Carbon removals vs avoidance: A dangerous distraction
As demonstrated by the many recent headlines covering huge investments by high profile organizations, there’s never been more interest in carbon dioxide removals. There’s a building narrative that investing now to scale these removals will bring the climate crisis under control. Meanwhile other types of carbon credits are increasingly portrayed as low integrity and too little too late.
So does everyone need to shift focus immediately to removals to keep us below 1.5°C? Put simply: no. The climate crisis is a multi-faceted problem, which needs a wide range of tools to address. Removals are important, but engaging in an “either/or” debate is doing more harm than good.
What are removals and avoided emissions credits?
A removals credit is a tradable unit representing 1 ton of CO2 (or equivalent for other greenhouse gases - GHGs) that has been removed from the atmosphere.
This can be done in a variety of ways, from replanting areas of forest, to increasing the rate of chemical reactions with rocks, or sucking the CO2 from the air (aka direct air capture - DAC) and storing it geologically.
An avoided emissions credit also represents 1 ton of CO2e. In this instance, the credit is paying for a project to help prevent GHG emissions that would otherwise have happened. For example, it can pay to protect forests that would otherwise be at risk of being cut down, or it can fund more effective waste management solutions that reduce methane emissions.
Are removals credits simply better quality?
To answer this, we need to understand what quality means for credits; this is the whole reason Sylvera exists. Depending on the project type, key considerations include the quantity of carbon emissions avoided or removed, the additionality of the project - meaning the likelihood that the emissions would not have been avoided or removed anyway - and how permanently the carbon will stay out the atmosphere. Another important consideration is whether the project delivers any co-benefits, which are wider benefits to people, animals or the environment beyond the impact on carbon.
Credit type offers no simple guide to quality. Our in-depth analyses of the biggest projects in the market have identified both removals credits with serious flaws with their project design, and very high quality emissions avoidance credits - and vice versa. Only by looking into the specific characteristics of each project can we understand how good they are.
While there is a range of emerging options for removals projects, most are still very limited in scale. There are two types of removals projects getting a large amount of attention now: nature-based and DAC. Let’s consider the distinction between the these types of removals credit and avoidance credits:
The big picture
The second consideration when considering removals vs avoidance credits is the role these projects will play in the global context of combating climate change. Again, the perception that removals credits have higher “environmental integrity” is a generalization that does not reflect the nuanced reality.
Let’s look at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) pathways to limit warming to 1.5°C:
Beyond 2050 we will need net zero emissions to the atmosphere, and probably even negative emissions. The IPCC recognizes that removals will be essential for this, because even by 2050 we will not have developed technology to avoid 100% of emissions worldwide.
In the shorter term, the clear message is that to have a fighting chance of meeting our global climate goals we need a very big reduction in GHGs emissions, very soon.
Can’t we just remove any emissions with this amazing technology that sucks CO2 out of the air? While technological removals such as DAC have some major benefits, principally very high permanence, there are several reasons why placing all our bets on this is not only a bad idea, but impossible:
The scale of removals needed
Removals simply do not exist anywhere near the scale we need now. Even with optimistic projections of how fast and far we can scale removals, we can’t wait until we do scale them. We need to cut emissions in half by the end of this decade. Cumulative emissions matter, and we’re already hitting the absolute limit for capping warming to 1.5°C.
On average, it costs orders of magnitude more to remove a ton of CO2 than to avoid its emission in the first place. We might wish it were different, but we have limited budgets to spend on mitigating climate change. We can achieve much more impact by investing in avoiding emissions in the first place. To be clear, we do need to invest in scaling removals. But it’s not the only impactful way to help fight climate change.
The scientific uncertainty
Research has shown that the climate impacts of removing one ton of CO2 from the atmosphere is not equal and opposite to preventing that ton of CO2 from being emitted in the first place. When scientists consider the complex interactions with emission sinks, they find different, less successful, climate outcomes from removing CO2 than avoiding its emission in the first place. The larger the scale of the removals, the bigger this effect is.
Funding emissions avoidance projects through carbon markets has benefits beyond carbon, which many removals projects (particularly technological approaches) don’t have. There are countless examples, from the invaluable biodiversity benefits of protecting the Amazon, to the health benefits of providing clean cookstoves, and the development impacts of green energy projects in the Global South.
The solution? The mitigation hierarchy
So what can organisations do, given this worrying global context?
- Everyone and every company should reduce their own emissions
First, as much as possible, reduce their own, in-house emissions. This could be by switching a vehicle fleet to electric, or implementing more energy efficient processes to reduce energy needs.
- Value chain mitigation
Second, reduce emissions in the value chain (any emissions related to goods, services, and supply chains). Invest in mitigating these emissions as fast and as far as possible, and push for suppliers, customers and other stakeholders to do the same.
- Support global-scale emissions reductions through buying high quality credits
Third, support efforts to reduce global emissions as far and as fast as possible. Many emissions reduction activities have a prohibitive upfront or opportunity cost. This is especially true in the Global South, where activities depended upon to drive growth in the short term are often extremely damaging to the environment. Carbon markets are the best existing mechanism we have for providing funding to incentivize emissions reduction projects and deliver clean development.
- Invest in scaling removals
Our failure to act sooner and more dramatically on mitigating climate change means that we will need to remove at least some CO2 from the atmosphere, and continue to remove any emissions that technologically cannot be avoided. The investment we are already seeing is important to make sure these technologies are reliably available at scale.
Removals credits aren’t intrinsically bad, unnecessary or a waste of money. Neither are avoided emissions credits. Promoting one at the expense of another not only over-simplifies a complex issue, but might actively harm our fight against climate change.
To use a metaphor: when the bath is overflowing, mopping the floor isn’t enough. We need to turn off the taps.
So it is true with GHGs in the atmosphere. We need value chain mitigation, we need funding for emissions reductions across the globe, and we need to invest in scaling removals. If we keep promoting an “either/or” narrative, we may end up stifling essential investment in emissions reductions projects, and then there’s no hope for 1.5°C.
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