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Unsustainable business cycles trump sustainable carbon cycles in EU’s CO2 removals strategy

The European Commission released today its much-anticipated Sustainable Carbon Cycles Communication. The strategy undermines its own goals of reducing atmospheric carbon concentration by allowing companies to use removals to offset their emissions in the future.

The strategy sets out a blueprint for how the European Union can harness carbon dioxide removals and so-called carbon farming to help achieve the EU’s climate targets.

“The Communication is not a mature vision of how removals and storage should work in the future,” says Wijnand Stoefs, Carbon Market Watch’s policy officer specialising in carbon removal. “It risks undermining the European Green Deal and the Climate Law as it would damage the environmental integrity of the EU’s climate targets.”

Although the principle of deep emission reductions takes priority over carbon removals, this aspiration is largely compromised because the proposed EU strategy could allow for removals to be traded as emissions offsets in the EU’s Emissions Trading System (ETS), its Climate Action Regulation and the Land Use, Land-use Change, and Forestry (LULUCF) Regulation after 2030.

Pandora’s box

Offsets, through which emissions are balanced against removals, are a zero-sum game that do not actually reduce emissions, thereby diluting the effectiveness of the strategy to lower the levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

For more on why this is problematic, read ‘There is no cheating the atmosphere’.

“The Commission is opening a Pandora’s box by allowing carbon removals to be used for offsetting purposes. Even worse, some of those removals may be low quality and non-permanent,” explains Stoefs. “The Commission is prioritising attracting and pleasing big business looking for the fig leaf of removal credits above the environmental integrity of the removals themselves. The Commission is letting business off the hook for their pollution.”

For that reason, Carbon Market Watch demands that carbon removals are counted separately from emissions reductions and that the possibility for offsetting is closed off.

False solutions

A troubling element of the Communication relates to how some of what should be permanent removals from the atmosphere are actually temporary in nature. For carbon removals to be regarded as ‘permanent’, they must store the extracted carbon for at least a few centuries.

To avoid the risks associated with temporarily stored carbon being rereleased into the atmosphere even though it has been permanently removed on paper, the Commission must clearly define permanence of storage from the start to avoid confusion later in the process.

Then, there is the issue of accidental or intentional reversals when, for example, bush or forest fires destroy forests being used for removals, or carbon farming practices are abandoned.

The European Commission must put in place a clear framework for who is liable for bearing the costs of these reversals and how they are to be held accountable, especially as some of these may occur generations from now.

Virtuous cycles

The Sustainable Carbon Cycle Communication also contains many promising ingredients that, if harnessed properly, could lead to real reductions in greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere. In addition to a cautious approach to carbon removals this decade, the Communication’s domestic scope is welcome and the proposed Carbon Removal Certification Mechanism has much to recommend it.

There is also increased transparency in terms of accounting: each tonne of CO2 captured, transported, used and stored will be recorded by its fossil, biogenic or atmospheric origin by 2028.

In order to build on these positive elements, the European Commission must fix the problems highlighted above when regulating removals in the future, starting with the Carbon Removal Certification Mechanism. Failure to do so will mean that this strategy cannot achieve its full potential and will hinder, rather than help, climate action.

“We have the power to reduce the amount of CO2 in the air and improve our chances of slowing down catastrophic global heating, we hope the EU will not squander this golden opportunity,” urges Stoefs.


Further reading

Open letter to the European Commission on sustainable carbon cycles

Penetrating the carbon removal smokescreen

Up in smoke – California fires once again highlight dangers of forest offsets


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