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You can’t wait with buying carbon removal

All companies that plan to use removals in the future should spend a portion of climate budgets on it today.

Carbon removal clock

Robert Höglund

May 23, 2023

3 min read

Updated 2 months ago

2022 saw a lot of progress: Frontier launched its $1 billion commitment. The overall CDR market grew 530% (although dominated by one purchase). The US announced record-breaking support mechanisms for CDR. Lots of new suppliers got started, and many new companies have started buying small amounts of removals. However, the thing that really stuck with me is that the number of larger buyers of CDR is still very low.

16 companies bought more than 1000 tonnes in 2022, and the number of big buyers is not growing very quickly. The dynamics are still upside down, with more marketplaces than companies that have removed carbon and even fewer large buyers. Why are so few companies buying durable carbon removal at scale? I can think of at least five reasons.

One reason is fear. Taking action always carries some risk of backlash. Many companies prefer not to talk about what they do for the climate, so-called greenhushing. For example, since old-school carbon credits have been so criticized and companies bashed for their carbon neutrality claims, some companies fear that their customers will be unable to differentiate between durable carbon removal and cheap, low-quality credits. (I was not expecting this but have heard it expressed by several companies.)

Another reason is a lack of incentives. Companies feel they have little to gain by purchasing expensive tonnes today. The Science Based Target initiative (SBTi), for example, does require permanent carbon removal to fulfill net zero targets but does not incentivize the deployment of removals before target dates.

Buying tonnes has also been difficult, requiring in-house expertise and direct contact with suppliers. This has been been made easier by marketplaces and buyer’s clubs, but buyers might not feel comfortable with outsourcing quality control until standards are more developed and universally agreed upon. Purchasing carbon removal from companies using new methods has meant taking a leap of faith that not everyone is willing to do. When deliveries are verified against standards by third parties and delivered tonnes are put on registries, more companies will likely feel comfortable buying carbon removal.

Last but not least, the high price point of durable CDR and that companies are expecting prices to drop is likely holding purchases back. Sinking prices are dependent on CDR technologies ascending the learning curve. For that to happen, carbon needs to be removed. Everyone cannot wait with buying carbon removal as lower prices in the future are conditional on purchases being made now. If a proper market for CDR does not get started today, there risks not being any carbon removal to buy when companies are getting ready to reach their net zero targets.

The voluntary carbon removal market has a very important role to play. It can kickstart new removal methods into existence, grow existing ones from the lab into full-scale deployment and widen the starting field. The world needs carbon removal at scale, both because some emissions are very hard or expensive to reduce but also to increase the number of mitigation options available and to have the chance to bring temperatures back down.

Many carbon removal companies are dependent on venture capital, but climate investors are slowing down their capital deployment due to economic headwinds. It might be harder to raise new rounds.

The CDR sector is a strong seedling that has taken root, but without the right conditions, survival is not guaranteed.

Investors need to see significant market growth and for investments to find a path to profitability — and that requires scaling sales. If not, the voluntary carbon removal market risks coming to a halt before it even got off the ground. Government spending will keep some companies alive and likely still reach impressive scale, but without the voluntary market, the sector would likely be much less diverse and perhaps without the best ideas.

Three key recommendations to avoid this scenario are:

  • Get more companies, individuals, and countries to pre-purchase carbon removal, and give praise to those that do. All companies that plan to use removals in the future should spend a portion of climate budgets on it today.

  • Get standard setters like the SBTi to incentivize carbon removal now, for example, by requiring companies to set interim targets. (SBTi has announced that they are going to publish more on this topic).

  • Speed up the MRV developments and get tonnes and pre-purchases on registries to increase trust and decrease the risk of double counting or ineffective methods being scaled up. All delivered tonnes must be put on a public registry, as is the case with old-school carbon credits.

Let’s all fight to make this happen in 2023!

About the author(s)

robert picture
Robert Höglund

CTF Fund Manager

Robert Höglund is a carbon dioxide removal (CDR) and climate policy expert. In addition to managing the Climate Transformation Fund, he co-founded the CDR market overview, works with the NGO Carbon Gap, and publishes reports and articles on carbon removal and corporate climate contributions. He is a member of the EU Expert Group on Carbon Removals, the Science-based Target initiative's (SBTi) Technical Advisory Group, and the board of the KTH-led research program Mistra sustainable consumption. Robert previously headed Oxfam Sweden's policy and communications team and founded the Climate Goal Initiative in Sweden.

Related Funds

Climate Transformation Fund

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