Why carbon negative is the new carbon neutral

Author: Myrthe Mardulier

It is common knowledge that drastic action must be taken in order to prevent the most catastrophic effects of climate change. The IPCC [1] states that the average temperature increase should be limited to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. With that goal in mind, the European Union committed to carbon neutrality by 2050 under the Green Deal. Currently five EU countries have set the carbon neutrality in law: Sweden (by 2045), Denmark, France, Germany and Hungary (by 2050) [2]. Companies are also increasingly pledging to reduce their environmental impact. Examples include Siemens and Apple pledging to become carbon neutral by 2030, Unilever by 2039, Amazon by 2040; while Google and Proximus claim to be carbon neutral since 2007 and 2016 respectively. On the other hand, Microsoft and Proximus pledged to become respectively carbon negative and climate positive by 2030.

With the environment rising on the agenda and terms like ‘carbon neutral’, ‘carbon net zero’, ‘carbon negative’ and ‘climate positive’ popping up more regularly, one could raise the questions: What are the differences between these phrases and why does it matter? What are the requirements to become carbon negative, and how can businesses meet these requirements?

Talking carbon: What’s in a name?

Carbon neutrality refers to achieving net zero carbon dioxide emissions by (1) reducing (or eliminating) one’s own emissions and (2) balancing the remaining emissions. The latter can be achieved by either removing emissions from the atmosphere (i.e. carbon capture and sequestration) or by compensating for emissions by reducing/avoiding emissions elsewhere in the world (i.e. carbon offsetting, e.g. via emission trading schemes). Carbon (net) zero is typically used as a synonym for carbon neutrality.

Carbon negative, on the other hand, refers to going one step further than carbon neutrality: it requires a company, sector or country to remove more carbon dioxide than it emits, thereby achieving a net effect of removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Climate positive can be used as a synonym for carbon negative.

Why does it matter?

In order to reach the 1.5°C goal, most climate models agree that radically reducing emissions will not suffice. In addition to significant emission reductions actions, active removal of the carbon already in the atmosphere will be crucial to limit global warming and prevent catastrophic effects [3]. More specifically, the removal of approximately 6GT of CO2 per year is estimated to be needed by 2050, and this number is estimated to climb up to 15 GT per year by 2100 [4] (see Figure 1).

Therefore, governments and companies should not only focus on carbon offsetting but also on carbon removal, in order to become carbon negative rather than only carbon neutral.

Figure 1: Evolution and projection of global GHG emissions (GT CO2/year) - Source: WRI, adapted from IPCC 2018

What are the requirements to become carbon negative?

In addition to reducing emissions, removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere is an essential part of becoming carbon negative. There are multiple ways to remove carbon dioxide, most of which can be divided in three categories [5]:

1) Nature-based solutions

Natural-based solutions include reforestation and afforestation: creating or re-establishing forests or coastal and marine habitats to ensure increased/continued carbon dioxide capture and sequestration into biomass.

2) Enhanced natural processes

Enhanced natural processes include land management approaches that increase the soil carbon content. Examples are adding biochar (charcoal produced from biomass) to soils, enhanced weathering to accelerate natural processes that absorb carbon dioxide, or ocean fertilization to enhance its capacity to absorb CO2. However, many of these approaches are still less developed and require further research.

3) Technology-based solutions

Technology-based solutions include carbon capture and sequestration technologies such as bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS [6]) and direct air capture, which capture carbon dioxide directly from the atmosphere and rely on geological storage for permanent sequestration.

Nature-based solutions are important, but they are unlikely to scale to the levels needed to limit global warming to 1.5°C. Therefore, new enhanced natural processes and technology-based technologies are needed to complement them.

How to contribute to carbon removal as a business?

New technology-based carbon removal and sequestration technologies are emerging, but time and investment will be needed to allow these technologies to remove high volumes at a low cost. Therefore, businesses can contribute to the future of carbon removal by (1) investing in the development of new technologies, or (2) by purchasing carbon removal from new promising businesses and thereby contributing to the creation of a direct carbon removal market.

This can be done either directly through direct transfers or by creating a fund, or indirectly through carbon removal purchase tools. An example of such a carbon removal purchase tool is Stripe Climate, which allows other businesses to contribute a fraction of their revenues to purchase carbon removal trough new technologies.

Stripe currently buys removal from four companies: Climeworks, which captures carbon from the air and injects it into underground basalt; Charm Industrial, which produces a biomass-based oil and injects it deep into the earth; Project Vesta, which uses olivine (a common mineral) to convert carbon in the ocean into limestone on the seafloor; and CarbonCure, which injects carbon into concrete. By investing in these technologies, it aims to contribute to bringing the cost of carbon removal down the learning curve and guarantee the existence of a future market for direct carbon removal.

Despite the importance of carbon removal for reaching the 1.5°C goal, it remains, however, important to note that carbon removal measures or technologies do not serve as an alternative for cutting emissions or delayed action. They are an essential part of the portfolio of measures and technologies needed to respond to climate change in an effective and comprehensive way.

Are you wondering what measures your company can take to reduce carbon emission and work towards a carbon negative state? Feel free to reach out as Brightwolves will be more than happy to advise you with our unique insights and expertise.

[1] Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [2] European Parliament, “What is carbon neutrality and how can it be achieved by 2050?” - https://www.europarl.europa.eu/ [3] Nature, “IPCC says limiting global warming to 1.5°C will require drastic action” - https://www.nature.com/ [4] World Resources Institute, “6 Ways to Remove Carbon Pollution from the Sky” - https://www.wri.org/, Sabine Fuss et al 2018 Environ. Res. Lett. 13 063002 [5] IEA, “Going carbon negative: What are the technology options?” - https://www.iea.org/; World Resources Institute, “6 Ways to Remove Carbon Pollution from the Sky” - https://www.wri.org/ [6] BECCS involves absorbing CO2 in biomass, burning biomass to generate energy, capturing CO2 emissions from burning the biomass through direct air capture, and injecting it into deep geological formations.

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