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The sustainable carbon cycles conference: a retrospective on the role of industrial carbon removal solutions in the EU

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By Wilfried Maas

· 7 min read

In January, the European Union hosted the inaugural Sustainable Carbon Cycles Conference to gather decision-makers, industry experts, and practitioners to discuss carbon removal pathways in advance of upcoming regulation on quality and certification. As a practitioner with over 30 years of experience in energy and carbon management, I was invited to the panel on the deployment of industrial carbon removal solutions within the EU. 

The conference itself was a direct action from the European Commission’s Communication on Sustainable Carbon Cycles, part of the European Green Deal, delineating how to increase the removal of atmospheric CO2. To summarize this report in brief: the EU will need to drastically reduce reliance on fossil fuel consumption, expand “carbon farming” to store more carbon in nature (also referred to as “nature-based solutions”), and scale industrial solutions. These actions are paramount to achieving the EU’s compliance-based commitment to become climate neutral by 2050 where, each single tonne of CO2eq emitted into the atmosphere will have to be neutralized by a tonne of CO2 permanently removed from the atmosphere.

Across any type of carbon removal, quality is critical. At Carbon Direct, where I am Chief Carbon Technology Strategist, we have worked with fellow scientists to outline standards for quality in Microsoft’s “Criteria for High Quality Carbon Dioxide Removal.” These include: additionality and baselines; carbon accounting methods; monitoring, reporting, and verification (MRV); do no harm and pursuit of co-benefits; durability; leakage; and environmental justice. In attending the Sustainable Cycles Conference, I aimed to bring this science-backed perspective to the forefront of the EU policy discussions.

Climate policy and carbon removal in the EU

The guiding legislation for climate neutrality is codified by the European Climate Law. Passed in March 2020, this legally binding regulation outlines two key goals: 1) the EU is to achieve climate neutrality by 2050; and 2) the EU is to reduce GHG emissions by 55% by 2030, as compared to 1990.

Notably, the latter goal includes a capped contribution of 225M tons from carbon removal – yet the EU currently only formally recognizes removals in the form of land-use and land-change sinks. These sinks are not sufficient to meet that 225M ton allocation. As such, the Climate Law addresses the need to develop both natural and technological removals. It proposes the development of a regulatory framework that will certify carbon removals. It is also important to note that as part of their carbon removal action plan, the Climate Law includes an agreement to achieve negative emissions after 2050. This indicates a need to go beyond Net-Zero in order to reach the 1.5°C target of warming outlined by the Paris Agreement[1].

Another important callout from the Climate Law is its separation of carbon reduction and carbon removal goals. In discussions on the role of carbon removal, the question of a moral hazard is raised – that is, can the mobilization of carbon removal technologies delay emission reduction or condone high-emission practices? The now separate targets for emission reduction and removal help to mitigate this by taking action on emission reduction strategies while also funding the innovation needed to deploy high-quality carbon removal.

This is critical in that we need high-quality carbon removal to limit warming and to account for target overshoots as we work towards decarbonizing industries around the world. The IPCC Physical Science Basis report substantiates that anthropogenic CO2 removal has the potential to both remove and durably store CO2 from the atmosphere, and therefore may help to mitigate potential climate “tipping points” like ice sheet disintegration and permafrost loss.

Deploying industrial carbon removal solutions

To assess the implications of the Climate Law legislation as well as how to effectively mobilize the development of industrial carbon removal solutions, the Sustainable Carbon Cycles Conference session on Industrial Solutions posed three guiding questions: what industrial carbon removal solutions are currently available? What potential do they offer for carbon removal? And what are the main opportunities and challenges of deploying such solutions in the EU?

Christian Holzleitner of the European Commission framed the core challenge for policymakers to engage in effective short-term action while assessing the long-term development of a scaling carbon market. Paul Hugues, Energy Analyst and Modeler at the International Energy Agency (IEA), responded by presenting a series of conclusions from the IEA’s Net Zero Scenarios, underscoring the critical need for carbon removal technologies to scale up for deployment to balance the approximate 2 Gt per annum of hard-to-abate energy sector emissions by 2050 – a target that ladders up to the broader 7.6 Gt per annum carbon capture, utilization, and storage (CCUS) goal. The fewer emission reductions realized, the more carbon removal required.

Figure 1: IEA Net-Zero Emission scenario for global CO2 removals in the energy sector. Source: IEA (

A large share of these removals is anticipated to come from the private sector. Coming from the perspective of Carbon Direct, where we work with corporate clients to fulfill their carbon management commitments, I spoke to the challenges faced by these corporations. They have turned to the voluntary carbon market (VCM) for carbon removals in order to realize their Net-Zero pledges. And in doing so within a market that has little to no formal regulation, they face the following challenges:

  1. Differentiation of carbon removal credits from emissions avoidance and emissions reductions credits
  2. Identification of “onsets” with atmospheric storage into the biosphere and “insets[2]” with storage into the geosphere with their differences in storage permanence.
  3. Procurement of high-quality removals where supply is limited, and therefore prices are high

A note on carbon farming and soil carbon 

Outside of the Industrial Solutions session, the Sustainable Cycles Conference positioned carbon farming also as a strategy that can meet both environmental and social goals. Dr. Pete Smith, Science Advisor at Carbon Direct, added that soil carbon as a removal solution has substantial co-benefits for soil health and productivity, and therefore can contribute to the EU Soils Mission as well as to its Farm-to-Fork strategy. 

He drew from his 25+ years of research on soil carbon sequestration in agriculture, where he has quantified potentials and assessed co-benefits and trade-offs of actions to increase soil carbon levels. Another important opportunity is that carbon farming can build on ongoing H2020 projects, such as the ClieNFarms project, which involves researchers from across Europe to progress climate neutral farming– and the forthcoming projects under the ongoing Horizon Europe program (such as the recent call for projects on CDR), which positions soil carbon as one of the “natural climate solutions.”

Looking ahead: defining carbon standards and scaling industrial carbon removal

All of the aforementioned challenges to the VCM can be connected to climate policy and the need for standardization. This need is now being addressed in the EU through the proposed EU Carbon Removal Certification Mechanism (CRC-M), which aims to create a common EU standard with a reliable integrity certification framework. When developed in tandem with quality, it can enable and increase the deployment of both nature-based and industrial solutions by establishing a quality floor for credits from different sources and sinks. When CRC-M is implemented in a meaningful way, it can support the necessary “social license” for carbon removal – this is to say: governmental action can promote trust and support by the general public, which will in turn bring confidence to market actors for further deployment and scale up of carbon removals.

The mobilization of a certification process across the entirety of the EU will ensure that the carbon trade is accounted for with accuracy across all sectors, and that the certificates may be applied for cross-border trade. This certification process can also help to account for double-counting (when a carbon credit is applied to multiple emissions from different actors), which is another key challenge of the VCM.
Looking ahead, the EU Carbon Removal Certification Mechanism in tandem with other initiatives like the Innovation Fund – which has allocated €25B in support for the demonstration of innovative low-carbon technologies between 2020 and 2030 – can help to create the ecosystem we need to scale carbon removal solutions across the VCM and beyond.

In the meantime, we must continue to define (and standardize) criteria for high-quality carbon removal and invest in the development of high-potential carbon removal technologies.

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


[1] Climateworks:

[2] Source: Carbon Wrangler, Medium

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About the author

Dr. Wilfried Maas is Chief Carbon Technologist at Carbon Direct and former Carbon and Energy manager at Shell for industrial decarbonization (CCS, electrification, hydrogen and biomass)

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