The European Commission’s blueprint for certifying carbon removals risks turning into a carbon loophole bonanza that will slow down the deep and sustained decarbonisation transition the EU urgently needs.
Today, the European Commission published its proposal for a Carbon Removal Certification Framework (CRCF), which puts in place a system for the certification, monitoring and accounting of carbon removals in the EU. Although the proposal is only meant to provide a basic framework to be expanded over time, the absence of details on certain critical issues – such as the role of removals in EU climate action, permanence of storage and liability for reversals – creates gaping loopholes that can undermine the European Union’s climate goals.
In this way, the Commission has missed a key opportunity to lay the scientifically sound groundwork for effective, dedicated and separate EU removal targets and policies to complement EU climate action by mopping up the very last emissions that cannot be eliminated and by sucking up some of the excess greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
“Rather than removing carbon from the atmosphere, this framework risks removing meaningful climate action from the EU policy agenda,” says Sam Van den plas, policy director at Carbon Market Watch. “What matters is what happens in the atmosphere, not what happens in offsetting ledgers. Certifying carbon removals needs to be done in a scientifically credible way for it to make sense for tackling the climate crisis.”
The definition of ambiguity
The CRCF fails to employ a consistent and robust definition of carbon removals, and even illogically defines emissions reductions from natural sinks as removals. In addition, the proposal lumps together a broad range of activities (some of which are not even carbon removals), ignoring their very diverse effects on the climate and ecosystems.
For example, the CRCF erroneously groups together three types of “carbon removal activities”: permanent storage, storage in products, and carbon farming (also known as storage in the biosphere). This is problematic because each of these methods store carbon for very different durations, present varying monitoring difficulties and run very different risks of reversals.
“The irony is lost on the Commission that only one of the three types is defined as leading to permanent storage, which should be a fundamental criteria for all removals. Why are non-permanent removals even included in this scheme?” questions Wijnand Stoefs, Carbon Market Watch’s Lead on carbon removals.
Effective storage of carbon needs to be permanent (i.e. lasting at least several centuries), but the CRCF labels temporary, even fleeting, storage in products and in soil as equally valuable as permanent geological storage.
“The European Commission is mixing apples and oranges and then putting them in the same basket with the eggs. Temporary carbon storage is fundamentally different from long-lasting carbon removals, and any climate policy framework should keep that separation at its core. A tonne is not a tonne,” says Stoefs
Betting the farm on removals
The inclusion of a broad set of potential carbon farming activities is also highly problematic. There are major differences in climate impact between carbon stored in trees, soil or peatlands: this proposal ignores those differences.
Even worse, greenhouse gases released from natural carbon sinks are not counted, creating a massive loophole for hiding emissions from the land sector. However, emissions linked directly or indirectly to the removal activity, even in the case of carbon farming, must be accounted for to ensure that only net removals are certified.
“Despite all the pressure to accommodate vested ‘carbon farming’ interests in this proposal, the atmosphere cannot be cheated. In order to create carbon clarity, all emissions should be accounted for, not just the removals,” says Stoefs.
By steering clear of defining the use, financing and role of carbon removals, the CRCF has the potential to be misused for offsetting fossil fuel emissions instead of rapidly and significantly slashing emissions. This also means there is no clarity on how the CRCF fits into those EU policies already dealing with nature-based removals and farming, such as the Land Use, Land Use Change and Forestry (LULUCF) regulation or the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).
“The CRCF should have slammed the door tightly shut against the sale of carbon removals as offsets on voluntary and compliance carbon markets,” insists Stoefs. “Deep, fast and sustained emissions reductions must be the absolute top priority in European climate policy.”
In addition, the proposed framework fails to set out clear rules for who is responsible for reversals that release stored carbon back into the atmosphere, such as droughts or fires destroying forests, which might occur years, decades or even centuries from now. The CRCF merely refers to “appropriate liability mechanisms” for reversals.
This vagueness is a gift to polluters, as it holds nobody responsible for when temporary removals used to “offset” fossil emissions inevitably re-enter the atmosphere. “The Commission has left the door wide open to temporary solutions masquerading as permanent storage, landing future generations with the burden of our climate inaction and creative accounting, and further hampering intergenerational climate justice,” observes Stoefs.
Do no harm
On the positive side, the Commission has taken environmental sustainability seriously, and included a list of sustainability objectives that need to be taken into account when certifying carbon removals. The goal is to make sure that removal activities have a ‘positive or neutral impact’ on ecosystems. This Includes climate adaptation, protection of water resources, pollution prevention, and, critically, the protection and restoration of biodiversity and ecosystems.
However, the specific requirement for carbon farming to have a positive impact on all the sustainability objectives was dropped compared to a previous leak of the proposal. “The Commission squandered the opportunity to ensure that the controversial practice of carbon farming at least positively contributes to the wellbeing and restoration of natural ecosystems,” adds Fabiola De Simone, policy expert on carbon removals at Carbon Market Watch.
Even though the aforementioned sustainability criteria seem to enshrine sound environmental safeguards, the proposal fails to address and implement social safeguards concerning land rights that would prevent land grabbing and safeguard the rights of small scale-farmers and local communities.
The CRCF proposal will now pass to the European Parliament and the Council of the European Union, as part of the so-called co-legislative process. Carbon Market Watch will hold these two Institutions accountable to make sure the CRCF becomes a meaningful climate tool.