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The EU is formalizing rules for taking CO2 out of the atmosphere



The EU took a significant step toward legitimizing technologies that suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere by agreeing to set up a certification process.

The European Council and European Parliament reached a provisional agreement today to create the first-of-its-kind certification framework for carbon removal technologies. The new climate tech has yet to prove itself at scale, but the EU is already folding it into its plan to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Net zero implies that the bloc would resort to capturing any remaining CO2 emissions that it hasn’t been able to prevent, either by harnessing the natural ability of plants to absorb carbon dioxide or by building technologies that filter CO2 out of the air or seawater.

There are inherent risks to that net-zero strategy — which is why rules like the ones laid out today are so important

There are inherent risks to that net-zero strategy — which is why rules like the ones laid out today are so important. They’ll dictate what counts as carbon removal, hopefully sifting out shoddy projects that don’t meaningfully fight climate change. Lax rules — or no rules at all — could give companies a way to keep polluting while misleadingly promising to draw down those emissions later. If those promises fall through, or the technologies they rely on fail, then it leaves behind all of that pollution that could have been prevented in the first place by opting for clean energy instead of carbon removal.

The framework “shows the European Union’s commitment to ‘getting carbon removals right,’” according to Christoph Beuttler, chief climate policy officer at Climeworks, one of the first companies to develop large industrial plants to filter CO2 out of the air. “We encourage other countries and regions to follow the lead of the European Union to rely on stringent assessment of carbon removals,” Beuttler said in a press release.

So far, the industry has had to police itself. Climeworks, for instance, announced last year that its customers Microsoft, Stripe, and Shopify had become the first companies in the world to pay to filter their carbon dioxide emissions out of the air, store those emissions underground, and have that service verified by a third party. Auditing company DNV worked with Climeworks to develop criteria and certify the carbon removal.

In a separate effort, Stripe, Alphabet, Meta, Shopify, and McKinsey launched an initiative called Frontier in 2022 that vets carbon removal suppliers for companies interested in purchasing credits from them.

Carbon credits already have a checkered history. Before carbon removal became trendy, plenty of brands purchased carbon offset credits tied to forestry projects. The idea was that companies could cancel out some of their pollution by paying to protect forests that naturally absorb CO2. One credit is supposed to equal one metric ton of carbon dioxide pollution that’s been avoided or sequestered. Instead, carbon offset markets are flooded with poor-quality credits that don’t represent real-world reductions in CO2 emissions.

To avoid a similar fate with emerging carbon removal technologies, the EU’s new certification sets parameters for four different types of carbon removal. That includes carbon removal that’s considered permanent because the CO2 is sequestered (often underground) for “several centuries” and “temporary” carbon storage (lasting at least five years in plants or soil and 35 years or more in products like timber). It assesses both industrial carbon removal tactics (like what Climeworks does) and nature-based strategies like restoring forests and other habitats or farming practices that allow soil to hold more CO2.

The framework also incorporates measures that the European Commission proposed in 2022, including requirements that carbon removal is quantifiable and long term. And projects are supposed to lead to “additional” reductions in CO2, meaning that the carbon wouldn’t have been sequestered otherwise without intervention. Projects also need to avoid having any other negative environmental impact.

Notably, the EU’s new certification scheme won’t consider so-called enhanced oil recovery (EOR) as a permanent carbon removal strategy. In EOR, fossil fuel companies shoot CO2 into the ground to force out hard-to-reach oil reserves. Occidental Petroleum, which is developing large carbon removal projects in Texas, has used EOR to sell what it calls “net-zero oil.”

The EU’s proposal is still too lax, some environmental groups warn. They’re concerned about the framework incentivizing temporary carbon storage and letting both companies and countries claim CO2 removals, which they say could lead to double counting. The deal is “deeply problematic,” Wijnand Stoefs, carbon removal policy lead for the nonprofit Carbon Market Watch said in a statement. “Even the fundamental principle that removals must complement, not substitute, emission reductions has been violated,” Stoefs said.

The provisional agreement reached today still needs to be formally adopted by the European Council and European Parliament. If adopted, the certification process would be voluntary for carbon removal companies. But only certified projects would count toward a country’s progress in meeting the European Union’s climate goals.

Earlier this month, the European Commission released a strategy document for capturing carbon dioxide emissions alongside a plan to reduce the bloc’s greenhouse gas emissions by 90 percent by 2040. The strategy envisions the EU having the capacity to store 280 million metric tons of captured carbon dioxide a year by 2040, roughly equivalent to the annual emissions of more than 700 gas-fired power plants.

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