Carbon Removal Now: Why the world must not fail to scale
Author: Arnavaz Schatten, Director of Sustainability and Impact at Infarm
One hundred ninety-six parties adopted the Paris Agreement at COP21 in 2015. A historically significant agreement which framed the necessary global response to the threats of climate change.
The same year, we saw the launch of the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi), which aimed to support companies in reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to meet the agreement's goal of keeping global warming to well below 2°C and ideally limiting it to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels by the end of the century.
As of 2023, the SBTi is one of the most credible and widely adopted frameworks, with more than 4,000 businesses (including Infarm) using the framework to guide their emission reduction efforts on a clear path to achieving net zero emissions latest by 2050.
Offsetting – the good, the bad, and the futile
The SBTi provides a credible, science-based global framework that standardises and verifies climate targets. But what it doesn’t provide is an actual blueprint to net zero. Its guidance is on how much should be reduced and how fast it needs to happen, but the companies themselves need to figure out the ‘how’.
Decarbonisation is not easy, given the fossil-fuel-based systems we are deeply immersed in. Which is one reason why many companies have resorted to what they believe is a convenient shortcut: carbon offsets.
An offset involves the reduction or removal of GHG emissions made somewhere in order to compensate for emissions made elsewhere. It basically treats the emissions as an accounting problem: reducing them in one place in exchange for continuing the same and, in many cases, unfortunately, increasing emissions elsewhere.
For carbon offset credits to work, they must be associated with GHG reductions or removals that are:
- Not overestimated,
- Not claimed by another entity and
- Not causing significant social or environmental harms
In reality, most offset mechanisms out there are not making an actual impact, and likely making matters worse.
It is in recognition of these flaws that SBTi has issued guidance on offsets, limiting their use to 5-10% of total baseline emissions and only to be used for neutralising residual emissions at the point of achieving the targets. It does not allow them to be counted as emission reductions toward the progress of companies’ near-term or long-term science-based targets.
Now let's imagine that the entire business sector globally was to set net-zero science-based targets and achieve them by 2050. Isn’t that what we have hoped for to solve the climate problem?
Sadly, this imaginary scenario is not only unrealistic but also far from solving the entire problem. And the reason is the amount of carbon already in the atmosphere and the carbon that will continue to be emitted in the following decades on the way to net zero. So how will we tackle the residual emissions in a few decades? And more importantly – what can we do to tackle the more than 2,000 giga-tonnes of CO2 already in the atmosphere?
We believe the answer lies in the promising field of carbon dioxide removal (CDR), a practice that involves physically removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and storing it on a permanent or semi-permanent basis. These range from nature-based solutions – such as reforestation and wetland restoration – to technological solutions, such as enhanced weathering and direct air capture and storage. Nature-based alternatives currently offer more cost-effective solutions in the short run. However, they also lack permanence, and we don’t have enough land to address the entirety of our carbon problem with these methods.
The scaling challenge of the CDR industry
The tech-based category, while complex, provides a long-term solution.
A good example is direct air capture: filtering the carbon dioxide out of the air and injecting it underground for permanent storage. Another example is enhanced weathering, a process that aims to accelerate natural weathering by spreading finely ground silicate rock, such as basalt, onto surfaces, which speeds up chemical reactions between rocks, water, and air.
The main drawback of tech-based solutions is that they are relatively young and still in early stages of development. IPCC estimates that we will need to remove 5.8 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere annually by 2050. So far, the industry removes only a few thousand tonnes a year.
Furthermore, as of 2023, tech-based solutions are still extremely costly. The CDR industry is ultimately aiming for USD 100 per tonne of carbon dioxide removed. At this price, carbon removal is said to become affordable at scale. Also, USD 100 is roughly estimated to equal the economic damage caused by one tonne of carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere. But it is speculated that it will take 10-20 years of R&D before we could hit this target.
Light at the end of the tunnel
To unlock the potential of CDR, profound changes are needed. The good news is, it seems they have already begun. For example, the US Department of Energy recently launched a series of programmes aimed at commercialising CDR technologies. The total investment will be close to USD 4 Billion.
What needs to be done on target-setting?
A change in the policy of the SBTi to incentivise more active and scaleable use of carbon removals before companies hit their net zero target would be welcome. While the SBTi did recently introduce more detailed guidance on “beyond value chain mitigation” and is encouraging companies to invest in carbon removal, this is still only on a strictly voluntary basis and does not count towards the SBTi pathway to net zero.
SBTi needs to encourage and incentivise companies to buy carbon removal today, on their path to net zero, and acknowledge their critical role in getting the CDR industry to gigatonne scale. If no one buys carbon removal today, the required supply capacity of 5.8 billion tonnes will not exist in 2050.
With SBTi capping the carbon removal at 5-10%, and only at the point of achieving net-zero, companies are not incentivised to invest in effective carbon removal schemes early on. They are also not incentivised to tackle historical emissions.
What can companies do?
Companies committed to tackling climate change are measuring their carbon footprint, setting goals and communicating their progress transparently. This is essential, but not enough.
Instead of waiting decades before they invest in CDR, companies should do that now. Today. As long as we focus solely on reduction, we will continue to ignore the carbon dioxide already in the atmosphere and the GHG we continuously emit into the atmosphere.
Early investments in new CDR technologies will assist this essential industry in scaling faster and more effectively, before we lose all windows of opportunity. Companies should follow the Oxford Offsetting Principles and start shifting a portion of their offset budget towards carbon removal today and grow that share over time as they reach net zero.
INFARM is working with Supercritical to buy carbon removal in parallel with reducing emissions on its SBTi net zero pathway. For the 2021 baseline emissions, for example, Infarm purchased carbon removal equivalent to the production-related emissions calculated in its LCA analysis, and it plans to increase the percentage annually while the company works on mitigation measures.
Infarm chose Supercritical as its carbon removal partner as they deeply understand carbon removal, have vetted the broadest range of projects, and have a high quality bar for carbon removal Infarm could put its brand behind.
We encourage other companies to do the same, so that we can collectively have a meaningful shot at tackling existing and emerging emissions in time.