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UN Secretary General is right: Carbon removals are no “silver bullet”

CMW applauds United Nations’ Secretary General António Guterres’s calls for the safe and sustainable use of carbon removals while warning that these technologies were not a “silver bullet” and cannot substitute deep emissions cuts. 

UN Secretary General António Gutteres recently gave one of his most important speeches on climate change, warning of the consequences of global warming and setting out his battle plan to fight the climate crisis.

In his “moment of truth” appeal, the UN chief cautioned that the world has only a limited greenhouse gas budget remaining if it is to stay within the relatively safe temperature limits recognised in the Paris Agreement. At the current emissions rate, the 1.5°C global warming limit compared to pre-industrial levels will be breached before 2030. 

He declared the climate battle will be won or lost in this decade but we have the means to be victorious. Solutions include safeguarding nature, setting credible plans for huge cuts in emissions and exploring how carbon removals can be used to deal with unavoidable emissions. 

On the role of removals, Guterres was crystal clear: “These technologies are not a silver bullet… but we need to act on every front.”

No substitute

We must preserve our ecosystems. Protecting forests, wetlands, and oceans that absorb carbon from the atmosphere is essential for limiting the global temperature increase, and for returning to safer temperatures should that limit be surpassed. Yet, we will go nowhere without reliable plans to slash today’s emissions. 

Guterres also encouraged scientists to focus on how to safely and sustainably deploy carbon removals. He even urged governments to support removal technologies, albeit with an important caveat: “They cannot be a substitute for drastic emissions reductions or an excuse to delay fossil fuel phase-out.” 

Absolute reduction targets

The Paris Agreement demands countries submit an updated version of their national climate plans – the so-called nationally determined contributions. Absolute emissions reduction targets for 2030 and 2035 must be presented, according to Guterres, and these should cover all sectors, all greenhouse gases and the whole economy. The plans should clearly demonstrate the intention to phase out fossil fuels.

Carbon Market Watch welcomes Guterres’ call to action for scientists and governments. For instance, we have long been calling for separate targets for emissions reductions, land-based sequestration and carbon removals in the EU 2040 climate framework: a position endorsed by more than 100 organisations and scientists.

To achieve this, countries must calculate gross emissions targets when setting their pathway towards 2050, minimising the use of permanent carbon removals except to compensate for the very last emissions remaining at that point in time. This approach enhances transparency and accountability of targets, and limits extremely risky overreliance on land sinks and permanent removals. 

No offsets and greenwashing

Finally, the UN Secretary General made a direct plea to cities, regions, financial institutions and companies to play their part by  developing and implementing robust and transparent  transition plans including interim and verifiable targets covering emissions across the entire value chain.

He urged them to stay away from using “dubious carbon offsets” before calling out the fossil fuel industry for having “shamelessly greenwashed”.

Guterres’ recommendation is timely and necessary, as companies already use carbon removals to mask their climate inaction. A recent report by Carbon Market Watch assessing Occidental’s Petroleum net-zero strategy highlights the dangers involved in misusing carbon removals as a substitute for genuine climate action. 

But, it is not only the private sector that is out of line with the demands of climate science,  national governments are shown to be complicit in using land sinks and removals to offset or undermine emission reduction policies and strategies.

A clarion call 

It is time for public and private leaders across the globe to step up and take their climate responsibilities seriously. Guterres urged them to act in the next 18 months. 

The EU can take leadership and move ahead of the pack by adopting separate and transparent climate targets for cutting emissions, enhancing natural sinks and deploying permanent removals as a credible solution towards achieving climate neutrality and net-negative ambitions. 

Two EU member states (Luxembourg and France) called on the European Commission to take this position during discussions over the EU 2040 climate target in the Environment Council earlier this week calling for a distinction between emissions reductions, natural sinks and technological removals when setting the EU climate targets. More countries, companies, academics and civil societies must join the French and Luxembourgish call for separate targets! (For example by signing this open letter)

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