Carbon elimination hype is turning into a harmful distraction

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Forest offsets—which represent emissions either sucked out of the air by trees or not released because forests that might have been cut down were instead preserved—cost around $5 to $15 a ton. Meanwhile, the online payments company Stripe, which created a program aimed at helping to scale up carbon removal, agreed to pay Switzerland-based Climeworks $775 per ton to remove CO2 using its direct-air-capture technology.

Obviously, given the price difference, most bottom-lined-focused businesses will go with the former option. But they’re not buying the same thing: while trees die and release their CO2, the carbon dioxide Climeworks captures is converted into minerals and stored away deep underground.

Lackner notes that the actual price of carbon removal through forests would be significantly higher if landowners were forced to bear the ongoing costs of monitoring carbon levels and the liabilities for additional carbon removal should their trees die.

We can’t let nature-based carbon removal set the market price, because for many reasons we’ve seen they’re not reliable, not permanent, and very often not above and beyond what would have happened in the absence of such systems, says Duncan McLaren, a research fellow at Lancaster University’s Environment Centre.

It’s creating “a discourse that makes net zero seem like a relatively easy thing to accomplish at relatively low costs,” he says.

Separating the goals

So how can we strike the right balance, using carbon removal to reduce the rising dangers of climate change without allowing it to become a distraction from the higher priority of cutting emissions?

At a minimum, the world’s legislators shouldn’t allow lofty corporate net-zero goals and buzz about carbon removal to ease the pressure for aggressive climate laws and regulations that mandate emissions cuts or incentivize a shift to cleaner technologies.

“There will be a risk of fossil-fuel companies and others using carbon removal as an imagined way to not shift their business models as long as we don’t have a mainstream plan for ending fossil fuels,” says Holly Buck, an assistant professor in the department of environment and sustainability at the University of Buffalo.