Carbon removals: How to distinguish the good, the bad and the very ugly

Overview

In June, TED Countdown hosted a Dilemma Session in New York focusing on the role of carbon credits in climate action. Gabrielle Walker and Delia Meth-Cohn of Rethinking Removals joined forces with Julio Friedmann (Carbon Direct) and Eli Mitchell-Larson (Carbon Gap) to design and present a workshop on carbon removals. We were aiming to focus on understanding quality criteria such as additionality and durability – but we started by looking at why we see carbon removals as a source of hope for climate action, not as climate denial or and moral hazard.

Here, Delia takes us through the stages of that event.

We began by looking at what people thought was good and bad about carbon removals. On the good side, many people saw removals as unavoidable to reach net zero or Paris – indeed a later show of hands showed everyone thought it would be needed on a gigatonne scale. Some also talked about potential co-benefits (climate justice, rewilding, aligning incentives around nature), but these potential benefits were matched by big fears – of delaying reductions, keeping fossil fuels in play, market abuse and weak accountability for the long term, high costs.

Recognising that fear was holding back carbon removals, we discussed specific ways to limit damage – the need to police offsetting, make sure we focus on addressing the hard-to-abate or “essential” residual emissions (and think about who should decide what is residual), and the importance of moving from voluntary to compliance markets quickly.

We explored the importance of clarity and integrity in talking about removals – not weaponizing science, treating removals as a silver bullet, confusing point source carbon capture and storage and removals or conflating nature-based offsets that might be used by fossil fuel companies as an excuse to delay transition and high-durability offsets that could also be a transformation opportunity for those companies.

Eli speaks on additionality

We then shifted gear and looked at two key concepts for defining good carbon removal credits. Eli Mitchell Larson talked about additionality and how that should be defined differently for nature-based and high durability removals. For the latter, capital costs are high, requiring incentive stacking, while the burden of proof is low – the baseline is “nothing happening”. Julio Friedmann talked about how to create a market to incentivize durability, while not abandoning shorter durability removals that can still delay emissions.

Julio analyses durability

We then discussed how to translate fear into hope to get at least several gigatonnes of carbon removals as part of avoiding climate disaster. We concluded with these thoughts:

  • We have agency/choice and can do something to manage the downsides
  • We are the cavalry – no-one else will do this if we don’t.
  • We need to expand beyond our individual narratives, trust each other and develop a collective narrative that turns fear into love.
  • We should be careful not to act with hubris.     
Photo: Gilberto Tadday / TED
Photo: Gilberto Tadday / TED

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