Airlines and others depend on the “giant loophole” of future (unproven) carbon removal technologies
Governments and businesses worldwide are hoping they will be able to avoid making drastic carbon cuts, and instead somehow remove carbon from the air – avoiding climate breakdown. The UK’s Committee on Climate Change has advised the UK government that carbon dioxide removal (CDR) at scale, will be needed. All climate goals for “net-zero” depend to some extent on this rather dubious future “get out of jail free” technology. Now a paper by Greenpeace shows the extent to which these aspirations to remove CO2 from the atmosphere have become (as was predicted) a huge loophole. Aviation is one of the sectors that most needs to depend on carbon removal, as its plans for continuing growth mean more fuel burned – and more carbon. The IPCC reports that the maximum sustainable CO2 removal in 2050 by new forests is between 500 – 3,600 Mt per year. The maximum for BECCS is 500 – 5,000 MtCO2. Greenpeace says IAG alone anticipates using forests to offset 30 MtCO2/ year by 2050: thus exhausting up to 6% of the available total (if that was 500Mt). For American Airlines, CDR will be used to offset emissions equivalent to about 50% of the present total; for IAG it is over 95%.
By Kate Mackenzie (Bloomberg)
As governments and companies jostle to show how committed they are to fighting global warming, plans to take carbon dioxide out of the air are becoming a giant loophole — just as experts have warned for years.
The UN Principles for Responsible Investment estimates that some 42 companies announced net-zero targets in 2019 and 2020. More than half of those plan to plant trees, preserve forests or capture CO₂ in order to get there, even as their own businesses continue to warm the atmosphere.
These measures, and other technologies to capture greenhouse gases, are collectively known as carbon dioxide removal (CDR). But CDR shouldn’t be a get-out-of-jail-free card for polluters. There’s a limit to how much CO₂ can plausibly be removed. There’s only so much land available to plant new trees, and most other methods are expensive and difficult.
As net-zero plans proliferate, some companies assume they can rely disproportionately on CDR to offset their own emissions. It’s not just about planting trees. There are even plans to create “negative emissions” by generating energy from burning biomass, then capturing the emissions produced, a little-used process that also requires large amounts of land.
In a new report, Greenpeace UK points out that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates between 500 and 3,600 million metric tons of CO₂ could be removed annually through planting new forests by 2050.
British Airways operator International Airlines Group and Italian oil company Eni each claim they’ll offset 30 million metric tons per year by then. That could be as much as 12% of the IPCC’s projection, Greenpeace warns.
The IPCC also estimates that there’s only about 500 million hectares of land left that can be dedicated to new forests for carbon capture. Royal Dutch Shell Plc alone, Greenpeace says, has proposed planting a tenth of that amount to achieve its net-zero target.
Some company plans look even worse when you consider their industries. For example, power generation has long been considered so easy to decarbonize with wind and solar that the IPCC and the International Energy Agency assume it can get to zero emissions without any CDR. That that hasn’t stopped U.S. electricity companies like Duke Energy Corp and Southern Co. from planning to offset the equivalent of 5% and 10% respectively of their current annual emissions with CDR.
In a way, this is a problem of the scientific community’s own making. CDR features in virtually every pathway laid out in IPCC reports to keeping global warming to well below 2 or 1.5 degrees Celsius. Some of the roadmaps assume amounts of negative emissions that vastly exceed the best estimates of what’s economically feasible.
Researchers have been critical of these pathways’ reliance on carbon capture for years now. A paper by Kevin Anderson and Glen Peters published in 2016 titled “The Trouble with Negative Emissions” has had almost 500 citations, according to Google Scholar. The same year, climate scientist James Hansen warned that negative emissions had “spread like a cancer” in the climate scenarios.
Few dispute that negative emissions will be needed, and not all plans that include negative emissions look irresponsible. Some emissions – like those produced by heavy industry and transport – will be so difficult to cut that researchers and policymakers believe they should get priority in using CDR to mitigate their climate impact. And not all companies with net zero plans are grasping for more than their share. Steel producer ThyssenKrupp AG aims to produce carbon-neutral steel by 2050, and shipping company A.P. Moller-Maersk A/S says it will have carbon neutral ships within a decade without offsets.
Others maintain they’ll lean on CDR, but will avoid forest-based measures because it’s so hard to tell if they’re genuinely making a difference. As Bloomberg Green’s Akshat Rathi wrote this week, Occidental Petroleum Corp hopes to make a profitable business out of direct air carbon capture, a technically challenging proposition.
Sabine Fuss of the Mercator Research Institute, an expert on the real-world potential of negative emissions, cautions against attempting to set a limit on global CDR efforts, let alone allocating it by sectors, company, and country. “The issue is probably not so much about getting budgets right and distributing them exactly, but the fear that is implicit here is that removals could be used as an excuse by companies not to proceed with decarbonization of their existing processes or that their allocation could lead to double-counting,” she told me via e-mail.
It’s still likely that tree-based measures will remain a tempting solution. Growing demand is set to boost the market for offsets. The simplicity of planting trees is appealing and the pressure to set net-zero targets will mean more companies turn to using large swaths of land to bolster their climate credibility. Charlie Kronick, who leads finance work at Greenpeace UK, said the risk comes from “trumpeting headline pledges” of net zero without reading the fine print. The onus is on regulators, investors, consumers and the media to remember that net-zero climate targets are only as good as the “net.”
Kate Mackenzie writes the Stranded Assets column for Bloomberg Green. She advises organizations working to limit climate change to the Paris Agreement goals. Follow her on Twitter: @kmac.
The trouble with negative emissions
In December 2015, member states of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) adopted the Paris Agreement, which aims to hold the increase in the global average temperature to below 2°C and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C. The Paris Agreement requires that anthropogenic greenhouse gas emission sources and sinks are balanced by the second half of this century. Because some nonzero sources are unavoidable, this leads to the abstract concept of “negative emissions,” the removal of carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere through technical means. The Integrated Assessment Models (IAMs) informing policy-makers assume the large-scale use of negative-emission technologies. If we rely on these and they are not deployed or are unsuccessful at removing CO2 from the atmosphere at the levels assumed, society will be locked into a high-temperature pathway.
The Greenpeace report:
Net Expectations: Assessing the role of carbon dioxide removal in companies’ climate plans.
Briefing by Greenpeace UK
This (long) report says on airlines:
[A small proportion of emissions is likely to be unavoidable and must be offset by carbon dioxide removal (CDR), such as by tree-planting (afforestation/ reforestation) or by technological approaches like bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) or direct air carbon capture with storage (DACCS).]
The IPCC reports that the maximum sustainable CO2 removal in 2050 by new forests is somewhere between 500 and 3,600 Mt per year. The maximum for BECCS is between 500 and 5,000 Mt. However, since they compete for land, these potentials cannot simply be added to each other. To put these in perspective, Eni and International Airlines Group each anticipate using forests to offset 30 Mt/ year of CO2 by 2050: just these two companies could thus exhaust up to 12% of the available total.
At the other end of the scale, some companies rely on CDR to a very large extent, especially in the airline and oil & gas industries. For American Airlines, CDR will be used to offset emissions equivalent to about 50% of the present total;  for International Airlines Group (British Airways), it is over 95%.   Shell has not yet published details of its net zero plan, but has suggested it could include planting forests the size of Spain to act as carbon sinks.25 Eni plans to buy more than 30 MtCO2 a year of forest credits.26 27 Given the uncertainties and physical limits of CDR (page 10), these companies’ plans could exhaust a disproportionate share of the globally available potential (page 13), leaving less for other companies, individuals and countries.
[22 American Airlines, Environmental, Social and Governance Report 2019–2020, p.17, https://www.aa.com/content/images/customerservice/about-us/corporate-governance/aagesg-report-2019-2020.pdf ]
[23 There is no single reason for the difference between the two airlines: IAG projects larger activity growth, less efficiency gains and less use of sustainable fuels.]
[24 Relative to 2020 emissions: mitigation actions such as efficiency and alternative fuels are focused almost entirely on expected demand growth.
British Airways, “Sustainability at British Airways”, 25 February 2020,
To put these in perspective, Eni and International Airlines Group each anticipate using forests to offset 30 Mt/year of CO2 by 2050 (page 6): just these two companies could thus exhaust up to 12% of the available total.
The remainder of emissions reductions must be achieved by energy efficiency, by changing fuels, by end-of-pipe capture or by reducing activity levels. These targets reflect absolute emissions rather than intensities. Similar information is not available for other sectors; however, heavy industry and aviation are considered the hardest-to-abate sectors, so other sectors will generally need to make smaller use of CDR. 
[147 In IPCC illustrative pathways P1 to P3, the residual emissions are between just 5% and 27% of 2010 emissions in the industry and residential/commercial sectors. Residual CO2 reductions in 2050 relative to 2010 Industry Residential / commercial P1 9% 5% P2 26% 20% P3 27% 10% IAMC/IIASA, 1.5°C Scenario Explorer and Data hosted by IIASA, https://data.ene.iiasa.ac.at/iamc-1.5˚C-explorer ]
In its guidance to the UK government on carbon emissions and the Sixth Carbon Budget, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) includes a lot of hopes for carbon removal.
The Sixth Carbon Budget – the road to UK’s Net Zero
“We recommend that engineered CO2 removal is allowed to contribute to meeting UK carbon targets under the Climate Change Act.”
See the aviation paper by the CCC:
“Aviation measures reduce sector emissions to 23 MtCO2e/year by 2050 in the Balanced Pathway, and all scenarios have positive emissions. The aviation sector will therefore require significant amounts of GHG removals to be developed to offset an increasing proportion of the sector’s (declining) gross emissions to 2050, and aviation is therefore likely to be a key driving force behind the long-term deployment of engineered removals.”
Aviation is one of the sectors in which we expect there to be significant remaining positive emissions by 2050, given the limited set of options for decarbonisation. Remaining residual emissions will need to be offset by greenhouse gas removals (see section 11) for the sector to reach Net Zero.
In each case, for the aviation sector to reach Net Zero by 2050, the remaining emissions will need to be offset with greenhouse gas removals
One of the aviation recommendations:
“Commit to a Net Zero goal for UK aviation as part of the forthcoming Aviation Decarbonisation Strategy, with UK international aviation reaching Net Zero emissions by 2050 at the latest, and domestic aviation potentially earlier. Plan for residual emissions, after efficiency, low -carbon fuels and demand-side measures, to be offset by verifiable greenhouse gas removals, on a sector net emissions trajectory to Net Zero.”
There is also the problem that aviation not only emits CO2, but its various emissions have climate warming impacts that double, or very possibly triple, the effects of the CO2 alone.
So if there is to be carbon removal for aviation, to really negate the climate impact, those non-CO2 effects should also be accounted for.