As some of the world’s heaviest corporate emitters double down on carbon dioxide removal (CDR) as their go-to path to net-zero, activists and experts are warning that such efforts often amount to little more than greenwashing and distraction.
From fossil giants to consumer goods goliaths to tech titans, “bold sustainability pledges” are all the rage, reports Green Queen. The roster includes “traditionally polluting firms and some of the biggest oil giants like Shell, Chevron, and Volkswagen, and [consumer products] majors like PepsiCo, Unilever, and Nestlé, not to mention the wave of tech corporations like Amazon, Microsoft, and Apple.”
But while their industries are diverse, there is one factor that seems very common across many of these pledges. Citing a report by Bloomberg Green, the Hong Kong-based news outlet adds that “more than half of all the net-zero schemes that companies have announced in 2019 and 2020 are based on tree planting, forest preservation, and carbon capture efforts,” all recognized forms of CDR.
Correctly done, initiatives like tree planting can be beneficial, but such projects cannot stand in as a substitute for cutting emissions, says Green Queen. “While anywhere between 500 and 3,600 million tonnes of CO2 could be removed annually through planting new forests by 2050,” that figure pales against the 36 billion tonnes of CO2 emitted annually across the globe.
And with other CDR methodologies—like direct air carbon capture (DAC)—still rife with uncertainties and limitations, it is by far the wiser course to reduce emissions once and for all.
But a recent report by Greenpeace found that most of the companies seeking to offset emissions through CDR plan to “simply purchase credits on carbon markets” instead ofimplementing CDR projects within their own operations and supply chains. Green Queen notes that these markets “have been beset with integrity problems and dubious accounting, even where certified.”
Because of these critical issues—combined withthe ongoing uncertainty over the actual effectiveness of some of the proposed CDR technologies—Greenpeace recommended that CDR be developed and deployed only as a tool to offset emissions that are “hardest and most expensive” to eliminate.
“Greenhouse gas offsets—where you pay others to reduce their pollution today, or bet on schemes to remove yours tomorrow—are all the rage, but they come with risks,” warned Project Drawdown Executive Director Jonathan Foley. While offsets are necessary, he told Green Queen, “they must be used wisely, sparingly, and without distracting us from the job of reducing our emissions.”