Carbon Market Watch (CMW) has delivered a strong verdict on the role of carbon removals and temporary carbon storage in the hierarchy of climate action in a pair of complementary reports released on 25 September 2023. A study of policy frameworks around the world shows that policymakers are getting it wrong.
In ‘Poor framing: The role of negative emissions technologies in existing climate policy frameworks’, CMW analyses the role and implementation of carbon removals in climate policies across 20 jurisdictions spanning global, EU, national and sub-national levels.
Joining the discussion is a paper by climate economist Danny Cullenward titled, ‘Mortgaging the atmosphere: the trouble with temporary carbon storage’ that examines current scientific consensus to unpack the climate value of temporary carbon storage and to identify what the minimum storage duration needs to be for them to have a perceptible climate impact.
Turn off the tap
The wide ranging dissection of three climate policy frameworks at global level, six in the EU and 11 national or subnational legislatures (see box in notes) showed that the supplementary climate function of carbon removal is not acknowledged, whilst the use of carbon removals for offsetting is prevalent. Emission reductions should be the urgent priority, but in most climate policy frameworks assessed carbon removals are undermining that principle.
“What we unearthed is that there is a scattergun approach across all 20 frameworks and that, for different reasons, not one of these regulatory frameworks are getting to grips with removals in a way that will deliver effective climate action, and not undermine emission reductions,” explained Carbon Market Watch policy lead on carbon removals, Wijnand Stoefs.
“Whilst the debate on carbon removals has progressed in recent years, instead of adequately prioritising responsible emissions reductions, too many lawmakers favour temporary nature-based or technological solutions over cutting off pollution at source. It makes more sense to turn off the tap first before trying to clean up the mess.”
This can’t wait until tomorrow
The research showed that a sufficiently robust definition of carbon dioxide removals is missing from each policy framework, with none setting comprehensive, separate and legally binding targets. This is a weak and inadequate starting point.
Across many case studies, emissions reduction obligations may be slowed down and supplanted by removals, including those that are of very low quality. For example, in Australia projects based on carbon sequestration in the agricultural sector with a permanence requirement of just 25 or 100 years can be used to offset the country’s biggest polluters permanent emissions under the Safeguard Mechanism, a key national policy for reducing emissions.
“Carbon removal in climate policies should focus on balancing out the emissions that cannot be eliminated, and then finally shift towards negative emissions,” suggested Fabiola De Simone, policy expert on carbon removals at Carbon Market Watch. “Unfortunately, current policy frameworks generally allow the delaying of emissions reductions through the use of removals. This is not tomorrow’s problem. There are actions governments must take now rather than delaying.”
The report presents assessments of each jurisdiction and advocates that to have a real climate impact, carbon removals should be clearly defined as a process that removes carbon dioxide directly from the atmosphere, storing it long term (at least a couple of centuries), and with the emissions taken out of the air outweighing the emissions involved in the removal process. It is essential that removals are considered separately from emission reductions, and that they are given their own specific targets and governance frameworks, including clear monitoring, reporting and verification rules and accounting systems.
Are there benefits to temporary carbon storage?
For carbon removals to maximise their benefit to the climate, carbon needs to be stored away for at least the time CO2 survives in the atmosphere.
Despite the clear science, some policymakers and businesses are convinced that temporary carbon storage can provide the same benefits to the climate as emissions reductions. CMW commissioned renowned climate economist Danny Cullenward to investigate this hypothesis.
“Policymakers and corporate leaders have made significant investments in climate projects that temporarily store carbon dioxide outside the atmosphere. These activities can be beneficial, but they fall short of the permanent impacts of carbon dioxide emissions and should not be used as carbon offsets,” stated Cullenward, a Senior Fellow with the Kleinman Centre for Energy Policy at the University of Pennsylvania. “To reduce peak temperatures, temporary carbon storage must also last a long time — perhaps a century or more, depending on how rapidly the world reduces global greenhouse gas emissions.”
The Cullenward paper investigates the relationship between temporary storage and the atmospheric lifetime of CO2, but also delves deeper into dubious claims made about the societal benefits of equating long-term with short-term storage.
Mind the gap
As carbon dioxide imprints a permanent impact on both the global atmosphere and oceans, it is near impossible for compensatory claims to produce physical equivalence, i.e. temporary carbon storage only provides limited benefit to humanity’s efforts to tackle the climate crisis and can actually fuel further temperature rises if used to offset CO₂ emissions. This means that, at best, temporary carbon storage is a supplementary tool that can be pursued in addition to deep, rapid and sustained emissions reductions. If used incorrectly it can burden future generations with excessive warming.
Even when temporary storage is used in this way, rather than as a carbon offset, its climate effectiveness still depends on keeping CO₂ out of the atmosphere at least until the point at which planetary temperatures have peaked. The gap between current global climate policies and the Paris Agreement’s temperature limit suggests that temperature stabilisation might not occur for 100 years or longer. The precautionary principle suggests that policymakers should only recognise climate mitigation benefits from carbon that is temporarily stored for a minimum of a century.
Cullenward advises policymakers to take the scientific evidence on board. “To accurately recognise the limited climate benefits of temporary carbon storage activities, policymakers must prohibit their use as carbon offsets and set minimum storage durability requirements,” he declared.
“Unless the world massively increases its climate ambition, carbon stored for less than 100 years might not have any value in reducing peak temperatures,” he concluded.
This is especially salient for policymakers negotiating the EU’s Carbon Removal Certification Framework, which would certify, among others, both permanent and temporary removals – but fails to distinguish different uses linked to the different climate impacts of both. It risks temporary removals being used to offset emissions that will impact our atmosphere for millennia.
Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation [CORSIA]
Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism [CDM]
Article 6 of the Paris Agreement
EU Emissions Trading System [EU ETS]
Effort Sharing Regulation [ESR]
Renewable Energy Directive [RED]
Land Use, Land-Use Change and Forestry Regulation [LULUCF]
Common Agricultural Policy [CAP]
Carbon Removal Certification Framework [CRCF]
National and subnational