the atmosphere.

Originally posted in the Globe and Mail.

Here’s the hard reality: The world will not be able to keep warming below 1.5 C, despite the significant progress at the COP28 climate conference, where countries explicitly called for a transition away from fossil fuels, among other significant measures.

I don’t make this claim lightly. Missing the 1.5 C target, the goal of the 2015 Paris Agreement, is a serious setback that will have far-reaching consequences, and people who have done the least to cause the problem are likely to suffer most.

But how else can we interpret the fact that, at current pollution rates, the world could shoot past the 1.5 C threshold by 2030?

Now, more than ever before, Canada needs to step up as a part of a global effort to clean up the excess pollution that we are pouring into the atmosphere.

Consider the concept of a carbon budget, which is the cumulative amount of carbon dioxide that can be put in the atmosphere before exceeding a specific global temperature target. In the case of the 1.5 C goal, the latest estimates indicate we can only emit another 250 billion tonnes of CO2 if we want to give ourselves even a 50-per-cent chance of avoiding an increase greater than 1.5 C.

If we want to increase our chances of avoiding excessive warming (Would you get in a plane that had a 50-per-cent chance of crashing?), the budget gets smaller. An 83-per-cent chance of avoiding 1.5 C narrows the budget to just 100 billion tonnes, or less than three years of current emissions levels.

The carbon budget makes one fact abundantly clear: We will need to remove a staggering amount of CO2 from the atmosphere to bring cumulative emissions back down to levels that are in line with 1.5 C. The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says that we will need to remove at least six billion tonnes of CO2 a year by 2050. That means creating a new sector from scratch that is bigger than today’s global oil sector (by volume).

Canada can be a leading global player in the quickly emerging CO2 removal (CDR) industry. We are blessed with the necessary natural resources, skilled work force and access to clean energy.

In fact, Canadian companies are already at the forefront of the CDR industry. The first large-scale removal plant in the world is being built right now in Texas, using technology from B.C.-based Carbon Engineering Ltd. Canadian companies are also leaders in removing carbon via the oceanrock minerals and cement, among other methods. Building up CDR could be a large economic win for Canada.

Of course, we can’t ignore the risks presented by removal. CO2 can be toxic in large concentrations if it leaks, and removal must be carefully monitored. Strong regulation is needed to ensure that claims made by CO2 removal companies are independently verified.

The biggest concern about removal – and the reason I suspect it barely appears in COP28′s final text – is that some climate advocates understandably worry that it will reduce the world’s resolve to reduce emissions directly. But a review of the carbon budget should make clear that removal cannot be used as an excuse to delay reductions. After all, the scale of the removal needed for 1.5 C is already a daunting and expensive challenge. Further delaying reductions would only add to the Herculean task.

Canada is a useful case in point. Carbon Removal Canada, an organization I co-founded, estimates that the country will need at least 300 million tonnes of annual removals by 2050 just to eliminate our fair share of the carbon we’ve already put in the atmosphere, assuming we move aggressively toward national net-zero emissions by the 2050 target. That’s more than 1.5 times the annual emissions from Canada’s entire oil and gas sector. Miss our net-zero targets, and our required CDR build-out grows even larger.

It might be tempting to focus on reducing emissions for now and address removals down the road. But new research released in December in the scientific journal Joule shows that we are in a decisive decade for CDR. Even if CDR grows at the pace of high-growth sectors such as the solar industry, the world will only be able to reach CDR levels needed by mid-century if we start building today. For Canada, that means ensuring we have at least a handful of at-scale removal projects under construction by 2030.

Aggressively pursuing reductions and removals together will be a formidable challenge for Canada and the global community. But if the world is serious about keeping long-term warming below 1.5 C, acting on both fronts simultaneously is required to turn the ambitions of the COP process into a reality.

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