On Wednesday (30 November), the EU Commission will launch a plan to certify the removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as part of its efforts to reach zero emissions by 2050.
Carbon can be stored in the soil using modern farming methods or by planting trees; it can be scrubbed out of the sea by marine algae or sucked directly out of the atmosphere using giant filtering machines—a fledgling technology backed by billionaire funders like Bill Gates and Elon Musk.
EU policymakers increasingly believe carbon dioxide removal (CDR) is a critical third pillar of climate action—alongside emission reductions and adaptation measures to defend against the devastating effects of climate change.
At a conference earlier this year, EU climate chief Frans Timmermans said carbon removal is “indispensable” to reach net-zero emissions by 2050.
But experts warn the rules are too “vague” and are prone to misuse, lobbying and accounting tricks.
The proposal will not become operational for years, leaving room for companies, civil society and other ‘stakeholders’ to influence the details.
“We’re going to see a big push to stretch the scope of the rules to include everything that ‘stores’ carbon, no matter for how long,” Wijnand Stoefs, a policy officer at Carbon Market Watch, an official observer at the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, told EUobserver.
The proposal sets up a certification system for three main areas, comprising carbon farming, carbon storage and products which, in theory, can store carbon.
But it does not offer any details on how long the carbon has to be stored to count.
“A ‘carbon storage product’ is an extremely vague term. This can include furniture, building material, cardboard and even plastics,” Stoefs said. “Most of these things will be burned or decomposed in a relatively short period of time.”
Even buildings made of wood—often cited as a potential carbon sink—are unlikely to last hundreds of years. By comparison: CO2 emissions hang around in the atmosphere for a long time: between 300 and 1,000 years.
It also needs to be clarified what “carbon farming” means precisely, Stoefs said. It generally refers to methods that store carbon in soils or forests.
But according to a research paper published in August by the Oslo-based environmental NGO Bellona Europa, it is also regularly used to refer to biomass which could be used for fuel.
Clear rules could prevent this, but according to Stoefs, there is already a push for laxer oversight.
In its April conclusions, the EU Council noted the need for a “flexible yet administratively lean scheme” of oversight and a “wider range of practices” that could be included under the rules.
Smokescreen for inaction
In a letter published on Monday, a group of eight environmental organisations, including Corporate Europe Observatory and Germany’s Heinrich Böll Stiftung, warned the current proposal could “generate false confidence in unproven future CDR[-techniques].”
“The EU is shifting the focus away from the essential work of phasing out fossil fuels, instead heading towards speculative technologies,” the letter said. They also warn carbon removal and carbon-offset markets—like planting trees to offset flight emissions— are “smokescreens” for inaction.
With global co2 emissions rapidly increasing, the window to limit global warming to 1.5 Celsius above pre-industrial levels, as agreed on by 194 countries under the 2015 Paris climate agreement, will soon be closed.
Current policy pledges are projected by the International Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) to warm the planet by 2.7 degrees in 2100— a level scientists say will likely set off irreversible tipping points.
To compensate for excess emissions, countries have promised to reforest an area twice the size of India. In a 2021 pathway published by oil and gas major Shell, an area ‘approaching the size of Brazil’ would have to be reforested to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees celsius — “absurd”, Stoefs said.
Trading carbon credits
Shell also advocated for carbon removal credits to be traded on a voluntary market to compensate for fossil-fuel emissions which it projects will be necessary until 2100.
The upcoming EU carbon framework proposal does not specify how carbon removal certificates will be used. But the commission has shown a willingness to consider voluntary markets as a way to “upscale” carbon removal as a business and “foster new industrial value chains for the sustainable capture, recycling, transport and storage of carbon.”
“This is taking market fundamentalism to a ridiculous extreme,” Duncan McLaren, a research fellow at Lancaster University, also told EUobserver. Trading carbon credits requires not only a fool-proof system based on tight monitoring and clear rules. It also implies interchangeability between removal methods.
But “one tonne of removed carbon is not the same as the other,¨ McLaren said. “Temporary reforestation schemes won’t compensate for industrial emissions that stay in the atmosphere for a thousand years.”
“Compensating the burning of fossil fuels by reforestation is a non-starter,” Stoefs also said.
In a white paper published in October, the Brussels-based NGO Carbon Gap argues that certificates should be used as a reporting tool only and not serve as a basis for a system for compensation claims.
“Every time we use removals to compensate, we’re really just causing further delay,” Stoefs said.