COP28 to stimulate nature-based solutions

Conference would be a major milestone if the countries agree on climate actions

By Andrey Melnichenko

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Published: Thu 30 Nov 2023, 8:41 PM

The 28th United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP28) will commence in Dubai today. Despite ongoing events in international geopolitics, the climate agenda remains at the forefront of global attention.

The choice of the UAE to host COP is logical, considering how actively the country’s leadership participates in achieving global climate goals. The Emirates were the first country in the Middle East to set a target of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. As stated by His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and the Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, the country aims to triple the share of energy from renewable sources by 2050 and will focus on hydrogen as a source of clean energy.

Andrey Melnichenko
Andrey Melnichenko

However, the hosts of the conference face two challenging weeks. This year’s COP is significant because the first results of the 2015 Paris Agreement will be announced. Unfortunately, the news does not inspire optimism: global greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise, and the climate has already warmed by 1.1 degrees since the pre-industrial era, surpassing the agreed-upon limit of 1.5-2 degrees. The only achievement so far has been a slowdown in the annual growth of greenhouse gas concentration in the atmosphere, from 2.1 per cent in the period between 2000-09 to 1.3 per cent currently. However, this concentration has already exceeded the pre-industrial level by 50 per cent.

The leading scientific hypothesis attributes climate warming to the increase in the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. The total annual emissions from the earth’s surface amount to approximately 860 gigatonnes (Gt) in CO2 equivalent. However, it’s often overlooked that only 56Gt of these emissions are associated with human economic activities (anthropogenic emissions). Yet, these six per cent are the focus of attention in the Paris Agreement, and efforts to reduce them include a shift away from fossil fuels, the accelerated development of renewable energy, electrification of transport, and industrial decarbonisation. The potential of these actions, given the current level of technology, is not infinite. They require enormous and scarce financial resources, and many countries would have to abandon their accustomed models of economic growth. This is one reason why the Paris Agreement is straining to make significant progress.

If, despite all efforts, we are struggling to reduce the 56Gt of emissions generated by human activities, wouldn’t it make sense — without diminishing these efforts — to take a closer look at the remaining 94 per cent of emissions? These emissions originate from natural landscapes, including soil, plant decay, natural fires, swamps, the world’s oceans, and so forth. Moreover, due to global warming, these emissions are on the rise, making it even more challenging to achieve global climate goals. For instance, warming temperatures in the Arctic threaten uncontrollable thawing of permafrost — a gigantic natural reservoir containing 1400-1800Gt of carbon. Methane and CO2 emissions from it can add 0.5-2Gt CO2-eq per year, and under certain scenarios, permafrost could become a methane bomb, with emissions many times greater than greenhouse gases.

It is evident that each CO2 molecule is the same. It possesses identical physical properties, including its impact on the greenhouse effect, regardless of the molecule’s source — whether it is emitted from a fossil fuel power station, a diesel vehicle, emissions from thawing permafrost or the world’s oceans.

Humanity can influence these emissions through projects that prevent ecosystem emissions or improve carbon dioxide absorption, known as Nature-based Solutions (NBS). Even relatively inexpensive NBS projects — such as improved forest management, steppe and savannah restoration, fire prevention, and tundra greening to mitigate permafrost thaw — can reduce, according to UNEP estimates, net emissions by 10-18Gt CO2 equivalent per year, nearly one-third of all global anthropogenic emissions by 2050. The overall potential of implementing nature-based solutions on land and in the ocean, along with geoengineering projects, according to scientists’ calculations, may exceed 150Gt CO2 equivalent per year. This means it could be several times more than all emissions produced by humanity.

Why isn’t this enormous potential for mitigating global temperature rise being utilised? Projects have already started to be implemented in Africa, Latin America, China, and other countries. However, the carbon units obtained from these projects can only be realised on voluntary carbon markets, where the price ranges from $0.5 to $8 per tonne of CO2 equivalent. This is insufficient for their profitability. There are regulated carbon markets with mandatory quota purchases, the largest of which is the European Trading System, with prices reaching up to $100 per tonne. However, results from natural projects are not accepted there. These markets are largely monopolised by suppliers of technology for energy and industrial decarbonisation. As a result, standardised accounting rules for natural climate projects have not been established, and knowledge about their potential is insufficient.

If a more robust market emerged, within which the results of high-quality and well-founded Nature-based Solutions (NBS) were recognised for meeting climate commitments, it would serve as a tremendous stimulus for their effective implementation. It appears that the driving force in this process could be the BRICS+ countries, including the UAE, which joined the organisation this year.

Considering that BRICS+ countries account for 40 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions, they possess the largest potential in terms of natural ecosystems — more than 30 per cent of the world’s territory and approximately 40 per cent of global forests. This potential gives BRICS+ countries the opportunity to achieve climate goals without slowing down their economic growth or relinquishing their resources, by actively managing emissions in natural landscapes. Within BRICS+, emissions could be effectively offset: some countries have fuel and energy resources (UAE, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Egypt, Iran), while others (Brazil, Argentina, Ethiopia) have the potential for implementing climate projects. Russia, India, and China play in both arenas.

The UAE has already made significant progress in utilising the opportunities presented by climate projects. For instance, The Abu Dhabi Global Market announced a month ago the commencement of carbon unit sales. The first deal was concluded between the First Abu Dhabi Bank and Helix Climate. Supported by Sheikh Ahmed Dalmook Al Maktoum, a member of the Dubai royal family, the company Blue Carbon has entered into agreements for the implementation of “green” projects in Liberia, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, and Zambia under Article 6 of the Paris Agreement.

The Committee on Climate Policy and Carbon Regulation of the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs (RSPP), headed by me, pays the greatest attention to implementation of climate projects. It Russia, too, there is a Registry of their results.

This activity, currently developing locally in the UAE and other BRICS+ countries, could reach a fundamentally different level if a common space for exchanging the results of climate projects among BRICS+ member countries was established. The first step would be a shared infrastructure for implementing climate projects, including emission assessment methodology, unified project verification, and project exchange accounting between countries. The central element of this infrastructure could be the Unified Registry of Carbon Units of BRICS+ Countries. Such a decision could be taken at the 2024 BRICS+ summit in Kazan, Russia – and the UAE could join this initiative. While creating this would require considerable effort, it would lay the foundation for real demand for carbon units, including those from natural solutions.

Given the disappointing pace of Paris Agreement implementation, interest in Nature-based Solutions (NBS) is likely to increase. The upcoming COP28 in Dubai may precisely be the point from which this interest can become more tangible and organised. I am aware that numerous relevant projects will be presented during the conference, including a large-scale climate project in the Arctic called “Pleistocene Park.” Its goal is to demonstrate natural solutions to prevent massive emissions of carbon dioxide and methane from thawing permafrost. An interactive exhibition of this project will be featured in a separate pavilion at COP28.

I would like to call on UN Conference participants to define specific mechanisms for intergovernmental interaction to stimulate such nature-based solutions. COP28 would be a major milestone if the countries supporting these actions are united by initiating a permanent body under the auspices of the UNFCCC.

— Andrey Melnichenko is the Chairman of the RSPP’s Climate Policy and Carbon Regulation Committee. Views expressed are his own and do not reflect the newspaper’s policy.

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