The climate giant is getting serious about carbon removal
On 15 December, the EU announced its roadmap for carbon removal as part of the EU Commission’s Communication on Sustainable Carbon Cycles. The roadmap details the crucial role of sustainable carbon removal in EU climate policy in the decades to come. The union’s net-zero target requires a ton of CO2 to be removed for every ton emitted by 2050 and then to start removing more than it emits.
The EU is one of the world’s largest CO2 emitters, but it is also the region with the most ambitious climate plans and has done most to reduce its emissions. With the roadmap outlining the EU’s plans for reducing fossil emissions and increasing carbon removal and utilisation, the EU has the chance to take a leadership role in carbon removal.
A highlight of the roadmap is a target for permanent technological carbon removal of 5 million tons per year in Europe by 2030. Removals shouldn’t be mixed up with emission reductions, so it’s positive that the target is separate. However, the level is too low. The long-term ambition of the EU is 200 million tons removed per year by 2050, and to achieve that, 2030’s level needs to be higher than 5 million. The target is also unambitious compared to individual countries' ambitions. For example, the UK aims to remove 5 million tons and Sweden 2 million tons per year by 2030.
The EU Commission is also working on a much-needed regulatory framework for the certification of carbon removals. Since it will be the first of its kind, it will have the potential to become a global standard. The framework must differentiate between biogenic, atmospheric, and point-source CO2 removal, as well as between permanent and temporary storage of CO2. It is also crucial that the framework has a holistic view, looking at the environmental and social sustainability of removals.
Removals will not be included in the EU ETS, at least not until 2030, and other types of financing will be needed to scale projects. The commission also opens up to increase the size of its Innovation Fund to support sustainable carbon removal and to include the possibility of carbon contracts for difference (CCfD) in the revised EU ETS Directive. The Innovation Fund has already supported several removal and storage projects, among them a planned large BECCS plant in Sweden expected to be operable in 2025.
The EU also sees a role for the usage of CO2 in products, such as electrofuels created with captured CO2. A target of including at least 20% of non-fossil carbon in plastics and chemicals by 2030 was also communicated.
Much of the roadmap focuses on carbon farming. That includes restoration of peatlands, agroforestry, and initiatives such as regenerative farming to rebuild soils and increase carbon stocks in them. Biochar, with its immense potential to rebuild soils and store carbon, is not mentioned as a carbon farming method but should be included. A target of 42 million tons removed through carbon farming by 2030 was communicated. This is being kept separate from the 5 million target for permanent removals.
Soil degradation is a big problem in the EU, costing tens of billions of euros annually, with 60-70% of European soils being considered unhealthy. There is an urgent need for farming methods that rebuild soils and avoid greenhouse gas emissions. However, the EU initiative mentions carbon markets as a way to finance regenerative agriculture practices, which comes with a range of problems. The inherent non-permanence of soil carbon removal makes it unfit to offset fossil fuel emissions. There is also scientific uncertainty on how much carbon can be stored in soils using regenerative methods. Until this is solved, result-based payments such as carbon credits cannot be used. Result-based finance would also disadvantage farmers that already use regenerative methods. Paying for ecosystem services is a better option, such as supporting specific farming practices independent from the amount of CO2 stored in soils.
The roadmap on Sustainable Carbon Cycles is much welcomed and needed, sending a strong signal to the market about the importance of sustainable carbon removal. However, it’s quite brief and without clear definitions and details on, for example, how sustainable carbon removal can get off the ground and be financed to enable the scale we need by 2030. It’s a promising first step, and we are excited for what is to come.
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About the authors
Robert Höglund is an independent advisor working with carbon removal and climate policy. He manages the Milkywire climate transformation fund and sits on the board of Mistra sustainable consumption. He previously headed Oxfam Sweden's policy and communications team and took part in the Science-based Target Initiatives' Net-zero expert advisory group.
Quincy Childs researches progressive strategies for carbon removal solutions with a commitment to climate justice. Drawing from her research in participatory policy design at the University of Oxford, she provides assistance to projects that ensure distributive benefits for frontline and fenceline communities.
Jaco van der Bank is the Senior Policy Advisor at Negative Emissions Platform, working to accelerate technological and regulatory innovation to fight climate change. He is a member of the Advisory Group to CCS+ Initiative and a member of the Credit-level integrity working group of the Task Force on Scaling Voluntary Carbon Market.