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Carbon removal certification is the next climate frontier

A complex, rapidly expanding carbon removal certification space revealed by a new study raises questions on quality and oversight.

When we plug in an electrical appliance today, we rarely think about being electrocuted. That’s because electrical codes have been established to protect anyone using electricity directly or indirectly. Standards are the key to safety and guaranteeing performance, and can be found in all major industries.

The same is true for the emerging Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR) industry. CDR captures CO2 from the atmosphere and stores it durably in oceanic, geologic, and biotic reservoirs. CDR is vital in stopping global temperatures from increasing further because it can help eliminate leftover emissions. The IPCC estimates 100-1000 gigatons of CO2 will need to be removed by the end of the century. That’s equivalent to developing a brand-new industry the size of today’s fossil fuel industry.

Standards apply to the CDR industry in two ways. First, to make the activities safe for the workers, the public, and the environment. For example, some CDR activities have processes that use electricity, chemicals, and high pressures. Second, to ensure that the activities are performing as expected. CDR is a promise to clean up CO2 from the environment. Therefore, the industry must prove it has permanently disposed of carbon. Methodologies of carbon accounting provide that proof and are embodied in standards for carbon removal. Since the CDR industry is in the early stages, a new study published in the journal Climate Policy asked about the status of carbon removal standards.

Certification Status

The study revealed a complex certification space involving many actors attempting to demonstrate to the public that carbon is being removed to mitigate climate change. It found at least 30 standard developing organizations worldwide. They are proposing at least 125 methodologies for carbon accounting from 23 different activities (e.g., afforestation, soil carbon enhancement, injection in geologic formations, wetland restoration etc.) and selling 27 different versions of certification (e.g., credits, units, certificates) in voluntary and compliance markets (Figure 1).

Figure 1: CDR Interactive Mapping
Credit Source: Stephanie Arcusa (author)

The plethora of available standards is, on the one hand, a sign of recognition of CDR’s importance and of guaranteeing outcomes. On the other, it indicates much work remains. The analysis revealed multiple standards exist for the same activity. For example, 24 standards exist for forest ecosystems and 19 for agriculture for soil carbon. The analysis also highlighted gaps in the activities covered. For instance, many ocean activities had no standards when the article was published. Moreover, the study revealed an uneven coverage, with more standards developed for nature-based removal activities than engineering-based ones. Lastly, the research found that the voluntary market cast a much wider net than the compliance markets in their portfolio of activities. 

Unequal certification

A key reason for developing carbon removal standards today is to sell carbon credits to emitters. Emitters use these credits to make claims about climate action and count them towards their carbon neutrality plans. Two core conditions in that reasoning are that (1) each certification represents the same outcome and (2) that outcome is sufficient to neutralize an emission. Certification must fulfil both, which is not currently the case.

For the first condition, a growing body of research from non-profits, academia, and institutes is demonstrating significant differences in terms of rigour, additionality, durability, and the implementation of safeguards against harm. These differences raise questions about the equivalence of the outcome from one standard to another, with implications for quality. If one standard offers less under the guise of a certification presented as equal to another, who will be able to discern the difference? Microsoft hired teams of experts during their carbon removal purchase.

The new study also showed that standards diverge on the outcomes they claim to quantify. Some standards certify emission reduction and removal (so-called “traditional offsets”), while others solely certify removal (Figure 2). Specific activities that avoid emissions do so through sequestration (e.g., activities that capture emissions from industrial processes and store them underground). As a result, certification bodies have lumped reduction and removal under the same standards. This topic has surfaced as a fundamental question with implications for the second condition.

Figure 2: Emission offset categories
Credit Source: Stephanie Arcusa (author)
Note: Pictorial difference between (a) traditional offset certifying emission reduction and removal and (b) an offset of carbon removal and its (c) impact when purchased by a buyer to make offset an emission. Image credit: author’s work.

Offsets and net-zero commitments

By committing to the Paris Agreement, the world agreed to limit temperatures to 2°C. This limit comes with a carbon budget, and a total allowance of carbon emissions. Net-zero commitments must evolve from the scientific understanding that emissions must be eliminated to stop temperatures from increasing further. By making such commitments, entities agree to operate under this budget by reducing emissions and balancing the rest.

How does one balance a carbon budget? If there is a total of $100 in two bank accounts, and I spend $10, $90 remains. Whether I use a traditional offset or an offset of carbon removal, my bank account equally rebounds by $10. However, the former would have to take money from the other’s account, effectively reducing the total by $10, while the latter would not. In other words, meeting net-zero claims with traditional offsets is incompatible with a carbon budget. Emissions will not be cancelled and will eat away at the total (Figure 2). The second condition that an outcome is sufficient to neutralize an emission becomes invalid for standards that certify together emission reduction and removal.

Oversight urgently needed

The unfilled conditions discussed above are part and parcel of the complex certification space found by the new study. The study concludes by raising concern and calling for oversight by an international body dedicated to carbon removal. The world spent $2B on traditional voluntary carbon offsets in 2021. Only about 3% of all projects were purely carbon removal. The carbon market is projected to increase enormously to between $20B and $50B by 2030. Oversight is urgent.

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Journal reference

Arcusa, S., & Sprenkle-Hyppolite, S. (2022). Snapshot of the carbon dioxide removal certification and standards ecosystem (2021–2022). Climate Policy, 22(9-10), 1319–1332. https://doi.org/10.1080/14693062.2022.2094308

Dr. Stephanie Arcusa is a climate scientist and carbon management researcher at Arizona State University. Her passion is reconstructing climate change through time using natural archives like tree rings and lake mud. Her current work focuses on climate transitions and the design of certification for carbon sequestration as a tool to stabilize climate change.