The EU formalizes rules for removing CO2 from the atmosphere

The EU has taken an important step towards legitimizing technologies that suck carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by agreeing to set up a certification process.

The European Council and the European Parliament today reached a provisional agreement to create the first certification framework for carbon removal technologies. The new climate technology still has to prove itself on a large scale, but the EU is already including it in its plan to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Net-zero implies that the bloc would resort to capturing whatever carbon emissions it has left. We have not been able to prevent this, either by exploiting plants’ natural ability to absorb carbon dioxide, or by building technologies that filter CO2 from the air or seawater.

There are inherent risks associated with that net-zero strategy – which is why rules like those set out today are so important

There are inherent risks associated with that net-zero strategy – which is why rules like those set out today are so important. They will dictate what counts as carbon removal, and hopefully weed out bad projects that don’t meaningfully combat climate change. Lack of rules – or no rules at all – could give companies a way to keep polluting while misleadingly promising to cut those emissions later. If those promises don’t come true, or the technologies they rely on fail, what’s left behind is all that pollution that could have been avoided in the first place by choosing clean energy over carbon removal.

The framework “demonstrates the European Union’s commitment to ‘getting carbon removal right’,” said Christoph Beuttler, head of climate policy at Climeworks, one of the first companies to develop large industrial plants to filter CO2 from the air. “We encourage other countries and regions to follow the European Union’s lead and rely on rigorous assessment of carbon removal,” Beuttler said in a press release.

Until now, the sector has had to police itself. For example, Climeworks announced last year that its customers Microsoft, Stripe and Shopify were the first companies in the world to pay to filter their carbon dioxide emissions from the air, store those emissions underground and have that service verified by a third party. Audit agency DNV worked with Climeworks to develop criteria and certify carbon removal.

In a separate effort, Stripe, Alphabet, Meta, Shopify and McKinsey launched an initiative in 2022 called Frontier that vets carbon removal providers for companies interested in purchasing credits from them.

Carbon credits already have a checkered history. Before carbon removal became trendy, many brands bought carbon compensated credits linked to forestry projects. The idea was that companies could undo some of their pollution by paying to protect forests that naturally absorb CO2. One credit should equal one ton of CO2 pollution avoided or saved. Instead, carbon offset markets are flooded with poor quality credits that do not represent real reductions in carbon emissions.

To avoid a similar fate to emerging carbon removal technologies, the EU’s new certification sets parameters for four different types of carbon removal. That includes carbon removal, which is considered permanent because the CO2 is stored for “several centuries” (often underground) and “temporary” carbon storage (which lasts at least five years in plants or soil and 35 years or more in products such as wood). It assesses both industrial tactics for carbon removal (as Climeworks does) and nature-based strategies such as restoring forests and other habitats or agricultural practices that allow soils to retain more CO2.

The framework also includes measures proposed by the European Commission in 2022, including requiring carbon removal to be quantifiable and long-term. And projects would have to lead to “additional” carbon reductions, meaning the carbon would otherwise not have been captured without intervention. Projects must also avoid other negative environmental impacts.

Notably, the EU’s new certification program will not consider so-called enhanced oil recovery (EOR) as a permanent carbon removal strategy. At EOR, fossil fuel companies shoot CO2 into the ground to remove oil reserves that are difficult to reach. Occidental Petroleum, which is developing major carbon removal projects in Texas, has used EOR to sell what it calls “net-zero oil.”

The EU’s proposal is still too lax, some environmental groups warn. They are concerned about the framework that incentivizes temporary carbon storage and lets both companies and countries claim CO2 removal, which they say could lead to double counting. The deal is “highly problematic,” Wijnand Stoefs, head of carbon removal policy at the nonprofit Carbon Market Watch, said in a statement. “Even the fundamental principle that removals should complement, not replace, emissions reductions has been violated,” Stoefs said.

The provisional agreement reached today still needs to be formally adopted by the European Council and the European Parliament. If passed, the certification process would be voluntary for companies that remove carbon. But only certified projects would count toward a country’s progress toward meeting the European Union’s climate goals.

Earlier this month, the European Commission released a strategy paper for capturing carbon dioxide emissions, alongside a plan to cut the bloc’s greenhouse gas emissions by 90 percent by 2040. The strategy foresees that the EU has the capacity to store 280 million tonnes of captured carbon dioxide. per year in 2040, approximately equal to the annual emissions of more than 700 gas-fired power stations.

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