Sustainability is a team sport: The importance of the EU’s carbon removal strategy

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The latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) makes it clear: carbon removal will be vital if the world is to reach net zero by 2050. It is a view shared by the European Commission.

While the priority is deep, rapid, and sustained emission reductions, carbon removal could help lower greenhouse gas emissions in the near term, counterbalance hard-to-abate emissions in the medium term, and enable us to reach net-negative emissions further down the line.

But as it stands, many of the technologies behind carbon removal are still underdeveloped, hard to scale, and costly. Nature-based carbon removal alternatives, while readily available, are also potentially reversible and don’t offer a permanent solution to locking carbon away.

More work is also needed to establish reliable and verifiable standards for measuring carbon removal – something the EU will address as part of its forthcoming carbon removal certification initiative.

The challenge is immense but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. Understanding and awareness about climate reduction and carbon removal have grown, even in the space of five years. And new tools and technology, including artificial intelligence, are driving forward progress.

Microsoft’s Sustainability Science Lead for Europe, Alberto Arribas, is passionate about the action that Europe and the rest of the world need to take now. “We have less than 30 years to reduce and remove greenhouse gas emissions to zero. And we need to achieve net zero alongside socioeconomic needs – for example social justice and economic growth – and ecological requirements, such as water conservation, biodiversity. This demands improving governance, accountability, and reporting mechanisms, which are currently inadequate.”

The road to net zero and why carbon removal is needed

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen is clear on how urgent the issue is. “It’s not a question of 30-40 years. It’s now. It’s this decade where we have to get better, otherwise we risk to reach irreversible tipping points,” she said ahead of the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) last year.

If we are to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, we need to take drastic and decisive action now to curb our emissions. We need to halve global emissions by 2030 and cut them to zero by 2050.

This is a tall demand. It means making major, systemic changes to reduce the amount of carbon we are releasing into the atmosphere, including transitioning away from fossil fuels and rethinking manufacturing processes.

In the European Union, transitioning away from fossil fuels and decarbonizing the electricity grid has to be among the top priorities because it would make a significant difference to emission levels. But it’s a huge challenge, mainly because we have yet to properly get to grips with energy storage to counteract the variable nature of renewable energy.

Despite calls for carbon reduction, the world continues to emit increasing amounts every year. Indeed, with emissions from some industries and manufacturing processes much harder to abate, it is becoming increasingly clear that reaching absolute zero by 2050 will be incredibly difficult. This means that carbon removal also has an important role to play, as it can help balance out the remaining emissions.

But the carbon removal market is nowhere near where it needs it to be.

How carbon removal technologies work

Carbon removal can be divided into nature-based and technological solutions – and we need both of them to reduce our emissions sufficiently.

Nature-based solutions rely on natural carbon absorption mechanisms such as in forests and wetlands. Natural processes create carbon sinks by absorbing and storing carbon dioxide in the biosphere, in trees, plants, and soils. Although these nature-based solutions are comparatively simple and cheap to deploy, they won’t be able to remove sufficient carbon from the atmosphere alone. And there is also an issue with the permanence of the storage, as when trees and plants die, the carbon is released back into the atmosphere. Wildfires – which have become increasingly common and severe as we feel the effects of climate change – also re-release captured carbon.

Technological solutions use engineering to store carbon in the geosphere, meaning in rocks and minerals. This gets over the permanence problem – the carbon is locked away. However, these solutions are largely nascent and need far more investment to scale up, become economically viable, and to properly explore their potential.

There has been criticism of carbon removal technology, including that it detracts from the push to reduce emissions.

“I want to be very clear about this,” says Arribas. “At Microsoft, we strongly believe that we need to reduce our emissions. For us, carbon removal is not an excuse not to reduce emissions, but a way of addressing the fact that some emissions are very difficult to reduce.”

Addressing these challenges

A recent report commissioned by Microsoft and completed by the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in the United States has identified the three most promising approaches to carbon removal. These are: biomass carbon removal and storage; direct air capture; and carbon mineralization.

Microsoft believes there is a need to invest in many different solutions because there is much to learn. We have partnered with organizations including Swiss Neustark AG, which removes CO2 from the air and stores it in recycled concrete.

We have also partnered with Climeworks, which uses Swiss technology to mineralize the gas and stores it permanently underground in the world’s largest carbon capture plants in Iceland.

As a company, we are committed to become carbon negative by 2030 and to remove all our historical emissions by 2050. To date, we have contracted the removal of 2.5 million tonnes of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. This includes 1.3 million tonnes in 2021, mostly through forestry projects. This fiscal year, we have announced contracts for a further 1.5 million tonnes.

Other partners we have worked with in Europe to achieve this include Carbon Future, which provides carbon removal via biochar, and, the world’s first marketplace for carbon removal with project partners based in Germany and Finland among other countries. We also work with UK-based ClimateCare, which finances, develops and manages carbon reduction projects around the world.

Europe’s climate legislation is leading the way

Transitioning to a low-carbon economy in less than 30 years means carbon reduction and removal are areas where we all need to take action.

Europe’s approach is to treat emissions as a systemic issue, understanding that it is not a question of individual, independent solutions, but of a whole system transformation.

The European Green Deal is not just an environmental policy – it is an economic policy too. As well as containing initiatives for the climate, it covers energy, industry, transport, culture, and finance.

Advancing carbon removal needs a coordinated global approach from the public and private sector, with conversations needed about strategy, standardization, and investment.

“We need a whole ecosystem of companies and organizations that can provide solutions to reduce and remove greenhouse gas emissions,” says Arribas. “This is not something that a single company, organization, or country can do alone. I like to say that sustainability is a team sport.”

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