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We cannot let the markets decide how carbon is removed from the atmosphere in the future
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We cannot let the markets decide how carbon is removed from the atmosphere in the future

An industrial building in a rocky valley


Companies and countries are making net zero emission pledges. Many of these pledges depend on huge amounts of carbon reduction, but details about how this will be achieved remain largely unspecified. The COP26 agreement indicates that markets will play a central roleHowever, there are serious problems with this approach.

Carbon removal, also known as “negative emissions”, is the process of removing large amounts of CO₂ from the atmosphere. While planting trees is the most popular method, there are also other options. These include combining bioenergy plants with carbon capture and storageA technology or name that refers to, direct air capture. Both of these are currently only possible at very small scales.

Many activists scientistsLarge-scale carbon removal is a pipedream. major distractionFrom near-term emission cuts. Others believe that emissions reductions alone will not be sufficient to reach ambitious climate targets. has closedThis would be irresponsible and even illegal. unjustTo completely write off carbon removal

No matter your position in this debate, it is becoming increasingly obvious that we cannot let the markets decide whether and how carbon should be removed from the atmosphere. But that is exactly what is happening. Everyone is welcome. European oil majorsTo big techThe market demand for carbon removal is driving investors to increase their investments.

Already, we see a rapid increase in forest-based carbon offsets, even though carbon stored within trees cannot. compensate for continued fossil fuel emissions. Microsoft, among others, is taking a longer-term approach to investing in direct aerial capture and a variety other options. other new technologies.

This trend is expected to be amplified with the new market mechanism that was agreed upon by the countries at COP26. It is hoped that it will lead to a veritable boom in carbon offsetsRemovals will likely play an increasingly important role in this sector. While it wouldn’t be the first time such high hopes end up deflated, many corporations clearly see the prospect of (cheap) removal credits as an appealing alternative to direct emission cuts.

An industrial building in a rocky valley

This direct air capture pilot plant in Canada removes one tonne of CO₂ per day.
David Buzzard / shutterstock

It’s not surprising that carbon reduction governance is being criticized in light of the market-friendly, corporate-friendly regime that has dominated climate policy for decades. moving in this direction. This approach, however, closes the door to a discussion on crucial questions: What and whose carbon should it remove? How should that be done?

Whose emissions are “unavoidable”?

In scientific models, one of the main features of carbon removal is its ability to “cancel out” continued greenhouse gas emissions, creating a climate-neutral balance between emissions and removals (hence the “net” in net zero). This allows some carbon-intensive activities such as mining and construction to continue while still meeting climate targets.

This balance act is essential. the argument goesBecause some emissions are difficult (or uneconomical), to eliminate, at minimum over the next decades. Emissions from steel, cement, agriculture, shipping, aviation, and other industries are all common examples. While this might sound reasonable, there are no binding rules or criteria for deciding which emissions belong in this “hard-to-abate” or “residual” category. Despite efforts from NGOs, private actors and others to define voluntary standardsIt is in fact countries and companies that are currently able to determine what emissions are difficult-to-abate and how much removal they will need.

Large plane takes off at sunset

Electric planes are some way off, so aviation emissions are often considered hard-to-abate or ‘residual’.
OlegRi / shutterstock

This obviously creates opportunities for greenwashing – and corporate net zero pledges already offer countless examplesIn this direction. But there is an additional concern: the demand from corporations seeking compensation for what they consider “necessary” emissions risks overshooting the realistic maximum amount of carbon removalThis takes away the opportunities for those who have a more legitimate need to continue emitted in the short-term.

It is important that you remember this realistic carbon removal capacityIt is very limited. The more countries and companies depend on removals, the greater. energy, land and resourcesThey will need. It is important to limit carbon removal in order to minimize undesirable outcomes for ecosystems and people.

Allocation of residual emissions budget

What is at stake, then, is the use and allocation of limited carbon removal capacity (you could call it a “residual emissions budget”). This begs the question: Which emissions are worth compensating for? Which activities or groups of people can have a claim on residual emissions?

This is to abandon the idea that carbon reduction must be done in a fair and responsible manner. This basically means that those who have the greatest purchasing power can take the largest share of residual emissions budget to offset carbon-intensive activities.

A fair allocation model would recognize that some countries have greater capacity and responsibility for rapid emission reductions than others and would allow developing countries access to the majority of the residual emissions budget. In such a model, it should still be wealthy countries and corporations that carry the burdens of carbon removal – they would just not be able to count this towards their own mitigation targets.

Continue reading:
A global carbon removal industry is coming – experts explain the problems it must overcome

The carbon removal market is currently a free-for all. Allowing this to continue will likely lead the to a race for the bottom and the proliferation low-quality projects. There are many examples of carbon markets in the past. profiteering, land grabbingThe violation of human rightsProjects that are a good fit for the environment failed to deliver overall mitigation benefits. These are warning signs for anyone who believes in a carbon market.

The important political questions of whether carbon removal should be included in mitigation efforts, how much, or how to allocate the limited allowance among different actors, are all matters for democratic institutions, and not private capital markets. If governments want to be accountable for their actions and protect the environment, they must increase carbon removal regulation. At a minimum, governments should agree on a limit on residual emissions and binding, climate justice aligned criteria for the types of emissions that carbon reduction can compensate for.


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