The European Commission is set to propose a scheme to certify removals of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as part of the efforts to achieve net-zero emissions by mid-century, according to a leaked proposal seen by EURACTIV.
As the EU moves towards its 2050 climate-neutral goal, it also needs to compensate for residual emissions produced by sectors like agriculture and industry through removing carbon emissions.
Carbon removal methods include natural strategies like tree restoration, agricultural soil management, and ocean-based carbon removal, which absorb CO2 as part of the natural carbon cycle. These natural processes can be encouraged by reforestation or so-called carbon farming practices, where atmospheric carbon is sequestered and stored in plant materials or soils.
However, technical solutions are also being tested, such as direct air capture (DAC) systems involving giant fans that suck CO2 from the air. The next step is to store the captured carbon, either in solid form or as a liquid.
“Capturing CO2 from the atmosphere and storing it for the long term is indispensable if you want to achieve climate neutrality by the middle of the century,” said EU climate chief Frans Timmermans at a conference about carbon removal organized by the European Commission earlier this year.
The European Commission is expected to table a legislative proposal on Nov. 30 to establish a carbon removal certification scheme.
According to a leaked draft of the text, “the EU is not on track to deliver” the removals needed to reach net zero emissions, which accumulate to several hundred million tonnes per year.
To address this issue, the proposal aims to ensure carbon removals are genuine, long-lasting, and monitored by using a credible and transparent assessment to give certainty to public bodies and private operators.
Carbon removals will be eligible for certification if they meet a formula that ensures the activity has a neutral or positive impact on the environment, and, additionally, creates a net gain in CO2 presence in the atmosphere, and aims to be long-term and is monitored.
If any carbon is released in the process, it must be reported and “addressed through appropriate liability mechanisms.”
The proposal examines permanent removal, carbon stored in products and carbon farming. These methods vary in terms of maturity, cost-effectiveness, and monitoring costs.
But the inclusion of carbon stored in products and some types of carbon farming has raised concerns among environmental activists.
While including rewetting peatlands and removals from forests is positive, adding into carbon captured in soils and products is a “nightmare,” said Wijnand Stoefs, the policy lead for carbon removals at environmental NGO Carbon Market Watch.
Stoefs pointed out complexities in measuring the carbon content of soil at such a large scale and the high possibility of CO2 escaping back into the atmosphere. Also, when it comes to carbon stored in products, such as furniture or construction materials, those will not be long-lasting enough to have a meaningful impact on the climate, he added.
Environmental groups are also worried about other aspects of the Commission’s draft proposal. The three types of removals should be clearly separated in the legislation, Stoefs said, as they are not equal in terms of their effectiveness in tackling climate change.
“This proposal at the moment does not keep them separate and that’s very worrying because if we start certifying rubbish low-quality ‘removals’, then we end up inflating our targets and undermining the ambition of the EU’s targets,” he told EURACTIV.
While Stoefs says he supports the Commission’s cautious approach here, he also expresses concern that the gaps left in the proposal could be filled by the European Parliament and EU countries in their decision-making process, potentially weakening the act’s credibility and causing harm to ecosystems and communities.