The European Commission will publish a policy paper by the end of the year on “the sustainable management of the carbon cycle” – the first step towards an EU-wide certification scheme for negative emissions coming from agriculture, forestry and other sources, that will be tabled in 2022.
With the adoption of its landmark Climate Law earlier this year, the European Union has decided to aggressively cut greenhouse gas emissions, aiming for a 55% reduction by the end of this decade before eventually reaching net-zero by 2050.
But the EU executive is now preparing a second leg to the bloc’s climate policy, with plans to also remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
“We need to think about the long-term perspective and the integration of carbon removals into our climate policies towards 2050,” said Christian Holzleitner, head of unit at the European Commission’s climate directorate.
“And here, we are taking the first step with our legislative initiative on certification,” he told a EURACTIV event last week.
The proposal will be tabled next year, the European Commission confirmed on Wednesday (15 September) in a letter of intent outlining the EU executive’s legislative plans for 2022.
Although world leaders won’t openly admit to it, the need to remove carbon from the atmosphere is already clear, scientists say.
Even if nations succeed at cutting CO2 in accordance with the Paris Agreement, there would still be ‘residual emissions’ coming from sectors like agriculture and industry, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
“The second reason is that you have to make up for initial overshoot of carbon budgets that’s probably about to arise,” said Oliver Geden, a German scientist who is one of the lead authors behind the IPCC’s sixth assessment report.
“So whenever we talk about achieving climate neutrality by mid-century in a way that complies with the Paris Agreement, it’s assuming that we’re going to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere,” Geden told the event, which was supported by the Norwegian energy company Equinor.
The debate on carbon removals is controversial, however. Environmental groups have criticised carbon offsetting schemes like tree-planting as a potential greenwashing tool allowing fossil fuel companies to continue polluting just because their emissions would be compensated by withdrawals elsewhere.
“No public funding should go towards projects that lead to delayed emissions, continued fossil fuel exploitation and burning, or carbon capture and storage solutions for sectors with other decarbonisation options,” says Carbon Market Watch, a green pressure group.
“We need a transparent and robust framework to assess which technologies perform best at removing carbon from the atmosphere. And we need to take our time to get it right and not rush into half-baked solutions,” the group said.
In principle, all agree with environmentalists that a strict hierarchy needs to be implemented when it comes to climate mitigation policies, with carbon removals clearly at the bottom.
“Avoiding carbon emissions must be at the heart of policy – there is no doubt about that,” said Peter Frank, director at German think-tank Agora Energiewende.
“We must implement this hierarchy, otherwise we are going to miss the climate neutrality objective,” he warned, calling on EU regulators to adopt policies to “avoid that this hierarchy is somehow turned upside down.”
Still, carbon removal technologies will be needed because of remaining emissions in areas like the cement sector and the limestone industry, Frank added, calling on policymakers to start planning for them now.
Oil and gas companies have been at the forefront of calls to ramp up carbon dioxide removals, attracting criticism from green activists who say they are looking for ways to shirk their responsibility in cutting emissions.
But Norway’s Equinor says this can be done responsibly. “From Equinor’s perspective we follow a strict mitigation hierarchy,” starting with efforts to “reduce emissions wherever possible,” said Lisa Rebora, Equinor’s senior vice-president for emerging and future business.
The next step for Equinor is to decarbonise its own products, through hydrogen and carbon capture and storage (CCS), for example. “And then, last but not least, it’s to continue to deploy capital into renewable energies like wind and solar, and new low carbon value chains,” Rebora said.
All also agree that nature-based solutions, such as reforestation and afforestation schemes, should be prioritised because they are currently the most effective at absorbing carbon dioxide.
“If deforestation were a country it would be the third-largest emitter in the world, meaning it can have a tremendous impact in the short term,” Rebora said, calling for measures to halt and reverse deforestation as quickly as possible.
“Then, in the medium to long term, are technologies like CCS with bioenergy and direct air capture”, which can provide negative emissions, she added.
Carbon removal technologies
Those technologies are still in their infancy, however. And investors need policy signals and a regulatory framework before they can start betting money on them.
Yet, interest is growing. Last week, a Swiss start-up called Climeworks opened the world’s first direct air capture plant, which sucks CO2 directly from the air and stores it underground. The plant can capture up to 4,000 tons of CO2 per year, the equivalent of the annual emissions from about 790 cars.
This is a drop in the ocean compared to the 31.5 billion tonnes of CO2 that the International Energy Agency (IEA) says were emitted last year. However, researchers believe solutions like these will need to be scaled up if world nations want to bring climate change under control.
“I’m afraid that in the end, we will need technical solutions” to remove carbon from the atmosphere, said Peter Frank, from Agora Energiewende.
The reason, he explained, is because of the “high uncertainty” surrounding nature’s ability to absorb CO2 from soil, land or forests in the future. In central Europe, for instance, forests are “almost falling apart” because of climate change, meaning they are losing their capacity to act as an effective carbon sink, Frank said.
“So we need to consider direct air capture, CCS, and biomass with CCS going forward because there is a high uncertainty as to how our natural sinks will develop under climate change,” he said.
Next step: certification
In fact, the European Union has already started planning for negative emissions.
Earlier this year, the EU adopted a landmark climate law, aiming for a 55% cut in emissions by 2030. And when adding planned carbon removals from agriculture and forestry, the resulting “net” target looks more like a 57% reduction, EU lawmakers say.
“If you look at the logic and the methods applied by UNFCCC, they all include carbon sinks,” said EU climate chief Frans Timmermans, when he presented the bloc’s 2030 climate targets last year.
The next step for the Commission now is to make sure those carbon removals are monitored, verified, and accounted for. “And we need a certification protocol for that,” Holzleitner said.
By the end of the year, the EU executive plans to publish a strategy document – or “green paper” – to tackle these questions, the official said. “And the next step would be a legislative proposal on the carbon removal certification, which will be much more technical.”
The move is broadly supported in the European Parliament. In June, fifteen MEPs sent an open letter to the European Commission calling for financial and policy incentives to promote carbon dioxide removals (CDR) to help the EU reach climate neutrality.
“Certification is extremely important,” said Niels Fuglsang, a Danish lawmaker from the Socialists and Democrats (S&D) group in the European Parliament.
The public, he says, needs to have confidence that the system works and doesn’t lead to greenwashing. “That requires some bureaucracy,” he admitted, however, adding that “hopefully, we can keep that down”.
To be sure, there are plenty of pitfalls when it comes to accounting for carbon removals.
First among them is the issue of “permanence”: for example, if a forest goes up in flames, a corresponding amount of carbon would have to be deleted from the EU’s carbon books. And wood products like furniture have a limited lifespan. When they are eventually dumped, they will likely end up being burned, again releasing carbon back into the atmosphere.
“We urgently need a definition of permanence for what can actually be counted as removing carbon from the atmosphere,” said Oliver Geden, the German climate scientist.
“That’s an issue that particularly applies to all land-based carbon removal options like afforestation or soil carbon sequestration where there’s a high risk that the carbon ends up again in the atmosphere after years or decades,” he said.
The Commission acknowledges this and is currently trying to better understand the range of carbon removal technologies available, starting with nature-based solutions such as CO2 captured in soils and forests, Holzleitner said.
Next, he said, are “industrial solutions” such as CCS, circular economy, sustainable fuels, and other products that store carbon such as wood construction materials.
With EU research funding, the European Commission will first aim “to better understand the technologies and the challenges related to them, like for example how to deal with permanence and the risk of natural disturbances,” he said.
According to Geden, “you also need to create some kind of liability scheme for what happens in case something goes wrong and the carbon gets back into the atmosphere”.
“I think the issue of permanence is really something that policymakers need to look at”.
In terms of policy design, a simple way forward would be to adopt a separate EU target for carbon removals that would be clearly distinct from the bloc’s existing greenhouse gas reduction goal, Geden suggested.
“Then it would be much clearer how the hierarchy looks,” Geden said, suggesting that 5 or 10% of the EU’s climate target could be met with carbon removals.
Others agreed. “Eventually, we should not mix the market for mitigation policy with the markets for removal policies,” said Peter Frank, adding: “We should have two different markets going forward”.
Holzleitner concurred, saying the key question facing policymakers now is “how can these [carbon removal] credits be used in regulated trading systems in Europe”.
“We need to get better at understanding what is one tonne of removal, how permanent it is and how additional it is,” Holzleitner said. For instance, a distinction must be made between “true carbon removals” and “avoided emissions, like avoided deforestation,” he explained.
For Geden, there are several key questions that policymakers need to answer: where does the carbon come from, what are the life cycle emissions of these processes, where does the carbon stay in the end and for how long.
And according to him, the discussion is now becoming urgent because EU countries have so far avoided the issue.
“It is really high time that EU member states governments make up their minds about that because they have been largely absent from the debate. The European Commission thankfully is the policy entrepreneur here.”
> Watch the full video of the EURACTIV event below.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]