What “negative emissions”?

To limit global heating to 1.5 degrees, it will no longer be enough to just cut our pollution; some emissions will likely have to be removed from the atmosphere and permanently stored. Together with partners, Carbon Market Watch launches a new project with the aim to provide decision-makers with concrete policy recommendations to ensure responsible deployment of negative emissions technologies and practices.

“Negative emissions” refers to drawing off greenhouse gasses from the atmosphere and storing them on land, underground or in the oceans. This could be based on natural processes such as forests and land that act as “carbon sinks” (so-called negative emission practices) or a variety of technology solutions.

As we are running out of time to keep global temperature rise to safe levels, the concept has become an important element of several prominent climate modelling exercises. 

Photo by Kelly Lacy from Pexels

For example, in the “1.5°C Special Report” of the UN-backed panel of scientists, the IPCC, all scenarios that are consistent with 1.5°C global heating incorporate negative emissions. The total amounts vary between 100 and 1000 billion (!) tonnes of CO2e captured and stored over the 21st century. We will need some level of negative emissions to account for the fact that over the coming decades, we will emit more than is safely possible in order to stay within the 1.5°C temperature goal. 

The European Green Deal and negative emissions

The EU also relies on negative emissions for its climate policy modelling. The EU 2050 long-term climate strategy includes between 281 and 606 million tonnes of negative emissions annually in the EU in its two scenarios that are deemed compatible with 1.5°C global heating. 

The role of negative emissions technologies and practices in the climate transition remains very controversial. There are plenty of proposed technologies, but currently, none are ready to be deployed globally and many have failed to demonstrate that they would work at scale. Furthermore, some companies (including prominent fossil fuel producers and global IT giants) promote negative emissions as their surefire means to reach carbon neutrality without the need to phase out fossil fuel exploration, extraction, and consumption. Others are investing in technologies that are potentially very harmful to forests and biodiversity with little-to-none long term climate benefits. 

However, as indicated also in the IPCC report mentioned above, a certain level of negative emissions might be necessary for the planet to reach climate neutrality – to deal with the last emissions that are as yet impossible to mitigate. 

It is clear that more information on the impacts of negative emissions is needed, as is clarity on its policy implications. Therefore, a first priority is to analyse the real-world potential, effectiveness and impacts of negative emission technologies and practices (NETPs). This is the aim of a multi-year project called NEGEM, involving Carbon Market Watch and a range of project partners from research institutes and the private sector. We will be paying particular attention to sustainability, social and environmental impacts, social acceptance, and technological opportunities and constraints.

And this is not a philosophical debate: next year the EU will revise its two key climate policies in light of increasing the EU’s 2030 climate ambition through the European Green Deal. Both the EU carbon market (EU ETS) and the Effort Sharing Regulation, which covers the sectors not included in the EU ETS, could include some degree of negative emissions.

If negative emissions are to take a more prominent role in the EU’s climate tools, there is no question that it needs to happen in a well-regulated, predictable and, especially, environmentally safe manner, without distracting from the urgent task to reduce carbon pollution from all sectors of the economy as soon as possible. 

And that is where Carbon Market Watch’s contribution to the NEGEM project comes in. 

Together with Bellona Europa, we will be working specifically on how to define negative emissions in a sensible manner, exploring governance approaches and providing practical recommendations on policies and governance structures to manage a responsible deployment of NETPs. 

For that, we will look deeper into:

  • Accounting for negative emissions in a robust way – with a focus on additionality and permanence of storage
  • Conditions and safeguards related to negative emissions and their trading
  • Maximising sustainable development benefits
  • How negative emissions should fit into EU policy frameworks – and which perverse incentives and loopholes should not be allowed
  • Allocating negative emissions to only those sectors that need it

In the face of a climate breakdown, we must deploy all means possible to ensure a livable planet for future generations. This may very well include sucking carbon out of the atmosphere and storing it. But this doesn’t mean that we can sit back and relax with our immediate efforts to cut pollution. Or that we should listen to oil giants with economic interests tied to carbon capture and storage projects while closing an eye for continued fossil fuel use. 

To keep global heating at 1.5 degrees requires a deep transformation of our societies. Every sector of society must cut pollution and fast. If designed and deployed responsibly, negative emissions technologies can help us deal with the remaining bit that we cannot cut fast enough. 

We will keep you abreast of our work under NEGEM through multiple channels – including the Carbon Market Watch website and social media platforms. 

If you’d like to hear more about this project or are interested in cooperating with us don’t hesitate to contact Wijnand ([email protected]

NEGEM is a four-year project funded by the European Commission. The project consortium consists of 16 partners across Europe.

This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 869192. This article reflects only the author’s view. The European Commission is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information it contains.