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In a Headline-Making Report, an Overlooked Insight About Carbon Removal

A new climate report says we must phase out fossil fuels — and ramp up CDR.

A rendering of a Climeworks facility.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images, Climeworks

COP is always awash in new policy reports and scientific studies. It can be hard to figure out which are the most important. So I want to draw your attention to a particularly interesting report that came out in Dubai over the weekend. On Sunday, a consortium of climate science groups released this year’s "10 New Insights in Climate Science," a synopsis of the most recent climate research.

The report was written at the invitation of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, and it’s meant to keep negotiators up to date on climate science in between major reports from the larger Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. (Some IPCC authors also work on the "10 New Insights" report.) But it does something interesting that I want to highlight. Here were its top three insights:

A. Overshooting 1.5 degrees Celsius [of global temperature rise] is fast becoming inevitable. Minimizing the magnitude and duration of overshoot is essential.

B. A rapid and managed fossil fuel phase-out is required to stay within the Paris Agreement target range.

C. Robust policies are critical to attain the scale needed for effective carbon dioxide removal (CDR).

The big news here, of course, is the continued message that we are on track to rapidly exceed 1.5 degrees Celsius of temperature rise, the level at which climate change will become especially disastrous. And probably the second biggest news is how the report — which was written before this week — appears to directly contradict recently surfaced remarks from Sultan Al-Jaber, the president of this COP and the head of the U.A.E.’s national oil company. In a video from November 21 first reported by TheGuardian, Al-Jaber said that there was “no science out there, or no scenario out there” to support the idea that fossil fuels must be phased out to stay within the 1.5 degree Celsius limit.

While Al-Jaber denied saying those remarks this morning, the remarks have been a huge deal at COP for the past few days, as they drive at the tension of an oil executive leading an international climate conference.

But I wanted to focus on one more aspect of the report: its endorsement of carbon dioxide removal. The report says steadfastly that carbon dioxide removal is essential to meeting our climate goals, and that we need to invest more in CDR technologies to scale them up fast enough. But it pairs that insight with the idea that we also need to phase out fossil fuels.

Instead of treating carbon dioxide removal as a tissue to cover up emissions — which is the role it can sometimes play in public discussions — it pairs it with the need to phase out fossil fuels.

I asked Oliver Geden, an author of the new report and the head of climate research at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, about that pairing — and about whether mentioning CDR at all would seem to apologize for future fossil-fuel emissions. Here’s what he told me:

“The report directly says that CDR can only be seen as a complement to emissions reductions, not as a substitute to emissions reductions. Of course in the general climate debate, it often appears that proponents of some continued fossil fuel use then evoke CDR. But if you look at the IPCC scenarios, and then you look at national net-zero emissions scenarios, it usually comes only on top — counterbalancing a net-zero pathway, often on hard-to-abate residual emissions from industrialized sectors.”

I think this pairing — a phaseout of fossil fuels and a get-serious moment about CDR — is promising.

In non-COP news, it’s now official: More than 1 million electric cars and light-duty trucks were sold this year in the United States, the largest number ever.

This is Robinson Meyer’s fourth dispatch from Dubai, where he is attending COP28. Read the first here, the second here, and the third here. You can also sign up to receive the next one in your inbox with Heatmap Daily:

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    Robinson Meyer

    Robinson is the founding executive editor of Heatmap. He was previously a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he covered climate change, energy, and technology.

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