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Don’t just offset carbon, remove it

July 09, 2021

By Jonathan Riggall and Dr. Francis Wiese

Removing greenhouse gases needs to be taken seriously at COP26

Weather extremes are hitting records almost on a weekly basis around the world. 

We should not underestimate the importance of removing GHGs to keep the planet from warming further if our current atmospheric GHGs levels are already impacting the way communities live. This month alone has seen hundreds of deaths in Canada and a two-month earlier drought in California as a result of the extreme heat bubble sitting over North America. 

This is happening with our existing levels of atmospheric GHGs.  So, our attention is drawn to the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) developed by all signatories to the Paris Climate Change Agreement.  The NDCs are one of the key commitments to climate change mitigation and adaptation for the signatories and set the pathway to action towards achieving only a 2 degree increase in global temperature by 2100. 

These NDCs are ambitious and urgently needed. The vast majority of the mitigation activities, however, focus on avoiding further greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by replacing fossil fuels associated with energy and transport infrastructure, and investing in renewable energy, electric vehicles and hydrogen.

We need to remove both existing and future GHGs from the atmosphere. Unfortunately, very few countries’ Nationally Determined Contributions recognise this and thus the whole endeavor is in jeopardy.

In other words, the NDCs are focusing on not emitting additional GHGs in the future through the ways we move, build, travel, generate electricity and power our buildings. 

Of course, this is important; we certainly owe it to the next generations to curb emissions and change our behaviours. But to achieve the Paris Agreement targets, preventing additional emissions is not enough. We need to remove both existing and future GHGs from the atmosphere.

Unfortunately, very few countries’ NDCs recognise this and thus the whole endeavor is in jeopardy.

With the G7 Countries apparently committing to having net zero emission economies by 2050, our eyes are on COP26 to understand how this can be achieved. We need a comprehensive global strategy in hand to reduce current and future GHGs concentrations in the atmosphere.  

To achieve the Paris Agreement targets, preventing additional emissions is not enough. We need to remove both existing and future GHGs from the atmosphere.

The need to narrow the gap in NDCs

Nations with the capacity to deliver carbon removal and storage projects can do so because of their geophysical and biological position on the planet. Having that capacity is great, but we need them to actually do it, do it now, and do it at a big scale.

Whilst a good majority of countries’ NDCs recognise the need for forestry creation as part of land use change, very few have focused robust and quantifiable targets. 

There is a huge discrepancy among these land use change solutions. For example, there is a significant difference between NbS sequestration, and planting trees. Carbon removal approaches are not equal in terms of effectiveness at removing GHGs, permanency, or sustainability.

There is a gap between what has been defined and the scale and timeframe needed to deliver comprehensive climate restoration.  

Whilst a good majority of countries’ NDCs recognise the need for forestry creation as part of land use change, very few have focused robust and quantifiable targets.

Direct carbon removal in addition to mitigation will accelerate economic growth

We need direct carbon removal (DCR) projects in all their guises. Biodiversity targets such as afforestation quotas are important, but just one element to reach net zero. For example, by 2050, the UK needs four times the current global capacity for direct carbon capture—such a goal can’t be met through afforestation alone. 

DCR projects, certified to international standards, take years to establish, and currently there are very few available in the UK. Developing DCR infrastructure within NDCs should not be done instead of carbon avoidance investments. Instead, it needs to be considered within the holistic suite of infrastructure to achieve our collective net zero goals.

The reality is that DCR projects are needed to achieve a real physical outcome in the form of reduced levels of carbon in the atmosphere. A physical outcome means every gram of carbon measured, with clear accounting and guarantees of permanence of the project and emission removal. How, and how often, we measure this will be key to keeping organisations accountable and a real tab on climate change commitments.

The UK’s carbon removal industry may be in its infancy, but a government funded programme of GHG removal methods has selected 24 projects across the country for the first phase. The projects will deliver innovative designs that develop new ways of removing GHGs from the atmosphere and store them safely. A further 5 projects will receive further funding to investigate their viability of adopting the methods at scale. If we’re to meet our 2050 target of four times the global capacity for the UK alone, we cannot pick a winner, but need to back each project available.  

The reality is that DCR projects are needed to achieve a real physical outcome in the form of reduced levels of carbon in the atmosphere. 

The market entry point for DCR projects is still too high today to encourage most organisations to get to net zero. But developing DCR projects actually makes economic sense. Those who consider the importance of DCR projects will be in far stronger positions economically.

A country that is decarbonising their electrical system, deploying cheap clean energy, and delivering carbon removal to balance their national emissions inventory will reap financial rewards of global corporations looking to operate in that environment. It doesn’t take too much imagination to envision that the economic activities of the corporations that have already declared net zero goals will shift to economic geographies that share their commitments. A country’s NDC is ultimately a great opportunity to attract investment into a country.

At COP26, global leaders must discuss how DCR should be mandatory within NDCs. This is alongside other vital conversations: 1) about Article 6 establishing an effective global carbon price—deciding ‘who pays’ (a decision not reached in Madrid at COP25) and 2) about establishing a flexible approach to finance to bring about a strong decline in current GHGs concentrations and future emissions.

Glasgow becomes a very important marker for our future.

  • Jonathan Riggall

    A climate strategy, pollution impact, and environmental expert, Jonathan specialises in working with investors to new sustainable technology delivery. He works in community development and renewable energy sectors.

    Contact Jonathan
  • Dr. Francis Wiese
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