Carbon removal is a necessary part of climate action — but approaches vary considerably, are at different levels of readiness, and have a range of positive and negative impacts on sustainable development. CRC helps organisations explore the communities, challenges and opportunities around different approaches to carbon removal.
Why does the world need Carbon Removal?
The purpose of carbon removal, or carbon dioxide removal (CDR), is to bring down the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, to reduce the risks of climate change. It is also known as carbon drawdown, greenhouse gas removal (GGR), air mining and negative emissions — but distinct from offsetting and carbon capture.
According to climate scientists (IPCC), achieving climate goals will require billions of tonnes of carbon removal by 2050, and out to the end of the century.
This will only be possible with a major collaborative effort from players across society.
Carbon removal covers a range of approaches, including biological (nature-based), technological, and geochemical. The different approaches are at various stages of readiness and many will require huge investments to scale up. All approaches are expected to bring risks as well as opportunities — yet the impacts of these activities at scale are not yet fully understood.
Carbon removal is intended to complement activities that stop CO2 emissions from initially occurring. Even with highly ambitious efforts to reduce emissions, some are likely to remain, and will need to be compensated with carbon removal. However, many groups have justifiable concerns that carbon removal will lower ambitions on emissions reductions, and be used as a ‘get out of jail free card’. This is often called the moral hazard. It is crucial that carbon removal is understood as a complement to the core priority of emissions reductions, and one that is in limited supply. Reducing and avoiding emissions is a more effective, and less risky, way of tackling climate change.
Defining Carbon Removal
- Greenhouse gases (e.g. carbon dioxide) are physically removed from the atmosphere.
- The removed gases are stored out of the atmosphere in a manner intended to be permanent [there is not yet widespread agreement on the meaning of permanent].
- All emissions associated with delivering the removal, both upstream and downstream, are estimated and included in the emission balance.
- The total volume of greenhouse gases removed and stored is greater than the total emitted to the atmosphere in the process of removing.
Carbon removal is different from traditional offsetting. Historically, offsetting refers to a payment for emissions to be avoided — typical offset projects include renewable energy installation, clean cookstoves, or prevented deforestation. Carbon removal projects, which are much less widely available and not yet widely used, physically remove carbon from the atmosphere. While both in theory count as offsets, as they are typically used to compensate for emissions taking place elsewhere, they work in different ways.
‘Avoided emissions offsets’ have historically been used by organisations to achieve ‘carbon neutral’ status, often before significant emissions reductions have taken place. Meanwhile, carbon removal offsets should only be used sparingly, when organisations have reduced their emissions as much as possible, as part of ‘net zero’ targets. The Oxford Principles for Net Zero Aligned Carbon Offsetting recommend a movement towards carbon removal offsetting over time.
‘Carbon capture’ is also not the same as carbon removal. Carbon capture is sometimes used as a generic term—for example, direct air capture, or even photosynthesis, are in theory forms of carbon capture, which combined with permanent storage provide carbon removal. However, carbon capture typically refers to a process used to capture carbon at the point of emission, usually where fossil fuels are being burned. Carbon capture and storage (CCS) can be used to reduce the emissions associated with fossil fuel burning, but it is not a form of carbon removal.
Further reading: Carnegie Climate Governance Initiative, IPCC
How do we talk about Carbon Removal?
The Carbon Phrasebook: CRC's Carbon Removal Glossary
Carbon removal and net zero terminology is complicated. Help us to build a glossary to describe different concepts, approaches and technologies.
CRC helps organisations envision where they best fit into the carbon removal landscape, to identify risks, opportunities, and constraints, and to establish what approaches work best for them.
Commission your Carbon Removal Status Report
CRC can help a range of organisations envision their unique role in the carbon removal landscape.
Contact us to commission a status report, which includes:
- Overview of risks and opportunities of engaging with CDR
- Potential approaches and activities relevant to your goals
- Key questions to be answered before establishing a strategy
- Opportunities to engage with relevant experts and stakeholder communities
Carbon removal is contested. Disagreement and uncertainty over its role creates risks and hampers effective action. CRC helps companies, policy makers and civil society groups engage with each other, and to build shared approaches that benefit all society.
Learn more about Sector-specific CDR Engagement Guides
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Join CRC’s ‘positively negative’ participatory mapping exercises.
Join our community of more than 400 companies and organisations involved in Carbon Removal.