Choosing Between Carbon Avoidance and Removal Offsets

Dichotomy or Climate Change Mitigation hierarchy? 

Choosing the best approach to tackle climate change and reduce the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is often overwhelming. In this article, Azzera’s Carbon Offset expert explains and compares the methodology and effectiveness of Carbon Avoidance and Removal Offsetting.

How do Carbon Avoidance vs Removal Offsets work?

Emission Avoidance Offsets represent a decrease in carbon emissions compared to a baseline scenario. For example, financing a solar power plant in a region dominated by fossil-duel can be categorized as emission Avoidance. 

On the other hand, Carbon Removal Offsets represent a direct decrease in carbon stock in the atmosphere. Direct-Air-Capture is the most well-known way to remove carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from the atmosphere by capturing them with special filters, heating it, fixing it with water, and injecting it underground for a long time. 

In April this year, the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) made it clear that we must have emission removal projects in order to counterbalance unavoidable emissions. Two years ago, the Oxford Principle for Net Zero defined a straightforward methodology to classify offset credits between emission avoidance and removals. 

Chart from IPCC indicating the rise across all major groups of greenhouse gases
Source: https://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar6/wg3/downloads/report/IPCC_AR6_WGIII_SPM.pdf

They proposed a clear time shift between emission avoidance and short-lived storage followed by high-permanence removals. In addition, they emphasized the need to invest in high-quality removal credits to scale technologies and projects, which indicates the urgency and importance of carbon offsets. 

Over the last few years, many companies have emerged, focusing on carbon removal offsets. Furthermore, the investment in Carbon Capture Utilization and Storage (CCUS) technologies increased 4-fold just last year. However, we are a long way from removing the 10 billion tons of CO2e per year required to balance our emissions mid-century.  

A cartoon of a person trying to capture Carbon emissions
Source: (https://today.uconn.edu/2021/04/uconn-researchers-search-for-scalable-carbon-capture-technology/#) – UConn Researchers Search for Scalable Carbon Capture Technology 

There are several types of carbon removal projects; these projects are often based on newly developed Carbon Capture technology. On the other hand, some projects are based on biological or nature-based carbon capture and storage. 

Nature-based or biological projects that capture and sequester carbon enhance the capacity of a forest to pull carbon out of the atmosphere via photosynthesis. We have discussed this topic further in our earlier blog on Forestry Projects.

Most of these projects and other types that could be labeled as removals are registered under the VERRA registry. Unfortunately, today’s methodologies cannot distinguish between avoidance and removal credits labeled: “Estimated GHG emission reductions or net anthropogenic GHG removals.” Market Actors rely on their definitions and protocols to define credit types.  

In a preliminary proposition at the end of 2021, The Taskforce on Scaling Voluntary Markets (TSVM) proposed adding new attributes to registered carbon credits. This would help bring more transparency to the market and allow buyers to select specific project types.

In addition, VERRA has launched a public consultation to integrate new VERRA Unit Labels distinguishing emissions Reductions (referring to what we called Avoidance credits) and emissions Removals as well as project activity types and associated co-benefits.  

The consultation ends on 31/07/2022; you can participate here. This is a crucial step towards more transparency in quality and prices in the market.  

But is This Dichotomy Necessary?  

Image of Surfers on a sea

Well, a few things are missing in the avoidance and removal equation.  

First, we must keep in mind that CO2 emissions (the most significant contributor to global warming) stay in the atmosphere for 300 to 1000 years. 

Removing the negative effect of Carbon Dioxide emissions would require similar permanence or durability in the storage. Some technologies could be eligible, but there is always a risk of reversal as it is extremely difficult to predict what will happen in 100 years. 

Moreover, few scientists have been researching whether the positive effect of removing a tonne of CO2 emissions counterbalances the adverse effects. Some findings tend to show that because of the time CO2 stays in the atmosphere, “…offsetting positive CO2 emissions with negative emissions of the same magnitude could result in a different climate outcome than avoiding the CO2 emissions”. 

Second, Avoidance carbon credits have a different impact altogether: by definition, they do not come AFTER an emission but are directly avoiding it. Hence there is no reason to remove the harmful effects of GHG emissions afterward. They also come with a different mindset: you are not fixing a mistake but preventing it. 

Following the best practice for Net Zero strategies and offsetting, one should always consider reducing and mitigating their impact before offsetting. But implementing reduction strategies takes time, and we do not believe climate action can wait. We continuously measure what has already been emitted, so why not take direct action? We believe offsetting is an effort you can undertake today to neutralize your past emissions: Measure, Offset your past emissions, Implement a reduction strategy, Repeat.  

And when offsetting, one should always think about removing already emitted emissions and investing in avoiding future emissions to change mindsets and lifestyles.  

At Azzera, we believe both mechanisms are needed to work toward a Net Zero future, and we promote a holistic approach. We propose a portfolio of offsets, including Removal and Avoidance credits, and offer our expertise to find the best offset solution for our customers. 

Sebastien Lacube,  

Head of Carbon Offset Sourcing  

Recommended Podcast:  

Catalyst by Shayle Kann – Growing the Carbon Dioxide Removal Market  

Recommended Article:  

Matthews, H.D., Zickfeld, K., Dickau, M. et al.Temporary nature-based carbon removal can lower peak warming in a well-below 2 °C scenario. Commun Earth Environ3, 65 (2022).  

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