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Misleading discussion on CO₂ storage: why the distinction between CDR and CCS matters

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By Venna Lepel

· 5 min read

To reach their climate-neutrality goals, more and more countries are currently focusing on developing and implementing carbon management strategies. In Germany, for example, the government announced plans to develop and present a carbon management strategy before the end of this year. State carbon management strategies are especially important in the worldwide race against climate change, as they highlight the role of carbon sequestration technologies and help promote their use. Whenever key points of such strategies are being discussed publicly, Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) is among them.

Fossil CCS is not the same as atmospheric CCS 

As good as this is in the first instance, as it raises general public awareness of CO₂ storage, it is problematic at second glance: in public discussions, the term “CCS” implicitly refers to “fossil/point-source CCS”, which means the separation of CO₂ from industrial exhausts coupled with the permanent storage of that carbon (applied, e.g. in oil and gas production, cement, steel, power plants and chemical production facilities). Critics say CCS is a lifetime extension for fossil and fossil-based technologies and an excuse for hard-to-abate industries to continue like before, not trying to find real alternatives to decarbonization. Criticism aside, it is an actionable way for these industries to reduce their emissions. 

Besides fossil/point-source CCS, there’s "atmospheric CCS“, better known as Carbon Dioxide Removal or CDR. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) defines CDR as “anthropogenic activities removing CO₂ from the atmosphere and durably storing it in geological, terrestrial, or ocean reservoirs, or in products”.

CDR is wrongly associated with fossil-based practices 

Both CCS and CDR capture and store carbon, which leads to both terms often being equated in the general discussion about CO₂ storage. This misleadingly connects CDR companies with fossil CCS projects and practices, thereby dragging them into a complex context and debate.  

Looking at CDR technologies like Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS) and Direct Air Carbon Capture and Storage (DACCS), the terminologies become even more confusing because they carry the term "CCS“ in their name. What makes the all-important difference is the source of the handled CO₂, which unfortunately is so often missing in public discussion: the carbon that CDR companies capture and store comes from the atmosphere and not directly from industrial exhausts of large emitters.

What is the difference between CDR and CCS? 

Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR) refers to removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and durably storing it, leading to net negative emissions. Meanwhile, Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) is the separation and durable storage of carbon dioxide from a fossil source, usually industrial exhausts, which are at best carbon neutral  

And why is the distinction between CDR and CCS so important? 

A clear differentiation between the terms is necessary since, on one hand, and as mentioned before, CDR companies with game-changing solutions are drawn into controversial discussions about fossil CCS, which often slows down their scaling process because of a lack of political and public support. Correctly distinguishing CDR from CCS will ease government efforts to design smart policies needed to responsibly grow the CDR industry and meet net-zero goals. 

But what makes the proper distinction even more important is referring to their source of CO₂, that is either fossil or atmospheric, they have different impacts on climate change. CDR removes CO₂ from the atmosphere and has a net negative emission footprint, whereas CCS reduces emissions and has at best the potential of being carbon neutral if the sequestered carbon can account for all emissions from the entire process. When the misleading claim "carbon neutral" is stated, often the only numbers put into relation are the direct CO₂ exhaust with the direct CO₂ sequestered. From an impact standpoint, emissions from the entire process must be considered to be truly carbon neutral. 

This crucial difference between CCS and CDR is closely linked to the general need to better distinguish between emission reductions and carbon removal. Recently, a joint call of all big CDR players addressed the need for incorporating this differentiation into climate targets and climate policies to limit the moral hazard, add integrity to carbon markets and create a proper framework to scale CDR solutions.  

If – and we strongly advocate for this – governments and companies will split their “net zero” into twin targets, meaning separate targets for reduction and removal, it will become evident that CCS is a transition technology and that only CDR is capable of removing carbon and producing net negative emissions. The EU’s 2040 climate targets could set a gold standard for differentiated targets and the distinction between CDR and CCS.  

Clear terminological distinction to sharpen the public debate on CO₂ storage 

To sum it up: a clear distinction between important terms like CDR and CCS is essential to enable effective climate action and their successful implementation into governmental strategies. It helps secure the needed support and counter concerns that CDR might help industries to keep to business as usual, which it certainly does not.  

One step in this direction was recently taken by the European biochar community by changing the official name of the carbon removal method from PyCCS (Pyrogenic Carbon Capture and Storage) to BCR (Biochar Carbon Removal). Although it might sound small because it’s just the change of a name, the message behind it is clear: whatever is done to make terms and contexts more understandable and transparent is good to unlock the full potential of CDR. It will lead to a better public understanding, a broader acceptance and more effective political support of scaling CDR methods, that the world so urgently needs to limit global warming to 1.5 to 2 degrees.

This article is also published on Novocarbo. illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Venna Lepel is CCO/CMO of Novocarbo, a biochar carbon removal company where she is in charge of the Carbon Credit Business Unit. Venna is also a board member of the Negative Emissions Platform in Brussels.

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