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As we race to achieve net zero, let’s ensure we aren’t making the same mistakes that got us here. Tech solutions do not deliver the same co-benefits as nature — and clearly cannot substitute for the loss of ecosystems. Nature-based solutions are cost-effective and can make an immediate difference.
Given the urgency of the climate crisis, we need to be using all available,
proven solutions to take credible action. Alongside drastic reductions, this
includes investments in carbon-removal technologies — but also driving down
emissions outside of one's own operations and reinforcing a just transition for
all. This is something that can be done by purchasing carbon credits from
certified emissions reduction projects that help support the UN Sustainable
2020 was a strong year for carbon
and the pace of growth shows no signs of slowing down. Estimates
that the market could be worth $50 billion by the end of the decade and as much
as $100 billion a year by 2050. While global momentum to reduce emissions
continues increasing in the form of commitments from companies and governments,
including the US’s recent re-joining of the Paris Agreement, demand for carbon
offsets will grow exponentially. There are now concerns that there isn’t enough
offset inventory to meet demand — and more importantly, not enough offset
in place to help transition the global economy to net zero.
From a carbon-management perspective, offsets play a critical role in the
net-zero transition for two key reasons: unavoidable residual emissions and
a lack of critical carbon-neutral technologies.
Even by employing energy-efficiency measures, switching to renewable
and finding interchangeable low-carbon solutions throughout a company’s
operations, there will always be a residual amount of carbon that is emitted —
simply because it’s impossible to eliminate the production of carbon in
totality. Further, some of the technologies needed to change the
carbon-intensive systems of today to the net-zero-carbon future of tomorrow are
currently being developed, tested and scaled. The purchase of carbon offsets
provides financing, which helps to fund the development and scaling of these new
technologies; all while actively avoiding more emissions from being released or
pulling carbon out of the air.
Developing offset projects that meet the highest standards (such as the
Verified Carbon Standard or Gold
Standard) is a time-intensive and rigorous
process; yet the fact that this year was the first time since 2017 that more
than issued shows that project developers have huge potential for growth on the
horizon. The Taskforce on Scaling Voluntary Carbon Markets (TSVCM)
estimates demand for carbon
could increase 15-fold by 2030 to $50 billion.
The sector is already feeling pressure to meet demand in time for 2030, the year
that most entities have designated as their first major carbon reduction
milestone; and efforts are afoot to scale new solutions.
Technological removals received a lot of attention this year when Bill Gates
made the rounds promoting his new book, How to Avoid a Climate
Gates has talked favorably about the need for high-tech solutions that capture
and store carbon, while questioning nature’s abilities. Gates seems most fond of
geo capture: “...you can go into the atmosphere where it’s currently 410 ppm and
pull it out there. The beauty of [this] approach is that you can put your
capture plant anywhere, particularly somewhere it’s easy to liquify it and put
it into a geological formation and keep it out of the atmosphere...[which is]
super expensive today.” The tone of Gates’ language inspires an image like that
of the Apollo moonshot — but it took quite a while to get it right before
that first trip to the moon.
Technological removals and the market for it are in their infancy. But to
achieve net-zero emissions by
we need to start building a credible carbon-removal industry — which does not
New initiatives have been announced — such as South
Pole and Mitsubishi Corporation’s
to develop a next-generation carbon-removal purchase facility, which aims to
procure at least US$300-800 million worth of certified carbon-removal credits
by 2030. The facility will purchase and retire certified carbon-removal credits
from nascent carbon-removal technology projects that can deliver permanent
carbon storage and that show the potential for significant cost reduction over
While technological removals will continue to bring new solutions that transform
products and supply chains, there’s already effective and proven solutions right
in front of us.
With an enormous amount of carbon needing to be removed from the atmosphere, we
must use all the tools in our toolbox — and that includes nature. To dismiss
nature would be missing out on a solution that managed our climate quite well
for centuries — including when our forests were more abundant, our ecosystems
were more intact, and our oceans in a healthier state.
Nature-based solutions (NBS) — such as planting
trees and protecting
— can provide over a third of the cost-effective climate
needed between now and 2030 to stabilize warming to below 2°C, achieving
nature’s mitigation potential of 10-12 gigatons (Gt) of CO2 per year. To put
that into perspective, nations may need to remove up to 1000 Gt of CO2 by
In other words, nature itself is the solution that was designed to handle this
very problem and one that we have at hand right now. After all, climate change
is really the outcome of an imbalance between human activities and nature. So,
while some underestimate the idea of planting trees and other nature-based
efforts that can sequester carbon, repairing the damage that’s been done to the
world’s forests and nature itself is one of the keys to our carbon problem.
Forests have always been the climate’s regulator. Despite the fact that as much
as 80 percent of the world's forests have been destroyed or irreparably
degraded, in their current state they still absorb approximately one-third of
CO2 released annually from the burning of fossil fuels. How would our current
situation be different if we had two or three times as many trees populating the
earth as we have now?
The largest and most immediate potential for carbon reduction is stopping
deforestation. Our planet’s forests contain more carbon than exploitable oil,
gas and coal
combined. Preventing emissions from deforestation and land-use
is just as urgent, if not more so, than transitioning away from fossil fuels.
Protecting a standing forest prevents the carbon emissions that would result if
they were torn down, enables them to continue removing carbon from the air, and
is the cheapest solution for CO2 reduction. Planting new trees is the
Though technological solutions are needed, relying on them alone neglects the
complicated issues that are impacting nature and causing the carbon imbalance in
the first place including: deforestation, poverty in critical biodiversity
hotspots, clearing of forests for industry and agriculture, and other issues.
Natural ecosystems are complex; but smart nature-based solutions, such as
that easily restore soil to support reforestation or more productive
agriculture, can yield significant carbon reductions.
Technological solutions also simply can’t offer an immediately available
solution, and we need climate action today. Many of the available technologies
are expensive and will take a long time to develop, test, garner public trust
and implement; and throughout this process, it’s critical that they are
developed with an eye towards unintended consequences.
The effort to employ systems change to reduce waste provides a good example of
the potential unintended consequences that can occur. To address waste, we were
told that we needed to reduce, reuse, and recycle — in that order. Instead, the
business of creating recycled products boomed — to the point that even reusable
items were swapped out for disposable, recyclable options. Just look at most
Business is an important tool to solving the issue; but somewhere along the way,
the business community and consumers lost sight of the waste-reduction goal.
This has led to a massive increase in global waste and pollution — which is
overwhelming our ability to recycle it, while exponentially increasing carbon
Our increased reliance on recyclable packaging and goods has led our primary
partner, China, to turn away our
— even the recyclable kind. The intention was to reduce waste; but instead,
we're drowning in an ocean of supposedly recyclable
Cost is another major factor. While the potential for carbon-removal
technologies is compelling, the current cost of associated removal credits is
still a roadblock for many companies that need carbon-removal options in order
to reach net zero. As of today, the cost of technological carbon removals ranges
from US$50 to over US$400/ton of CO2 removed, compared to about $10 per ton
for NBS. And it will take time before the cost of technological removal credits
NBS also provide what is known as a maximum-impact ROI. While nature-based
busy removing carbon from the air, they add value to everything around them by
The co-benefits they provide — including biodiversity, protecting coastal
communities from flooding, sustainable economic development, and many others —
are an opportunity to tackle the impacts of human activity on our environment.
Investment in NBS also help scale new technologies better designed for our
existence — such as, for example,
And they result in economic value for the communities where they’re located
because they abate deforestation by replacing the income generated through
harmful uses of forests with alternatives, and often result in social justice
Over the past 18 months, an increasing number of businesses with ambitious
net-zero targets have shown a higher willingness to pay for high-quality
carbon-removal technologies. This pull from the carbon market can make a crucial
contribution to the development of a new carbon-removal sector that we urgently
But as we race to adopt solutions in order to achieve net zero, let’s ensure we
aren’t making the same mistakes that got us here. Technological solutions do not
deliver the same co-benefits as nature — and clearly cannot substitute for the
loss of forests and ecosystems. Nature-based solutions are cost-effective and,
most importantly, can make an immediate difference. Let’s make sure we take an
all-solutions approach when it comes to meeting global climate targets and the
growing demand for credible tools for climate action.
Published Jul 29, 2021 11am EDT / 8am PDT / 4pm BST / 5pm CEST
This article, produced in cooperation with the Sustainable Brands editorial team, has been paid for by one of our sponsors.