UN controversial document sparks global debate on carbon offsets


A draft document to define a new global carbon market released last month by the United Nations elevated nature-based solutions like planting trees while downplaying the role of carbon dioxide removal (CDR) via machines or other forms of technology.

Both natural and technological approaches are effective ways to avoid the most catastrophic impacts of global warming. The demarcation might not seem significant to some, but to the carbon removal industry, it’s existential.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), an UN-backed group, has warned that the world will almost certainly need to remove billions of tons of carbon a year from the atmosphere by mid-century to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

The market for carbon offsets is currently valued at approximately $2 billion. By mid-century, BloombergNEF projects it could grow to anywhere from $160 billion to $624 billion annually. In another analysis, BloombergNEF found that relying on carbon removal alone could cause the market to hit nearly $1 trillion by 2037.

If the UN proclaims nature-based solutions as the only and definitive way to remove carbon from the atmosphere, it could effectively exclude a growing industry from the very market it's trying to serve, thereby potentially imperiling the climate in the process.

The list of shortcomings associated with carbon removal includes the failure to contribute to sustainable development and the lack of technological and economic validation of carbon removal, according to the UN note. Engineered removals also “are not suitable for implementation in developing countries and do not contribute to reducing the global mitigation costs,” the note said.

However, the panel deemed traditional carbon market solutions like reforestation relatively harmless, despite a mountain of evidence showing projects often fail to deliver on their emission-cutting promises and sometimes violate human rights.

The document and following backfire that followed get at fundamental and deepening tensions about what counts as a ton of carbon removed and stored. The one thing that seems to have consensus is that there isn’t a carbon-removal technique on the market today that’s cheap and easy to do while also durable and permanent.

Essentially, the world currently has two options: either pay a modest amount for nature-based solutions or pay a higher cost for more durable removal. To provide context, companies like Charm Industrial charge around $600 per ton for their carbon removal services, a price comparable to what Bill Gates paid for another company, Climeworks. The UN is potentially leaning towards the use of nature-based solutions.

Rather than advocating for the UN to favor one method over another, many in the carbon removal industry are calling for the intergovernmental organization to embrace a “method-neutral, criteria-based approach” when evaluating projects.

A group of 100 carbon removal industry advocates recently called for the UN to instead adopt the definition of carbon removal provided by one of its own science experts in the IPCC that doesn’t distinguish between nature-based and engineered solutions. Instead, the panel of top climate scientists defines carbon removal broadly as “anthropogenic activities removing carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere and durably storing it in geological, terrestrial, or ocean reservoirs, or in products.”

“Virtually every CDR approach is a hybrid of nature and engineering,” said Ben Rubin, the executive director of the Carbon Business Council, a nonprofit representing carbon management companies, which gathered the letter’s signatories. He pointed to examples like biochar and enhanced rock weathering, which both utilize natural processes to remove carbon while also involving human engineering.

The draft document is currently under discussion as part of the preparations for the COP28 climate talks being held in Dubai later this year. The carbon removal standard-setting group within the UN has not yet adopted a formal framework. However, the note foreshadows the potential direction of the final draft.

When the language is finalized, it will provide an umbrella framework for carbon removal that will have ripple effects across the industry, especially as national governments increase investments in the promising space.

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