Scientists warn Commission to abandon ‘net’ approach to emissions reduction

Scientists warn Commission to abandon ‘net’ approach to emissions reduction

Scientists and civil society groups have urged the European Commission to set an absolute target for cutting carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas output, warning the current approach allowing governments to factor in carbon ‘removals’ is unreliable.

The European Climate Law adopted in 2021 commits the EU to achieving ‘net-zero’ greenhouse gas output by 2050, where any remaining emissions from industry, transport and agriculture would be balanced by removals: either nature-based, such as planting trees, or technological, and often expensive and energy intensive, fixes like direct capture of CO2 from the atmosphere.

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In signing an open letter to EU climate action commissioner Wopke Hoekstra, dated 8 January, dozens of scientists, NGOs and businesses – some of them working in fledgling industries such the direct capture of CO2 from the atmosphere – have backed a call for three separate targets: one for concrete emissions reduction, another for land-based sequestration, and a third for permanent carbon removals.

They argue that EU law must reflect the fact that emissions reduction and removals are essentially different. “Once released into the atmosphere, CO2 emissions have a permanent and often irreversible impact on the Earth’s climate, ecosystems and human health,” the letter runs. “If done well, land-based carbon sequestration and permanent removals can help limit this damage, but they cannot undo them (if done badly, they can actually increase emissions).”

The EU has met its first climate action target for an absolute cut in emissions of 20% by 2020, compared to a 1990 baseline. The current goal is for 55% by 2030 but now refers to a ‘net’ reduction, and although lawmakers set a cap on the amount that governments can factor the impact of land-use, land-use change and forestry (LULUCF) into meeting it, the de facto target for reducing emissions could be as low as 52%.

“Overreliance on any and all types of carbon storage or sequestration is a real and present risk that must be avoided at all cost in the EU’s climate policy framework,” said Wijnand Stoefs of Carbon Market Watch, the NGO behind the letter. “Emission cuts must not be replaced by planting trees or permanent removals.”

The Commission is due to present on 6 February a communication outlining possibilities for the new interim target, which it must propose before the summer, alongside another on ‘industrial carbon management’ focusing on carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology. Hoekstra has committed to following scientific advisors and pushing for a cut of 90% or more by 2040, a radical move that he has acknowledged could involve nudging Europeans to make lifestyle changes – something that lawmakers have largely shied away from to date.

In a public consultation conducted last year into a planned 2040 emissions reduction goal, just over half of the 879 respondents called for three separate targets, with support rising to 70% among the civil society groups and academics who took part. Such an approach is also supported by companies active in the novel carbon removal technology field.

“Having distinct targets for permanent carbon removal, like direct air capture, will not only reflect its use in counterbalancing hard-to-abate residual emissions, but also have the dual benefit of driving investor and developer confidence in the EU, helping to unlock much-needed finance beyond venture capital,” Aaron Benjamin, UK and Europe lead for the trade association DAC Coalition, said in a statement accompanying the publication of the letter.

However, another signatory, Duncan McLaren, a specialist in environmental law and policy at the Emmett Institute, UCLA in Los Angeles, warned that oil and gas firms see support for such technologies as an excuse to continue their main line of business. “The enthusiasm with which oil companies and petro-states are embracing carbon removal as a smokescreen for continued fossil-fuel exploitation is a salutary warning that such dangers are real and present,” he said.


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