EU carbon removal scheme dubbed ‘smokescreen for inaction’

On Wednesday (November 30), the EU Commission will launch a plan to certify the removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as part of its efforts to achieve zero emissions by 2050.

Carbon can be stored in the soil using modern farming methods or by planting trees; it can be scrubbed from the sea by seaweed or sucked directly from the atmosphere using giant filtering machines – a developing technology backed by billionaire financiers such as Bill Gates and Elon Musk.

EU policymakers increasingly believe that carbon sequestration (CDR) is an essential third pillar of climate action, alongside emissions 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 decarbonisation was “indispensable” to reach net zero emissions by 2050.

Lobby battlefield

But experts warn that the rules are too “vague” and prone to abuse, lobbying and accounting gimmicks.

The proposal will not become operational for years, leaving room for companies, civil society and other “stakeholders” to influence the details.

“We will see a big push to expand the scope of the rules to include anything that ‘stores’ carbon, regardless of how long,” Wijnand Stoefs, a policy officer at Carbon Market Watch, an official UN watchdog. Framework Convention on Climate Change, EUobserver said.

The proposal establishes a certification system for three main areas, including carbon farming, carbon storage and products that can theoretically store carbon.

But it doesn’t give details on how long the carbon needs to be stored to be counted.

“A ‘carbon storage product’ is an extremely vague term. This can include furniture, building materials, cardboard and even plastics,” said Stoefs. “Most of these things will be burned or decomposed in a relatively short period of time.”

Even wooden buildings – often cited as a potential carbon sink – are unlikely to last hundreds of years. By comparison: CO2 emissions remain in the atmosphere for a long time: between 300 and 1,000 years.

It also needs to be clarified what exactly “carbon farming” means, 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 that could be used as fuel.

Clear rules could prevent this, but according to Stoefs, there is already a push for looser oversight.

In its conclusions in April, the EU Council noted the need for a “flexible but administratively weak scheme” of supervision and a “wider range of practices” that could be included in the rules.

Smokescreen for inaction

In a letter published on Monday, a group of eight environmental organisations, including the Corporate Europe Observatory and Germany’s Heinrich Böll Stiftung, warned that the current proposal could “generate false confidence in the unproven CDR future.[-techniques].”

“The EU is turning its attention away from the essential work of phasing out fossil fuels, instead turning to speculative technologies,” the letter said. They also warn that carbon removal and carbon offset markets – such as planting trees to offset aviation emissions – are “smoke screens” for inaction.

With global CO2 emissions rising rapidly, the window to limit global warming to 1.5 Celsius above pre-industrial levels, as agreed by 194 countries in the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, will soon close.

The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that current policy commitments will warm the planet by 2.7 degrees by 2100 – a level that scientists say is likely to trigger irreversible tipping points.

To offset excess emissions, countries have pledged 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 need to be reforested to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius – “absurd”, Stoefs said.

Trading of carbon credits

Shell has also called for carbon credits to be traded on a voluntary market to offset the fossil fuel emissions it estimates will be needed by 2100.

The future EU carbon framework proposal does not specify how the carbon emission certificates will be used. But the commission has indicated its willingness to consider voluntary markets as a way to “scale up” carbon removal as a business and to “encourage new industrial value chains for sustainable carbon capture, recycling, transport and storage”.

“This takes market fundamentalism to a ridiculous extreme,” Lancaster University researcher Duncan McLaren told EUobserver. Carbon credit trading requires not only a secure system based on strict monitoring and clear rules. It also implies interchangeability between removal methods.

But “one ton of carbon removed is not the same as another,” McLaren said. “Temporary reforestation schemes will not offset industrial emissions that remain in the atmosphere for a thousand years.”

“Offsetting the burning of fossil fuels through reforestation is a non-starter,” Stoefs added.

In a white paper published in October, the Brussels-based NGO Carbon Gap argues that the certificates should only be used as a reporting tool and should not serve as the basis for a system of compensation claims.

“Every time we use eliminations to compensate, we’re really causing additional delays,” Stoefs said.

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