Past Bojana Bajzelj, head of climate, Superkritic
Measuring and reducing emissions must always be the starting point for a net zero plan, but reduction is no longer enough on its own, writes Bojana Bajzelj.
The heated debate surrounding carbon sequestration is polarizing the industry.
The IPCC has determined that, to keep global temperatures below a critical warming of 1.5C, the carbon capture market must be on a scale to remove up to 10 gigatonnes of CO2 per year by 2050.
Given that less than 600,000 tons of sustainable carbon capture credits were purchased in 2022, many experts support strong investment in these technologies now to bring the market to the scale required by 2050.
But not everyone is on the same page. Some believe that we need to focus in the short term entirely on reducing emissions, investing in carbon sequestration much further down the line only as a last resort.
The implicit assumption is that reduction and removal compete for investment and resources.
The truth is that investment needs to be much, much greater across both, and carbon removal cannot actually be used to compete with reductions but as a tool to leverage more resources into climate action overall.
Reduction and removal, like peas in a pod
We need to both reduce and remove at the same time and quickly if we are to have a chance against the climate crisis.
Some actors, particularly large polluters, are better positioned to lead in reductions. Others, especially those in innovation and technology, are better positioned to lead in removal as natural early adopters.
In terms of corporate climate policy, carbon sequestration can be used to support rapid decarbonisation.
If companies commit to removing carbon they have not yet reduced, this provides a real financial incentive to reduce as quickly as possible, starting with the lowest hanging fruit.
What’s more, if we focus only on reduction, when time will inevitably remove what we cannot reduce, demand for carbon removal will exceed supply by a drastic margin.
Let’s debunk some common myths I hear time and time again that hold back the decarbonization conversation and limit progress toward net zero.
The effectiveness of carbon removal is proven
Some argue that carbon removal is not a permanent solution to the climate emergency.
They say the technologies haven’t been around long enough to know if the sustainability estimates are actually accurate, and worry about spending time and money on solutions that may end up not storing carbon for the thousands of years originally expected.
It is true that new methods such as enhanced stone weathering are still at the demonstration stage, and that the rate of removal and permanence is still being investigated – although for the latter it is estimated to be over 10,000 years.
But even a solution like biochar that stores carbon for hundreds of years will have a huge positive impact on the climate, giving us time to innovate even more ambitious, long-term permanent solutions.
If we invest the same amount of time and resources that we spent in getting carbon out of the earth through oil and gas extraction that we can put it back into stores, we will have a much wider range of permanent tactics than is available currently.
Investing in early emerging technologies today gives us time for future development.
Focusing on removals will not deter companies from reducing emissions
Cheap emissions avoidance offsets may have distracted from emission reductions, but this should not be the case for more expensive, high-quality carbon removal.
Most companies use removal as part of a net zero transition plan and have already taken steps to reduce emissions, which is often the cheaper part of the process.
Most of Supercritical’s customers find they can reduce emissions by up to 25% with a few big changes, such as switching to renewable energy, limiting long-distance travel and offering greener food and drink options at offices and team socials.
Buying removals is an additional but essential step to reaching net zero – it must not be seen as an either/or situation.
Investments in carbon sequestration cannot wait
Some people understand that carbon removal is important but see it as something that we can dial up when we need to, when the technology has developed further and after we have taken reduction steps in the meantime.
This “I’ll get there when I get there” attitude is seriously risky. The carbon removal industry is developing rapidly, and it shows enormous amounts of promise in the impact it will have on the climate crisis.
But without immediate and significant investment from companies incorporating carbon removal into their decarbonization portfolio today, the market simply won’t be at the gigaton scale we need to be in 2050 when companies are forced to turn to removals after spending time reducing emissions by as much as possible.
A promising model emerging to address this scalability issue is long-term off-take agreements – carbon capture pre-purchases that provide providers with the upfront infrastructure funding necessary to scale CDR facilities.
No time to lose
We cannot let strife and lack of education stand in the way of progress.
Measuring and reducing emissions should always be the starting point for a net zero plan, but a reduction is no longer sufficient in itself.
We must both reduce and remove if we are to beat the climate crisis, and we do not have time to wait.
Bojana Bajzelj is Head of Climate at Supercritical, a carbon removal marketplace.
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