April 19. 2024. 9:45

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European carbon certification: The unlikely alliance

Environmental groups and carbon capture and storage industries have united to criticise the uncertainty surrounding the purpose of the EU’s proposed carbon removal certification scheme when it comes to natural carbon sinks, writes Julia Grimault.

The future European carbon certification framework is under intense debate.

The first meeting of the expert group in charge of supporting the Commission has raised criticism on the composition and mandate of this group, and the discussions have taken an unexpected turn by achieving the feat of bringing NGOs and CO2 Capture and Storage (CCS) industrialists to an agreement against natural carbon sinks, those of our forests or our agricultural soils.

Where does this unlikely alliance come from?

First of all, the uncertainty surrounding the purpose of this certification. Will it serve mainly to channel public funds? Or is it a tool for voluntary carbon offsetting by companies, or even for regulatory offsetting in the future European Union Emissions Trading Scheme (EU ETS)?

With the announcement of a report to come on the possible integration of CO2 removals into the EU ETS, it is easy to understand the concern of NGOs, which are always very critical of offsetting, for good reasons.

This concern – at least this is our hypothesis – leads them to be all the more vigilant about the quality of the future certification, especially our ability to correctly account for CO2 removals in ecosystems and to insist on the risks of non-permanence of carbon stored in forests or soils… just like the CCS industry.

Non-permanence is a real challenge. Can the carbon removed by ecosystems be stored indefinitely? This is where the problem lies for natural absorptions.

Indeed, this carbon can be re-emitted into the atmosphere at any time, in the case of anthropogenic events (cutting down trees, hedges, tilling the soil, etc.) but above all natural events (storms, fires, dieback, etc.).

The sequestered carbon remains sensitive to the impacts of climate change. These are the characteristics of living organisms.

NGOs and industrialists are thus aligned: since the removals linked to living organisms cannot, intrinsically, be permanent, they should be excluded from the certification framework and, consequently, only technological absorptions should be considered.

Focusing on pragmatic solutions

The risk of “non-permanence” is of course an important issue. When we want to remunerate climate actions, whether it is with public subsidies or, all the more, with offsetting, which must be rigorous, the question is central: how can we ensure that the carbon financed and “promised” will not be re-emitted?

However, does the risk justify the exclusion of natural carbon sinks from the future European certification, even though we need to finance them more and better?

We all agree that agriculture and forests have a decisive role to play in the fight against climate change. They fulfil many other indispensable functions, such as food security or the preservation of biodiversity.

And to channel funds, whether public or private, it is in our interest to measure the environmental impact, particularly the carbon impact of the actions implemented. It is also a question of the effectiveness of funding.

It is not because there is uncertainty about the permanence of carbon that we should not act. There are pragmatic solutions to manage the risk of non-permanence of the carbon stored in ecosystems.

Our duty is to ensure that every effort is made to preserve the carbon stocks of each project over time, for example by taking into account the latest knowledge on the resilience of species to climate change in the project certification criteria.

And to ensure that the expected and accounted benefits are not overestimated, for example by applying a percentage discount on the tons of CO2 accounted, based on a better assessment of the risk level.

Clear debate needed on the purpose of certification

To conclude, let’s go back to the root of the surprising alliance between NGOs and the CCS industry on carbon certification.

The heart of the debate is the purpose of the certification tool and the financing that will be associated with it. All options are still on the table: public or private funds, voluntary or regulatory offsetting…

We are convinced that a relevant articulation of public and private funds is the key to ensuring financing that meets the climate challenges in all these sectors, and that impact measurement should not be limited to carbon offsetting.

But in any case, it is important to have a clear debate on the purpose of this certification framework. This will prevent technical debates from being disconnected from the more global issues of how to achieve our climate goals.