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Respecting the laws of physics: Principles for carbon dioxide removal accounting

Executive summary

We need technologies and processes to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. However, removals accounting and targets must remain separate from those for GHG emissions; and only real removals should be taken into account.

Emission reduction and carbon dioxide removal accounting and targets need to be kept strictly separate to ensure removals can play the roles science says they need to: ‘compensate’ for the very last emissions to be abated and slash atmospheric GHG concentrations.

Separate accounting frameworks mitigate the risk of mitigation deterrence, e.g. removals slowing down decarbonisation efforts, and the potential for false equivalency. A tonne emitted does not equal a tonne removed, and this commonly held false equivalency undermines society’s capacity to maintain global heating to 1.5°C.

Not only do removals only undo up to 90% of the impact of an emission on the climate breakdown, but some impacts of the climate emergency itself (such as rising sea levels) cannot be dealt with through removals in relevant timelines.

In addition, only real removals should be counted: a removal process must actually deliver net-negative emissions. Carbon must be sourced from the atmosphere, and be intended to be stored for at least several centuries and ideally much longer. In addition, all emissions and removals throughout the full value chain of the process must be comprehensively estimated and included in the emission balance – and removals should end up larger than associated emissions.

Getting the accounting of carbon dioxide removals right is crucial, but pales in comparison to the need to reduce emissions drastically – both in scope and speed. Removals can supplement emissions reductions, but cannot replace them. Carbon accounting has to reflect that simple truth. The atmosphere cannot be cheated. 

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