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This post was guest-written by Brynn Esterly, Climate Vault’s CDR Projects Manager after attending Carbon Unbound 2024. Connect with Brynn on LinkedIn here

I had the pleasure of attending my third Carbon Unbound conference this past May, and this one felt different to me. I couldn’t help but experience a mix of excitement and nostalgia throughout the event, as this year’s conference was held in NYC’s financial district (or “FiDi”). This is the place where I first started a career in finance nearly 15 years ago that would ultimately set me on the path to sustainability. 

It was my first job out of college and my first time living in New York City. I would emerge from the subway beneath the spires of Trinity Church every morning, grab lunch at the corner deli on Stone Street, walk past the New York Stock Exchange or the infamous “Charging Bull” on my way to get afternoon coffee, and have countless post-work gatherings at Fraunces Tavern.

It was also during these first few years on the job where I learned about corporate sustainability, ESG criteria, and the importance of factoring these criteria into business and investment decisions. After several years I would conclude, “I really like this ESG stuff,” and decide to transform this new passion of mine into a full-time role in sustainability. So, I decided to take the plunge and enrolled as a part-time student in a Sustainability Management Master’s program, completing the program and ultimately making my way to my work in carbon removal.

And that is how all these years later I found myself in FiDi yet again, only this time for Carbon Unbound 2024. 

My world had come full-circle. Here I was, at a carbon removal conference, in the place where I first began my career and exploration into the sustainability space. I was surrounded by an impressive group of industry peers, attending a CDR buyers’ breakfast around the corner from Trinity Church, meeting for coffee under the trees at Zuccotti Park, and walking past the bronze bull on my way to an industry happy hour at Fraunces. I was back in my element. With this excitement and nostalgia, I approached the conference ready to learn, contribute, and be inspired by others in the climate and carbon removal space.

There are five themes that stuck with me in particular from the conference, and that I believe will be critical for achieving our climate initiatives, which I’ve shared in this blog. 

#1 – The Biomass Dilemma

Something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is biomass. Yes, biomass. 

While there are a variety of carbon removal solutions being developed and deployed, many of them rely on biomass feedstocks as the initial source of carbon removal. These solutions use plants to capture carbon and then convert it into stable storage forms, making biomass a crucial input. Think biochar, bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS), biomass carbon removal and storage (BiCRS), terrestrial biomass growth and sinking, and so forth.

Often, these projects use sustainably-sourced biomass, like cleared forest brush or “waste biomass” such as agricultural residues that would have otherwise been burned or left to rot in the field. In doing so, these technologies offer a more productive use for these feedstocks, both from an economic and climate perspective. However, with gigaton-scale carbon removal required by mid-century, relying heavily on the scale-up of biomass-dependent solutions, such as biochar and BECCS, will likely prove problematic.

As we know, the amount of land available is limited, requiring trade-offs for its productive use. Therefore, deciding what is the most productive use of land, and how much of that land is allocated for CDR feedstocks, is a critical consideration and limiting factor for scaling biomass feedstock-based CDR technologies. That decision will also vary across countries, as each country faces unique land use challenges. 

Moreover, as demand for biomass grows, competition and costs will likely increase. To me, this begs the question: At what point does “waste biomass” become a valuable commodity, and what would this change mean for CDR companies relying on these feedstocks? I asked a number of conference attendees about their thoughts on this “biomass dilemma”, and the truth is that the answer to this problem is not clear-cut. However, there was consensus that biomass and land constraints will become a problem at scale and is a topic that should be addressed as we push for scale in the carbon removal space.

#2 – Marine CDR: A Shared Learning Curve

Upon entering the carbon removal industry, I quickly discovered that we’re all navigating a steep learning curve together. We are collectively at the forefront of a nascent industry, brimming with potential, but also burdened with many unknowns that we are working together in real-time to solve. This reality has never been so clear to me as when exploring the marine CDR (mCDR) space.

The technological development and implementation of marine CDR solutions has lagged behind other terrestrial and technological CDR approaches. This is due in large part to the ocean’s vast and complex nature, making ocean modeling a uniquely challenging endeavor. Therefore, an ongoing area of study and debate is how best to establish monitoring, reporting, and verification (MRV) standards for mCDR solutions. 

Clear MRV standards are crucial for building trust, but field research takes time, which we don’t have in the face of the climate crisis. At the Carbon Unbound conference, it was noted that start-ups are often leading the way in advancing mCDR projects and gathering important field data, while scientific research follows. Although it is encouraging to see these project developers pushing ahead to advance promising mCDR technologies, this urgency-driven role reversal highlights the need for dedicated research to understand the full potential, and potential impacts, from mCDR technologies as they work towards deploying at scale. 

Going forward, I hope to see more collaborative efforts among mCDR start-ups, the scientific community, governments, and other stakeholders in order to advance MRV for mCDR solutions and develop the best-available science. As expressed by several leaders from mCDR start-ups, local communities often view mCDR projects as risky due to potential environmental and economic impacts. Therefore, conducting rigorous research, and making those findings transparent and accessible to the public, can help to build trust with these stakeholders.

On this note, it’s worth mentioning that the National Science Foundation (NSF) recently issued a request for information as it develops a plan to advance mCDR research. Over the past few months, I had the pleasure of working with one of Climate Vault’s Tech Chamber experts to develop and submit a response to NSF’s call for input. A key area of focus in our response? You guessed it: MRV.

#3 – Supplier Application Fatigue 

As Climate Vault’s CDR Projects Manager, I spend a lot of my time meeting with CDR companies interested in our RFP Program for Innovative Carbon Removal Solutions. Recently, at the Carbon Unbound conference, the issue of CDR supplier application fatigue was a recurring theme.

To secure carbon removal purchases and other sources of funding, CDR suppliers often need to complete extensive applications, which can be particularly taxing for small organizations. These applications, including those for Climate Vault’s RFP Program, are time- and resource-intensive, with no two being identical. However, many suppliers note overlaps in buyer criteria, even if questions are phrased differently. Publicly-available procurement applications from Microsoft and Frontier show some of these similarities.

This raises the question: How can we streamline the procurement process to benefit both buyers and suppliers? For instance, if most questionnaires have 30 questions, with 10 asking for the same information in different ways, could buyers collectively agree to standardize these 10 questions? Would this approach streamline or complicate the application process?

At Carbon Unbound, a supplier suggested creating a common platform with standardized assessment criteria that could be accessed by all parties, in real time. Suppliers would upload their data, allowing buyers to easily access and assess the information as part of their procurement processes. It’s an intriguing idea, but who should lead this initiative?

During a campfire discussion at the conference, I proposed that trade associations like the Negative Emissions Platform, the Carbon Removal Alliance, and the Carbon Business Council could spearhead this effort. By bringing key players together and facilitating alignment on carbon removal criteria, these associations could significantly enhance the procurement process and aid the growth of the CDR space.

#4 – Reaching Gigaton-Scale: Common Contradictions

There was a theme of contradictions woven throughout the conference, which was neatly summarized during the final panel discussion. For example, there were calls for “fast but responsible” deployments; “novel yet standardized” approaches; “diverse but redundant” carbon removal technologies; and the need to move “quickly but cautiously” to deploy carbon removal at scale. It’s true that, at the surface, these statements appear to clearly contradict one another, but I believe there is a fine balance that can be struck.

As a life-long runner, I’ve often heard the mantra “It’s a marathon, not a sprint.” But much like I’ve found for running, carbon removal can be both things at once—a marathon and a sprint. We have a lot of ground to cover, but we need to strive to cover the distance as quickly as possible. Finding that balance, just like finding your optimal marathon pace, requires planning, preparation, and the ability to navigate unforeseen obstacles. Similarly, as players in the carbon removal ecosystem, we must keep a long-term view, while striving every day to close the gap to achieve gigaton-scale carbon removal by 2050, as quickly as possible. It may seem like a contradiction, but it’s the best way forward to ensure we cross the finish line in our goal time. I don’t know about you, but I’m hoping for a gigaton-scale personal best in this marathon.

#5 – What I’m Reading Next

Finally, there were a number of exciting announcements during the two-day Carbon Removal conference. One of these was the publication of Equatic’s methodology for electrolytic ocean-based CDR. 

As previously mentioned, there is still much work to be done to implement transparent and reliable MRV approaches for CDR solutions, particularly in the mCDR space. I’m looking forward to reading the methodology and seeing how it can help to forward this critical approach to carbon removal. 

Final Thoughts

Thank you to the Carbon Unbound 2024 team for hosting another excellent event and for everyone in the carbon removal space in attendance. For me, this year’s conference underscored the need to continue to develop an array of diverse technologies across the terrestrial, technological and oceanic pathways. All solutions will face their own unique challenges in achieving scale, so developing a mosaic of high-quality carbon removal solutions is paramount to achieving our carbon removal ambitions.

We have a large hill to climb in order to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. The discussion at the conference was by turns urgent and hopeful, and I was glad to be there and contribute toward our collective goals. Attending conferences like this serves as an important reminder to me about everything we are working towards, and all the ways in which we are working towards them, on a daily basis. And perhaps most importantly, it reminds me of the tremendous difference we can make when we commit to a common cause. 

Now, let’s get out there and remove some carbon!

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About Brynn Esterly

Brynn Esterly is a climate and sustainability professional with 10+ years of experience within the financial services industry. In her current role as Climate Vault’s CDR Projects Manager she is responsible for leading the annual RFP process for innovative CDR solutions. Her expertise spans environmental markets, product management, investor relations and corporate communications. She received a Masters in Sustainability Management from Columbia University. Connect with Brynn on LinkedIn here