How meeting climate goals could require a 1,500-fold increase in advanced carbon removals

How meeting climate goals could require a 1,500-fold
increase in advanced carbon removals
How meeting climate goals could require a 1,500-fold increase in advanced carbon removals

Pioneering analysis of global nascent carbon removals sector published as leading offsets provider is accused of selling 'junk credits'

The world is failing to pursure the levels of carbon removal capacity that is likely to be required to meet global climate goals, researchers at Oxford University have today warned.

An analysis of the current state of play in the fledgling Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR) sector, published this morning, argues that global climate targets will only be met if there is "substantial" deployment of newer CDR technologies, such as direct air capture with carbon capture and storage (DACSS).

Virtually all CDR currently comes from "conventional" nature-based removal methods, such as afforestation and improved soil management, according to the report. Just 0.1 per cent of CDR comes from "novel" methods, which also include biochar, bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS), direct air capture, and enhanced weathering projects.

The report, which was led by Oxford University's Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment, says there is a major "CDR gap" between countries' plans to build out a CDR industry and the levels of deployment of carbon removal technologies needed to meet global climate goals.

Carbon removal remains hugely controversial with environmental campaigners, but many of the models used to demonstrate how the global economy could deliver emissions cuts in line with the goals of the Paris Agreement incorporate significant quantities of carbon removal or negative emissions capacity.

Today's report argues that to shrink the growing CDR gap, newer technologies need to be generate 1,300 times more carbon removal capacity by 2050. Meanwhile, CDR from more conventional, land-based methods will need to double from 2GtCO2 today if they are to help deliver a 1.5C warming pathway, and increase by 50 per cent to cap global temperature increases at a more dangerous 2C.

Report author Dr Steve Smith of the University of Oxford's Smith School of Enterprise and Environment said the findings of the report were clear.

"[In addition to emissions reductions], we also need to increase carbon removal, too, by restoring and enhancing ecosystems and rapidly scaling up new CDR methods," he said. "Many new methods are emerging with potential. Rather than focusing on one or two options we should encourage a portfolio, so that we get to net zero quickly without over-relying on any one method."

The report comes as one of the world's largest offsets certifying body, Verra, has been accused of approving forest-based offsets to companies looking to meet climate targets that are not backed by real-world reductions in deforestation.  

A joint investigation from the Guardian, non-profit investigation outfit Source Material and German weekly Die Zeit alleges that at least 90 per cent of Verra's rainforest offsets do not represent real emission reductions.

The US-based non-profit fiercely contested the reports and the academic studies on which they were based, arguing that its standards were robust and were being used to mobilise investment in forest protection.

"Although these studies provide data that is a useful contribution to the wider work on optimising methodologies for forest carbon projects, they have limited utility for assessing the impact of REDD+ projects because they do not consider site-specific drivers of deforestation," it said in a statement issued yesterday. "Specifically, they reach incorrect conclusions because they rely on synthetic controls that do not accurately represent the pre-project conditions in the project area, as the studies' authors themselves acknowledge."

Two of the studies in question have passed the peer review process, and another has been released as a preprint.

The reports have reignited the long-running debate over the effectiveness of carbon offsets and whether it was possible to prove that projects designed to protect existing forests do result in additoinal emissions savings. It is a row that could ultimately serve to boost interest in technology based carbon removals that can arguably provide higher levels of assurance that emissions have been captured. But as today's report underscores, it remains very early days for a sector that faces significant cost concerns and on-going questions over whether it might distract from the need to cut emissions at source. Carbon removals may well be needed to deliver on global climate goals, but building an industry with scale needed to make a difference remains an immense challenge. 

* This article was originally published here