By Chris Lang
Corporate plans to reach “net-zero” have boomed since the IPCC’s 2018 report on limiting global warming to 1.5°C. More than 400 companies have signed the UN Global Compact’s Business Ambition for 1.5°C, aiming to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. More than 1,300 companies are involved in the UN Race to Zero campaign. And the Science Based Targets initiative has certified over 550 companies’ 1.5°C or 2°C targets.
A new Greenpeace report looks at the role of carbon dioxide removal in companies’ climate plans. Written by Greg Muttitt with inputs from Charlie Kronick and Louise Rouse, the report is titled, “Net Expectations: Assessing the role of carbon dioxide removal in companies’ climate plans”.
Corporate plans for Carbon Dioxide Removal
The report finds that companies’ net-zero plans vary widely in how much they rely on Carbon Dioxide Removal:
- Some companies aim to avoid or minimise the use of CDR and have specific plans to directly prevent most emissions. Others plan to use CDR to offset a majority of current emissions.
- Some companies even in hard-to-abate sectors – such as cement, steel and marine freight – plan to cut emissions directly, by innovating where necessary. Conversely, others plan to use CDR to offset even easy-to-abate emissions, such as in power generation.
- While a few companies plan to deliver CDR in specific projects, many plan to simply purchase credits on carbon markets, which have been beset with integrity
problems and dubious accounting, even where certified.
The experiences of forest sinks and carbon markets
While BECCS and DACCS are new and unproven approaches, CDR is not a novel concept: forest-based carbon sequestration has long been part of the climate toolbox. The IPCC’s First Assessment Report in 1990 proposed among its response strategies “expansion of forest areas as possible reservoirs of carbon,” and forest expansion is included in the UNFCCC’s REDD+ programme (as the “plus”, alongside Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation), introduced in 2005 to enable international funding for forest measures in the Global South. This history can provide useful lessons for future use of CDR.
Unfortunately, the experience has been more often negative than positive, as attested by an extensive literature. In particular, failures to establish effective governance of REDD+ have left some researchers asking whether the programme has contributed at all to mitigating climate change. Meanwhile, numerous forest-carbon projects have displaced local – often Indigenous – people from their homes and land, prohibited the subsistence forest uses on which they depend, and in some cases led to violence and militarisation.
Carbon markets – both regulated and voluntary – have been part of climate mitigation since the Kyoto Protocol of 1997, and are now seen as a key tool for companies to deliver CDR. However, the experience here too has been sobering. Even where certified by professional consultancies or regulated by public bodies, it has generally been impossible to establish that projects generating carbon credits have been additional to what would have happened in any case. For example, a study for the European Commission in 2016 found that 85% of Certified Emissions Reduction projects under the Clean Development Mechanism are unlikely to have delivered any climate benefit.
A potential lesson then is that CDR projects must be designed holistically, taking into account not only carbon accounting but also wider social and environmental impacts, and within a framework of strong and effective regulation. These risks provide further reasons that reliance on CDR should be minimised.
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