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Carbon removal and climate change. Ignasi Cubiñá, April 2024

In 2020, the G20 meeting was held in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in the midst of the Covid-19 crisis, with little media impact. One of the highlights on the agenda was the issue of climate change and how to address it. Although not a novelty, as demonstrated at the Dubai Conference in 2023, the perspectives of the parties involved were, and continue to be, intentionally different.

At this summit, the vision of the Circular Carbon Economy, conceived by Carlos Duarte and William McDonough, was presented and accompanied by an infographic of a simplified representation of the carbon cycle within an industrial circular economy model. Although this diagram is still valid, it is less well known than the “Butterlfy diagram”, which exemplifies the conventional circular economy proposal. But it is no less interesting because it is less known. On the contrary, this scheme integrates the carbon dimension as a key component at the intersection between the circular economy and its contribution to the fight against climate change.

Proper carbon as a matter management, combined with a reduction in dependence on fossil fuels, could theoretically lead us to meet climate change mitigation targets by reconfiguring the carbon cycle at the product and process level.

Carbon is not the enemy, by any means; Nor is it in the fight against climate change. But it has to be where it is most productive and where its accumulation does not pose a problem for humanity or the Planet.

Emissions of CO₂ and other greenhouse gases tend to unbalance the relationship between the atmosphere and the troposphere, and are, in fact, waste exacerbated by human activity. The accumulation of CO₂ in the atmosphere is the main cause of global warming, and although the process is complex, there is a broad consensus that, together with the reduction of these human-caused emissions (those that cannot be absorbed naturally by ecosystems), it is necessary to implement a carbon capture or removal strategy (or CDR, Carbon Dioxide Removal).

In the 1980s, a professor of ecology at the University of Barcelona (whose name I can’t remember) explained to us for the first time the relationship between CO₂ content in the atmosphere and human activity. His comment was optimistic and that’s how I perceived it: to go from the 330ppm of atmospheric CO₂ at that time to a figure close to 350ppm, which today we know would put us in the “Safe Side“planetary, it would be necessary to burn all the oxidizing material of the planet, biomass and fossil fuels included. Well, today we know that not only have we been “able” to break the barrier of 400ppm of atmospheric CO₂, but we have also done so in an extraordinarily short space of time.

To correct this situation, it is not enough to drastically reduce our level of emissions and compensate for the unavoidable ones with natural ecosystems (nature-based solutions, NBS, such as oceans, forests, jungles, grasslands and even animals). We need to aim for a negative carbon balance, understood as a “negative” balance between what we emit and what we capture or absorb.

Carbon capture or carbon removal

As stated by Artur Runge-Metzeger (Former Director of the European Commission, Directorate-General for Climate Action) in the report The State of Carbon Dioxide Removal (1st Edition, 2022):

“No matter which IPCC route humanity takes, keeping global temperature rise below 1.5°C will require the increasing removal of increasing amounts of CO₂ from the atmosphere. First, hard-to-reduce greenhouse gas emissions will need to be offset by removals to achieve net-zero CO₂ emissions in less than thirty years. Second, thereafter, vast amounts of CO₂ will have to be captured from the air for many decades, cleaning up the atmosphere and returning atmospheric CO₂ levels to climate-safe levels. By then, carbon dioxide removal (RDF) and sustainable management of global carbon cycles will have become the main focus of global climate action. In this immense global clean-up exercise, everyone will have to assume their historic responsibility.”

In short, the role of the Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS and CCUS) strategy Carbon Capture and Storage and Carbon Capture Utilization and Storage or Carbon Capture and Storage and Carbon Utilization and Storage, in Spanish), will not only be relevant, but, according to the latest data from the IPCC and taking into account the time frame we have, it will be more relevant than ever as the years go by.

In Duarte and McDonough’s diagram (see image 1), on how to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, it indicates that emissions must be stabilized at 28 Gt CO₂, and offset with 28 Gt of CO₂ captured and stored per year. Of these 28 Gt of RDF (Carbon Dioxide Removal), 23 Gt would be captured and stored by NBS (Nature Based Solutions) and 5 Gt in the form of DACs (Direct Air Capture).

The scalability of CDR strategies therefore seems to be a priority. By RDF we mean the capture and durable storage of atmospheric CO₂ in soil, forests, oceans, geological formations, and/or products.

Examples of RDFs are: Biochar, reforestation, bioenergy with Carbon Capture & Storage (BECCS) and Direct Air Carbon Capture and Storage (DACCS). Currently, in fact, at the time of publication of the report in 2022, the majority of RDAs of the 2 GtCO₂ that are captured from the atmosphere are based on conventional technologies such as reforestation, afforestation and responsible forest management.

Aside from some doubts about the integrity and scientifically proven effectiveness of these practices, what the figures reveal is that the potential for atmospheric carbon capture and storage is considerable. In addition, it should be noted that the capacity and effectiveness of natural sinks, in both ocean and terrestrial ecosystems, are absolutely not guaranteed due to biodiversity loss, deforestation and ocean dysfunctions.

Therefore, the additional 3 GtCO₂ planned until 2050 may not be enough; in fact, extra catches will surely be needed, with some scenarios suggesting the need to reach close to the additional 10 GtCO₂.

CDR Market and Methodology

It is often said that climate change is proof of the inefficiency of the sacrosanct market, understood in its most neoliberal acceptance. Interestingly, the urgent development of RDFs will require the market.

At the time of writing, I read the news from Microsoft Corporation confirming the withdrawal or purchase of the largest package of RDFs to date, with almost 100,000 tons of CO₂ in the form of Biochar, produced in a plant in Mexico, and audited by a Swiss company. This is just the beginning. To eventually reach the figure of 10 GtCO₂, it would be necessary to multiply this amount by 100,000 (yes, x10^5, if the math serves me correctly), in one year. At the moment, it seems that the US is taking the lead, and leading the market. But Europe also made a move and presented a draft proposal for market regulation that would include CDRs.

The European stance seeks to avoid the consistency problems of voluntary carbon markets that can undermine their scalability. The important thing here, whatever the strategy of the private or public sector, is that CDRs are effective and socially equitable.

The Carbon Credit market – both voluntary and mandatory – is controversial, convulsive, and volatile—highly volatile, in fact. Recently, the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment together with the University of Oxford, have published a new revision of the Oxford Principles for Net Zero Aligned Carbon Offsetting, and CDRs play a key role.

The Finnish platform Puro Earth, in collaboration with the NASDAQ, developed a new methodological standard for carbon credits – CDRCs (Carbon Dioxide Removal Credits). These carbon credits are comparable to offsetting credits, but incorporate new elements such as the complete Life Cycle Assessment of the supplier, and a thorough analysis of the scientific-technical eligibility criteria.

The origin and durability of RDFs are the key to the integrity of this new methodological proposal, supported by high traceability and transparency of the entire process.

It seems that all the pieces are falling into place, time will tell if the final puzzle is the one we need.


By Ignasi Cubiñá, co-founder of Eco Intelligent Growth (EIG), CSO and partner of Grupo Construcía

Member of the Private Foundation for Business and Climate.