Explaining Carbon Avoidance vs. Carbon Removal

When it comes to mitigating the climate crisis, industry has an outsized responsibility to take action. Their action (or inaction) today is what will determine what our planet’s future will look like. Promisingly, businesses, large and small, are setting carbon emissions reduction targets and implementing plans to achieve them. But this alone will no longer be enough, as the IPCC says that we now need to remove gigatonnes of CO₂ every year to maintain a liveable planet. In addition to deep industrial decarbonisation, businesses are now encouraged to engage with the voluntary carbon markets to zero out their impact (reaching net zero) and beyond.

But how do they decipher the complex world of carbon removal and the different types of carbon credits? Navigating the intricacies of carbon avoidance and removal equips businesses with the knowledge necessary to make impactful climate action decisions.

What is a Carbon Credit?

Carbon credits are a market mechanism for businesses to finance projects that avoid or remove greenhouse gas emissions. Each credit represents a metric tonne of CO₂ avoided from being emitted or removed from the atmosphere. However, the quality and impact of these credits can vary widely, underscoring the importance of strategic selection.

What is Carbon Avoidance: Preventing Emissions Before They Occur

Carbon avoidance projects are proactive measures that halt additional greenhouse gases from entering the atmosphere. By replacing high-emission sources like fossil fuel plants with renewable energy alternatives, such as wind or solar farms, these projects ensure that potential emissions are never released. This strategy is akin to reducing the flow of water into a bathtub, mitigating the volume of greenhouse gases emitted.

What is Carbon Removal: Actively Reducing Atmospheric CO₂

In contrast, carbon removal projects aim to directly extract CO₂ from the atmosphere. Enhanced rock weathering (ERW) is an example of this project type, using natural processes to capture CO₂ in mineral form. Carbon removal is comparable to draining water from a bathtub, actively lowering the levels of CO₂ in the atmosphere.

How much do Carbon Credits Cost?

The cost of carbon credits varies significantly between avoidance and removal projects. Removal credits can range from £30 to £1,000 per tonne, reflecting the technological and logistical complexities involved. On the other hand, avoidance credits are generally more affordable, costing between £7 and £20 per tonne. This price difference highlights the need for businesses to carefully plan their carbon credit investments, balancing cost-effectiveness with their overall impact on climate goals.

Complementary Strategies for a Sustainable Future

Both carbon avoidance and removal play vital roles in the net zero journey. Avoidance credits support ongoing emissions reduction efforts, while removal credits become crucial once a business has minimised its emissions, helping to offset the residual, unavoidable emissions.

Together, these strategies enable companies to balance out the carbon they emit and the carbon removed from the atmosphere, aligning with Beyond Value Chain Mitigation (BVCM) principles. To ensure that the requisite supply of carbon removal credits is available for organisations to address their residual emissions, it is of the utmost importance that companies look to engage with carbon removal now. The significance of this point is highlighted within both the revised version of the Oxford Principles for Net Zero Aligned Carbon Offsetting and the Voluntary Carbon Market Initiative’s updated version of their Claims Code of Practice, both of which have highlighted the need to close the carbon removal gap and invest early in carbon removal projects.

Choosing the Carbon Removal Right Projects: Impact, Certification and Strategic Alignment

Selecting the right carbon credit projects is essential. High-quality projects should exhibit additionality, ensuring the emissions removed or avoided wouldn’t have occurred without the project. They must also demonstrate permanence, confirming that the carbon saved or removed will not be quickly re-emitted into the atmosphere. Finally, addressing leakage – where reductions in one area might increase emissions in another – is crucial for the integrity of carbon offset projects.

Certifications from reputable bodies like Gold Standard, or Verified Carbon Standard serve as a mark of quality, validating the additionality, permanence and overall impact of carbon credits. Businesses should prioritise projects that align with their sustainability goals, whether focusing on immediate impact, supporting specific technologies or investing in projects with significant co-benefits for communities and ecosystems.

Practical Strategies for Integrating Carbon Removal into Sustainability Efforts

Prioritise Emissions Reduction: Focus first on reducing your operational emissions as much as possible.
Select Projects Strategically: Choose carbon projects that align with your sustainability objectives, considering factors like cost, impact and alignment with broader environmental goals.
Plan for the Long Term: Engage in forward contracts to support emerging carbon removal technologies and guarantee a stable supply of high-quality credits for future needs.

The Critical Importance of Carbon Removal in the Climate Equation

While both carbon avoidance and removal are essential, the unique ability of removal projects to actively decrease atmospheric CO₂ levels makes them particularly crucial. Methods like ERW not only offset emissions but also offer additional benefits, such as enhancing soil health and supporting local agricultural communities.

As businesses work towards net zero emissions, investing in carbon removal becomes increasingly important, signifying a commitment to not just offsetting impact but actively improving the global climate.

A Balanced Approach for a Sustainable Future

The journey towards sustainability for businesses is complex but crucial for our climate. By understanding and strategically investing in verified carbon projects and the credits they produce, companies can take meaningful action towards climate goals. This approach not only addresses current emissions but also contributes to the long-term reduction of historic atmospheric CO₂, paving the way for a more sustainable planet.

In navigating the carbon credit market, the focus should always be on quality, impact and strategic alignment with broader environmental objectives. Actions and investments today are critical, and the collective efforts of the business community in adopting carbon strategies will play a pivotal role in achieving a sustainable future.

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