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Climeworks Wants to Revamp the Concept of Net Zero

The carbon removal company has a pitch to solve the industry’s biggest “moral hazard.”

The Climeworks Orca.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images, Climeworks

The carbon removal industry has exploded over the past few years, with billions of dollars in government funding and venture capital flowing to startups, nonprofits, and university research centers working on different ways to pull carbon out of the atmosphere. But all the attention has also stirred up a long running controversy about whether this solution is a dangerous distraction.

Critics worry that governments and corporations will not work as hard to cut greenhouse gas emissions if they believe they’ll eventually be able to reverse them. Some have warned this is already happening. On Thursday, Climeworks, one of the leading companies developing machines that suck carbon dioxide from the air, published a manifesto of sorts to fend off the risk that its technology is used to delay climate action.

The Swiss company’s statement calls for “a clear distinction between emissions reductions and carbon removals” in corporate and national climate plans and in the carbon market. It can be read as a pitch to improve the ever-popular but dangerously vague net-zero pledge. In theory, a plan to achieve net-zero emissions should involve both reducing emissions and then reaching a sort of equilibrium where any remaining releases are canceled out by removing carbon from the atmosphere.

The problem with net zero is it puts a lot more emphasis on the second part, and doesn’t require much transparency about the first. For example, a clothing brand pledging to achieve net zero by 2050 might buy renewable energy to power its stores, but avoid making more difficult changes to its production process or supply chain to reduce emissions, with the vague intention to balance them out later.

Climeworks is urging companies and governments to instead set two separate targets: One for how much they plan to reduce their carbon output, and a second for the level of remaining emissions they plan to balance out with carbon removal. It’s an idea with roots in academia; a 2019 paper argued that unpacking net-zero goals this way would help ensure that investments in carbon removal are truly additional to essential investments in emissions reductions.

“What we are saying is that removals should not stand as an excuse to not reduce your emissions,” said Louis Uzor, the climate policy manager at Climeworks.

The prospect of removing carbon from the atmosphere is undeniably seductive. “Depending on how you look at things, the technology represents either the ultimate insurance policy or the ultimate moral hazard,” New Yorker writer Elizabeth Kolbert wrote in a 2017 story about the kinds of machines that Climeworks is building.

It’s not hard to see how the fantasy version could turn into a nightmare. Our future ability to remove carbon will be limited by all kinds of constraints, like clean energy availability, land use, finance, and community support. If we operate under the assumption that we’ll be able to remove huge amounts of carbon from the atmosphere in a few decades, and that capacity doesn’t materialize, we could end up with more catastrophic warming — and still be far off from stabilizing the climate.

“Carbon removal capacity is going to be finite,” said Holly Buck, an assistant professor of environment and sustainability at the University of Buffalo. “Its in our interest to really constrain the residual emissions to the smallest amount possible to make sure that we can, in fact, compensate for them.”

At first glance, it may seem like Climeworks’ manifesto undermines its entire business model. Carbon removal "has a different role to play and should not be substituting emission reductions,” the statement reads. But today, companies like H&M and Square pay Climeworks for carbon removal to compensate for some of their emissions. Even the band Coldplay has bought credits to offset emissions from its tour.

Uzor argues its clients are not purchasing removals in place of cutting emissions. Paying Climeworks to remove carbon is still really expensive — upwards of $600 per metric ton of carbon. “It’s quite obvious that if you can reduce [emissions] for even up to $200 per ton, you’re still better off reducing than going with Climeworks,” he said. Rather, customers are lining up because they have emissions that are considered “hard to abate,” meaning there may not be any way to eliminate them for a long time. Uzor said their clients understand that if they want to achieve net zero in the next few decades, “they better start working with us now, because we have a whole industry that needs to scale up.”

Buck, of the University of Buffalo, pointed out that making it the norm to set a carbon removal goal could actually be great for Climeworks’ business. She’s optimistic that the company’s message comes from a place of genuine concern, but she thinks governments should be the ones leading the way by setting stronger requirements to cut emissions. “If people in the private sector are going to try to basically create policy in the absence of governments doing it, this seems good, but I don't think it’ll solve all the problems.”

Gilles Dufrasne, a lead on global carbon markets at the nonprofit Carbon Market Watch, said his organization supports the ideas in the statement, noting that this clear distinction would bring more transparency to climate plans and progress.

Climeworks’ statement also included a second, related plea. The company wants carbon credit certifiers to distinguish between projects that reduce or avoid emissions, like a wind farm or protection of a forest that might otherwise be chopped down, and those that remove carbon from the atmosphere, like Climeworks’ direct air capture plants. Thus far, Uzor said, Climeworks has refrained from working with large carbon registries like Verra or the American Carbon Registry, where many companies go to buy carbon offsets, because it couldn’t compete in that environment as long as its projects were lumped together with those that reduce emissions, which sell offsets for a fraction of the price.

This is another delicate subject. The growth of carbon removal projects is colliding with major tumult in the carbon market. Traditional carbon offset projects that purport to reduce emissions have been raked over the coals by researchers and journalists who have found time and again that those projects exaggerated their benefits. Derik Broekhoff, a senior scientist at the Stockholm Environment Institute, said that the Science Based Targets Initiative, a nonprofit that creates voluntary standards for corporate climate action, has also begun discouraging companies from buying these kinds of offsets while encouraging investments in carbon removal. “It’s led to this kind of perverse outcome where everyone’s chasing removals,” said Derik Broekhoff, a senior scientist at the Stockholm Environment Institute. “Yet if you look at a global level, what we really need to do is reduce emissions rapidly and significantly. So it ends up being a bit of a distraction.”

Uzor said some have opposed the idea to clearly separate removals because it could make them seem like a superior product. But he insisted that wasn’t Climework’s intent. “Currently, global emissions are still on the rise, so any avoided emission that is timely and properly done, based on robust assessment, is massively needed.”

It doesn’t seem like this will end up being such a big ask. Verra, the largest carbon offset registry in the world, plans to introduce a “removals” label in the middle of this year, said Anne Thiel, Verra’s senior manager of communications in an email.

But shoring up the integrity of the market is another question altogether — and one where Climeworks does have a clear advantage. The benefits of a direct air capture project are pretty easy to measure, but other types of carbon removal projects, like those that involve storing carbon in soil or sinking it to the bottom of the ocean, will be a lot harder to verify.


Emily Pontecorvo

Emily is a founding staff writer at Heatmap. Previously she was a staff writer at the nonprofit climate journalism outlet Grist, where she covered all aspects of decarbonization, from clean energy to electrified buildings to carbon dioxide removal. Read More

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