Carbon removals are no magic climate or development bullet

The UN-backed ‘Carbon Removal Pioneers’ stoke the development dreams of African countries but crash against the reality of climate science.

Given the scale of the challenge of needing to remove CO2 from the atmosphere over the 21st century to help keep global warming within a relatively tolerable 1.5°C, who doesn’t want to hear from carbon removal pioneers, especially from the Global South?

‘Carbon removals pioneers from the Global South’, an event which took place on the sidelines of COP27 in Sharm el-Sheikh, was framed by moderator James Mwangi from the Climate Action Platform Africa around the need for the “fastest scaling ever attempted by humanity” and the idea that Africa holds all the resources needed to be a major player in this expansion: land, renewable energy sources, minerals and ingenuity. 

The event went on to showcase carbon removal projects from Kenya, Uganda and India: direct air capture, biochar and sequestration in mangroves. The representatives of these projects spoke passionately about the co-benefits these initiatives create or could create, such as their potential for improving healthcare and creating jobs locally. The most touching must have been: “Carbon removals don’t just suck carbon out of the air, they sustain our lives and improve our living standards,” as Priya Yadav of Organic for Climate, an India-based agricultural platform, put it. 

The next part of the programme focused on financing and the development of an enabling environment. It featured Sanjeev Khagram, who is dean of the Thunderbird School of Global Management which is involved in the muti-stakeholder Global Carbon Removal partnership, and Helen Mountford, the CEO of US-based philanthropic organisation Climate Works Foundation, which has a dedicated carbon removals programme. Khagram spoke about the scale of the challenge, while Mountford focused on the idea that carbon removal projects would “remove the legacy carbon” in a “safe and socially responsible” manner. It was unclear what she meant by “safe”.

Last up was Nigel Topping, a UN Climate Champion who has been put in charge of “enhancing the engagement of non-state actors in delivering the goals of the Paris Agreement”. He introduced the so-called ‘2030 Breakthrough on carbon removals’: “By 2030, carbon dioxide removals are responsibly scaled to remove 3.5 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide per year. 500 million tonnes of this must be stored for at least 100 years.” 

How this aim would be achieved and who had committed to achieving it, he did not explain. Neither was it explicit what was going to happen to the remaining lion’s share of the target: 3 billion tonnes.

Topping was big on rhetoric around the “need for audacious dreams”, the “obligation to tell positive stories and make them happen” as well as the “moral authority 2.0” apparently exhibited by the showcased removals pioneers, who do not act as victims of climate change but as entrepreneurs in the solution space. This is all very well but the problem is not that we lack the audacity to dream but that “moral authority 2.0” compels us to sound the alarm when telling positive stories conflicts with scientific reality.

Removed from reality

For attendees unfamiliar with carbon removals, the event seemed very convincing. It was well-curated and expertly moderated. Unfortunately, many of the statements were irresponsible and some bordered on the dangerous. 

Foremost among them was the fantastical assertion that carbon removals could be scaled up to 3.5 billion tonnes annually by 2030 globally. For comparison, the EU’s lofty and aspirational goal for technological carbon removals (in the EU alone) is a mere 5 million tonnes (i.e. 0.005 billion tonnes) annually by 2030 (as mentioned in its Sustainable Carbon Cycles communication). Closer, post-event examination of the held-out carbon removal “breakthrough” revealed that 3 billion tonnes of the so-called “removals” are mostly to be achieved with land-based methods, such as afforestation and ecosystem restoration, the idea being that these should be scaled up now to maximise (more durable) sequestration potential in the future. The other, more permanent 500 million are more difficult to scale up because they rely on expensive geological storage techniques and technologies.Yet, for carbon storage to benefit the climate, it must keep the carbon out of the atmosphere for several centuries. This is not the case for at least 3 billion of the tonnes targeted by this initiative. Land-based removals are not only temporary, they pose insurmountable monitoring challenges and risks of reversals. If credits are generated from such removals, they cannot balance out CO2 in the atmosphere stemming from fossil fuel combustion.

An unscientific goal like this creates the impression that carbon removals are becoming widely available and can substitute sharp emissions reductions when, in reality, removals with high permance will remain rare and should only be used to remove ultimately residual and historic emissions from the atmosphere. 

Secondly, the event’s focus was entirely on carbon credit-generating projects, i.e. the supply side of the carbon market. The speakers ignored entirely the vital question of whether the removals credited are used in a way that actually leads to an overall reduction of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. If the project developers featured knew that their removals might be used to merely offset emissions or even greenwash the continued extraction of fossil fuels, would they feel so optimistic about their projects, or would they rather think that the burden of climate mitigation is being shifted from rich to poorer countries? Would they still think that carbon credits help them experience or deliver climate justice?

Wrong message

That a prominent philanthropic foundation like ClimateWorks should support such a wager so uncritically is sending the wrong signal. What evidence is there that the carbon removals achieved by the featured projects will deal with the “legacy carbon” that we need to tackle rather than new emissions? As long as the world is not net negative, that is a very big statement to make, and factually incorrect – at best carbon removals are currently slowing down the increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. More work is needed to ensure that removals and their impact are fully understood before investment in scaling them up is made. A coherent policy framework also needs to be put in place so that real removals are used for legitimate climate purposes..

The problems exhibited by this event are not new. Misguided belief and blind trust in carbon markets already existed when they were still only about emission avoidance, reductions and biogenic, land-based removals. It is sad that technology-based removals such as direct air capture and storage, which come with the promise of more significant climate impact and greater permanence – while also suffering from significant drawbacks such as energy intensity, which must be taken into account for net removals -, should suffer similarly from the regulatory weakness of the voluntary carbon market, where the demand side and use of carbon credits are disjointed from the supply side. It is sad that developing countries, whom one would wish the benefits of technology transfer – carbon markets have so far hardly delivered on this – and a fair share of the world’s prosperity, get caught up once more in the fake promises of carbon markets. Any UN-endorsed initiative should know better.

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