Tracking corporate plans for carbon dioxide removal

Guest post by Annelise Straw & Wil Burns, Institute for Carbon Removal Law & Policy, American University / 3 June 2020

[The views of guest post authors are their own. C2G does not necessarily endorse the opinions stated in guest posts. We do, however, encourage a constructive conversation involving multiple viewpoints and voices.]

The terms carbon neutral, carbon negative, and net-zero, long familiar to scientists and environmentalists, are increasingly providing grist for corporate press releases. Recently, corporations from sectors ranging from aviation to finance to retail have made commitments to an emerging suite of climate responses referred to as carbon removal.

Carbon removal, also known as carbon dioxide removal [1] or negative emissions technologies, has been receiving increased attention from corporations since the landmark IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C identified it as crucial element for limiting global warming to 1.5°C.

As a response to the growing number of corporate climate pledges, the Institute for Carbon Removal Law and Policy at American University has created an Action Tracker outlining carbon removal pledges in a wide range of corporate sectors, including aviation, energy, heavy industry, and other harder-to-abate sectors, as well as large financial actors and retail companies.  As far as we are aware, this is the first tool to do this. (More details on the Action Tracker below)

 

What is carbon removal – and what isn’t it?

Carbon removal is the process of capturing carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere and locking it away for decades or centuries in plants, soils, oceans, rocks, saline aquifers, depleted oil wells, or long-lived products like cement.

It is important to note that carbon removal is not the same as carbon capture and use or storage (CCUS). While carbon removal captures carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, carbon capture and storage (CCS) captures carbon dioxide from a smokestack or flue, such as in a coal-fired power plant or a cement factory, and then sequesters that carbon dioxide underground.

The distinctions between carbon removal and CCUS are easily blurred—and are sometimes deliberately blurred—because both involve capturing carbon dioxide, and because a few approaches to carbon removal even incorporate some of the same equipment and process steps as CCUS require.

Nonetheless, CCS on fossil-fuelled power plants does not count as carbon removal. Nor does the use of captured carbon in short-lived products, such as beverages or synthetic fuels, regardless of where that carbon came from.

This is not just a semantic point: maintaining a clear distinction between carbon removal and CCUS matters because, unlike carbon removal, neither CCS nor fossil-based carbon capture and utilisation (CCU) can actually draw down atmospheric carbon dioxide levels.

To say this more simply: carbon removal removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere for long periods of time, while CCUS can only reduce the amount of carbon dioxide entering the atmosphere.

Proponents argue that CCUS could play a valuable role in climate policy. Even so, CCUS and carbon removal would play different roles in long-term climate strategies. Figure 1 shows this distinction.

Figure 1. Distinguishing carbon removal from CCUS

 

What information is included in the American University’s new Action Tracker?

The Action Tracker is restricted to pledges made by companies that entail some use of large-scale carbon removal.

Some of these companies have pledged to become carbon neutral or reach net-zero emissions, while others have plans to become carbon-negative, meaning that they are making pledges to ultimately remove more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than they emit. Companies with carbon-negative pledges include Ikea, Microsoft, Starbucks, AstraZeneca, and Horizon Organics.

Also included in the Action Tracker are companies in harder-to-abate sectors such as aviation, steel, and cement, that are making carbon neutral commitments without any apparent commitment to carbon removal.

Given how challenging it is to decarbonize these sectors, any pledge to carbon neutrality in those sectors necessarily invites questions about how a particular company aims to become carbon neutral and what role, if any, carbon removal plays in each company’s plan.

 

A few companies in the retail sector, such as Horizon Organics and Starbucks, have independently pledged to be carbon-negative (confusingly called “carbon positive” or “resource positive” in a few cases) using carbon removal. Many more retail companies have committed to becoming net-zero as part of the Certified B Corporations Net-Zero by 2030 pledge, but lack specific plans for fulfilling their commitment.

Finally, the Action Tracker includes actors in the financial sector, such as Barclays and Harvard University’s endowment, which have pledged to make their investments carbon neutral, meaning that the net carbon footprint of the activities they finance or invest in will be zero.

These plans are likely to take different forms. Harvard, for instance, has indicated that its endowment managers will finance carbon removal to balance investments in greenhouse gas-emitting activities, whereas Barclays has aligned itself with the International Energy Agency’s Sustainable Development Scenario, which explicitly excludes carbon removal. Given the importance of finance to reaching net-zero or net-negative emissions globally, the Institute finds these sorts of pledges worth tracking.

 

An evolving resource

The Action Tracker is an ever-evolving resource and will be updated as new commitments are released, current pledges become more detailed, and mechanisms to achieve outlined commitments are specified.

Our long-term goal is to turn this into a database that lives on our website. However, for the near future, this will stay as a continuously updated public Google doc.

It is first and foremost a community resource—a crowdsourced way to stay abreast of corporate carbon removal pledges and action. The aim is to bring some level of transparency and thereby accountability to companies exploring carbon removal options. Down the road, we’re looking at working with others on assessment activities.

Cognisant of the ever-present threat that such commitments might in some cases lack integrity, and thus constitute a form of corporate greenwashing, the Institute is also developing a system to assess the integrity of these claims utilising pertinent metrics.

We also encourage anyone consulting the Tracker to consult standards developed by organisations such as Climate Neutral, or the British Standards Institute to learn more about methodological considerations associated with such pledges.

Please email icrlp@american.edu if you have other interesting examples of carbon negative or carbon-neutral-with-carbon-removal pledges that you think should be added to the Tracker; we will follow up quickly!

 

Wil Burns is the co-director of the Institute for Carbon Removal Law and Policy where his current areas of focus include climate geoengineering, international climate change litigation, adaptation strategies to address climate change, and the effectiveness of the European Union’s Emissions Trading System. Annelise Straw serves as the Project Coordinator for the Institute for Carbon Removal Law & Policy where she oversees all research and engagement programs.

 

 

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[1] C2G refers to this family of approaches as Carbon Dioxide Removal

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