COMMENT: Let’s remove ONLY what we can’t avoid

Published 18:41 on May 20, 2021  /  Last updated at 18:41 on May 20, 2021  /  Africa, Americas, Asia Pacific, Aviation/CORSIA, China, China's Offset Market, Climate Talks, Conversations, EMEA, International, Nature-based, Other APAC, Paris Article 6, South & Central, Views, Voluntary Market  /  No Comments

While carbon removals will play a role in mitigating climate change, we cannot afford to take our focus away from the urgent objective of avoiding emitting in the first place, write Sarah Leugers and Owen Hewlett of Gold Standard.

By Sarah Leugers and Owen Hewlett, Gold Standard 

Carbon removals in the voluntary market and sustainable finance are hot commodities, largely due to the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi) definition of Net Zero, which echoes the IPCC as: “the point when anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere are balanced by anthropogenic removals over a specified period”.

The tech sector in particular is going big on removals, some so far as Microsoft, which promises to remove more carbon than it has emitted. Payments firm Stripe has introduced a product allowing businesses to contribute funds to technology-based carbon sequestration. And a growing number of start-ups are snubbing avoided emissions and directing climate contributions toward removals – even at the expense of core integrity principles like additionality and robust monitoring.

This points to confusion about ways to achieve ‘net zero’ that needs clarification. First, carbon offsetting cannot be used to lower a GHG inventory. You emit what you emit and report accordingly.

Second, SBTi designates the use of carbon removals for once companies have met their long-term 1.5C-aligned targets (most often 2040 or later). In other words, removals should supplement and follow deep decarbonisation and are only used to neutralise residual emissions that are unfeasible to eliminate.

Nevertheless, this still seems to have triggered a perception of removals as more important in mitigating climate change than emissions reductions.

While carbon removals will play a role in mitigating climate change, we cannot afford to take our focus away from the urgent objective of avoiding emitting in the first place.

If we lose this focus, we dig ourselves a deeper deficit in the global carbon budget. We will have to remove far more – potentially unachievable amounts – in the future. In addition, we will quickly run up against the limitations of land available for new nature-based sequestration.

Rachel Kyte recently captured this predicament in the Washington Post:

“Shell announced it’ll achieve net zero by 2050 in part by “planting forests the size of Spain” (while continuing to produce oil and increase its natural gas production). Spain is approximately 50 million hectares. The UN estimates there’s only about 500 million hectares of land available for forest planting. Ten percent of available land for just one company is not sustainable — and beggars belief.”

So while it is sensible to allocate some carbon finance for nature-based sequestration and indeed more expensive but innovative solutions like technology-based removals, this needs to be balanced against the opportunity cost of what that finance could prevent from entering the atmosphere right now.

The priority on not emitting in the first place should be instructive for all actions and instruments aimed at mitigating the climate crisis. Climate leaders should model best practices that will help us most effectively achieve global net zero targets. This should be reflected in their climate strategies – both within and beyond their boundaries.

To illustrate, methane is a much more aggressive greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, even if shorter lived. Thus, avoidance of methane emissions related to fertiliser use punches above its weight as a mitigation action compared to soil carbon sequestration in the agricultural sector, as an example.

Beyond the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere, there is also a climate justice issue at stake. Climate action should always go hand-in-hand with sustainable development, or net zero carbon economies become out of reach as developing countries pursue their right to grow.

It’s often overlooked that many emissions reductions or avoided emissions come from projects providing basic services like clean energy, clean cooking solutions, and clean water to communities in the global south. These projects support those that are hit hardest by climate change yet did the least to cause the problem. A rush to removals at the expense of these projects would run counter to core principles of climate justice.

In summary, the 2020’s should be decade of avoiding and reducing GHG emissions, while building the pipeline for long-term carbon removals.

For our part, Gold Standard will continue to nurture community services projects, avoiding emissions and helping the most vulnerable grow on a sustainable pathway.

In parallel, we will build our portfolio with new approaches for nature-based solutions and we are now scoping our approach to tech-based removals more broadly, ensuring quality principles as the market develops. Safeguards will therefore be top of mind, including the reality of limited land, indigenous people’s rights and land tenure, as well as avoiding perpetuating the use of fossil fuels as and when we advance methodologies for technology-based removals.

We take this opportunity to remind the market and buyers that we cannot lose pace on providing real financial incentives and rewards for not burning fossil fuels. That means avoided emissions and reductions must play a strong role.

Just as we should offset only what we can’t abate, we should remove only what we can’t avoid.

Sarah Leugers is Gold Standard’s Director of Communications and as Chief Technical Officer at Gold Standard, Owen Hewlett is responsible for the development of all innovations, standards, methodologies and tools at the voluntary project certifier.