Takeaways on defining Real and Credible Carbon Dioxide Removal

Publish date: November 25, 2020

Without setting basic principles, there is a risk that projects which claim to be carbon dioxide removal, will actually increase the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. Hence, defining what Credible and Real CDR is will serve setting boundaries the overall if not creating a gold standard for removing co2 from the atmosphere, this especially in order to avoid loopholes in the accounting.

On the 18th of November 2020, Bellona Europa and Carbon Market Watch hosted a virtual workshop in the scope of the NEGEM Horizon 2020 project. 

The workshop aimed to highlight four proposed principles to define Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR) and how these would be applied in practice. The proposed principles, adapted from a paper written by Samantha Tanzer and Andrea Ramírez, are: 


Without setting basic principles, there is a risk that projects which claim to be carbon dioxide removal, will actually increase the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. Hence, defining what Carbon Dioxide Removal is (and is not) and establishing a gold standard for how to remove CO2 from the atmosphere, is critical to avoid potential loopholes in carbon accounting. 

Keith Whiriskey, Deputy Director of Bellona Europa, opened the event by outlining the aims of the NEGEM project and introducing above principles and their purpose. In his statement, he said that these principles should be used as the foundation to define carbon dioxide removal and that they apply to both nature-based and technology-based removals. 

“These principles are a really simple way to start filtering projects to assess whether they have the potential to remove carbon or not” 


Terhi Lehtonen, Finland’s State Secretary for Environment, followed with a statement, highlighting the urgent need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions coupled with significant carbon dioxide removals over the course of the century. She emphasised the risks of getting CDR policy wrong: 

Counting on removals that failed to materialize or are easily reversible could undermine climate efforts by channeling funds to fake removals, inevitably diverting resources from emission reductions, or by undermining public confidence in climate policy” 

She asked whether voluntary markets could be harnessed to mobilise carbon dioxide removals both domestically and in the EU, adding that any ‘negative emission unit’ would need to be real, measurable, permanent, additional and verifiable, while avoiding double counting and carbon leakage. Ms Lehtonen raised the issue of setting baselines, stating that currently vegetation absorbs 30% of humanity’s emissions into the atmosphere and that these removals should not be considered within carbon crediting schemes. She ended her statement by saying that the focus should be on removals which are not land-based and which are not accounted in the current frameworks, to help kick-start the additional negative emissions needed to reach climate neutrality.  

The event was structured around the principles, to showcase practices and technologies which can combine to provide negative emissions.  

Panel one – Carbon dioxide must be physically removed from the atmosphere 

This panel discussed existing methods of removing CO2 from the atmospherethrough technological and natural means, and their respective challenges.  

Christoph Beuttler, from Climeworks, showcased their Direct-Air-Capture technology, which filters ambient air to capture CO2, using electricity and heat. Beuttler emphasized the portfolio approach needed to tackle climate change and that reducing emissions should always be the priority. Beuttler stated that it is important to design policies today that can enable technologies to scale: “We will need to start now in order to start building and scaling because to get to 6 Gigatons of removals we need to scale with a 60% growth rate per year”.  

Lorie Hamelin from INSA Toulouse, part of the NEGEM Consortium, highlighted the need to consider the future impacts of CDR in order to make the correct investment decisions today: “Establishing a good baseline is essential. We also need to make sure that we are not interfering with the overall market demand for land, and still supply the same goods and services with the same land as when we started”, she stated. Hamelin cited the IPCC’s SR CCL, stating that enhancing soil organic carbon is one of only 2 responses which can also help with adaptation, food security, desertification and land degradation. She warned however that soils can only store a finite amount of carbon before reaching a new equilibrium, and that the storage usually requires maintaining the practices that allowed the storage to happen in the first place, as well sitespecific conditions and climatic conditions. She ended her statement by stressing that with rising climate impacts, maintaining current soil carbon stocks will be challenging and that mitigation will be necessary to safeguard this. 

Heidi Sorensen, Head of Oslo’s Climate Agency, outlined the role of Klemetsrud, a local Waste-to-Energy facility, in the city’s climate and waste management plans. As the largest point source of emissions, roughly half of its emissions are of biogenic carbon from non-recyclable waste which would otherwise end up in landfills. The Norwegian government’s plans to add CCS mean that 90% of the plant’s emissions could be captured and stored, effectively removing CO2 from the atmosphere. However, Sorensen added, without clear international accounting rules for negative emissions, it would not be possible to incentivize it at the national and industrial level. 

“The European Commission needs to play a role in establishing a worldwide accounting framework for negative emissions. We also need robust regulatory and economic measures stimulating both CCS and solutions for negative emissions” 

Panel two – The removed carbon dioxide is stored out of the atmosphere in a manner intended to be permanent 

This panel discussed how captured carbon dioxide can be stored indefinitely in geological formations and in land sinks. The key theme related to issues of monitoring and verification and how long ‘permanent’ should be. 

Graeme Sweeney, Chair of the Zero Emission Platform, opened his statement by answering a common question about geological storage, will there be enough of it? His answer: We have to plan to have the amount we’ll need by setting a storage target. It will not happen on its own and needs to become a policy objective. Sweeney said that for all intents and purposes, geological storage is permanent, citing evidence from the Sleipner field (Norway) and the McElmo Dome (US). However, he warned against limiting the conversation of permanent storage to only CCS, stating that soils and forests will also play a key role. Sweeney also emphasised that regardless of how much storage space there is, deployment of transport and storage infrastructure is key. Sweeney was of critical of carbon removal offsets, citing a danger that substantial offsets would lessen the likelihood of core sectoral mitigation. 

Kelsey Perlman, Forest and Climate Campaigner at FERN, opened her remarks, arguing that it is impossible to solve the issue of permanence when it comes to land sinks. She mentioned the various ways of monitoring and measuring the carbon in forests, which are complex and require more work. The issue of a baseline was highlighted, since it is important to differentiate manmade and natural impacts on forests. Perlman was critical of the idea of credits for land-based removals, since this would require an arbitrary number instead of ‘permanence’, thus requiring a value judgement about how the land should be used. She also highlighted the multi-faceted role of forests, that they have other intrinsic values beyond their role in the carbon cycle and that their value should not be determined by other sector’s needs to decarbonise.  

“There are other policy options besides optimising for carbon that can deal much more thoroughly with the question of a healthy long-lasting sink, and not just sticks of carbon.”  


Panel three  Getting the accounting right 

This panel combined Principles 3 and 4, which ensure all GHG emissions associated with the removal process are accounted for, and that the removal process results in lower CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere. The core of the conversation related to the difference between natural and technological removals and the complexities of performing Life Cycle Analyses which accurately reflect real-life impacts on the climate. 

Peter Zapfel, Head of Unit at DG Clima, reminded of the Commission’s plans for a Certification Mechanism for Carbon Removals to be proposed by 2023. He stated the need to build a common and transparent certification system for carbon removal across the EU, otherwise there may be a lack of credibility among member states. Zapfel cautioned that for carbon removal to play out successfully, they would need to find solutions which limit administrative burden and transaction costs so that monitoring does not become a deterring factor. Zapfel highlighted the difference between monitoring emissions in the ETS, which is relatively straightforward, and monitoring nature-based removals which is more complex and can vary across member states. 

Andrea Ramírez, TU Delft, started by highlighting the lack of terminology and confusion in the academic literature, despite the fact that the principles for CDR are straightforward. She mentioned the importance of avoided emissions but that these are not to be confused with negative emissions. A key point in her statement was the need to verify removals and to retain custody of the CO2 molecule across value chains, which is likely to be easier for technology-based removals with short value chains. Ramírez drew a parallel with forestry’s ecosystem services, saying that some technological removals, such as Bio-CCS, produce services such as heat and power, which should also be considered in future. 

Wijnand Stoefs, Policy Officer at Carbon Market Watch, closed the event, stating that all 4 principles would need to be verifiable and well-understood before EU policy can include or support CDR. Stoefs called for a separate target for carbon removals, to avoid undermining emission reductions. He closed the event, hinting that new principles may be needed at higher levels of granularity. 





This project has received funding under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation Programme under Grant Agreement No. 869192. The NEGEM project started on 1st June 2020, lasting until 31st May 2024.