Carbon removals, an excuse for polluting?
The most common criticism of carbon removals/offsets is that ‘they are an excuse for polluters to keep emitting and not actually reduce carbon emissions, essentially greenwashing’.
First, let's be clear, the absolute number one priority in our climate change fight is to cut emissions as far and fast as possible. The IPCC has said we need to cut emissions by 8% per year to stay within the boundaries of a safe climate. However, no matter how fast we cut emissions, we will not be able to get them to zero in many sectors in the next decade, so what should we do with the rest of the emissions that can’t be eliminated? We can leave them or remove them.
Yes, it is fair to say that some businesses are just using carbon removals as an excuse to not reduce emissions or reduce them slower. However, just because some businesses use removals as an excuse for complacency doesn’t mean we should not use one of the key tools we have to fight climate change. We can put pressure on the large emitters to make emissions reductions. Carbon removals are an effective tool to get a company to reduce emissions if they are high quality and expensive enough. A company is likely to reduce their emissions instead of pay for the removals if the removals are more expensive than the cost of emission reduction.
To say carbon removals invoke complacency and therefore we shouldn’t use them would mean that we should also not use many other types of environmental solutions that only go part way to fixing the problem. For example, the great pacific garbage patch. Should we not clean up the great pacific garbage patch because it means we are more likely to keep polluting plastic? Absolutely not. We need to clean up the great pacific garbage patch AND stop plastic waste.
Additionally, we need to channel significant finance into carbon removals. The public sector will not be able to fully finance this. If all sectors globally had to pay for their emissions and removal them, we would be at net zero with high-quality carbon credits. Carbon credits are also the only way to get to a carbon-positive economy whereby businesses pay for more sequestration than their emissions which is deeply needed given the amount of carbon we have already put into the atmosphere.
So would the world be better or worse off with or without carbon removals? It's simple, the world is clearly be better off, billions have now been spent funding nature-based restoration, restoration which wouldn’t have occurred if it weren’t for carbon removals. And the positive impact of this restoration surely far outweighs any emission reduction complacency.
Yes, many types of carbon removals need to improve in their efficacy but they are one of the key tools we have to get to net zero, and more importantly beyond. Removals are also much higher quality than the dubious emissions reduction credits, as they represent a tonne pulled out of the atmosphere rather than a tonne ‘not put into the atmosphere’.
We should not let the fear of offsetting invoked emissions reduction complacency stop us from scaling up carbon removal. We need every possible tool in the climate fight.
We need to cut emissions as far and fast as possible, then set a reasonably high carbon price with high-quality offsets for the remaining emissions. To fund the right kind of reforestation - such as Our Native Forest