Nature-based solutions and carbon capture technologies: Do either have a role to play in the net-zero transition?

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's (IPCC) major new report this week bore a stark warning: we may have to go beyond net-zero by 2050, globally, to avoid the worst impacts of the climate crisis. It also raised questions about common approaches to 'netting' emissions - both nature-based and man-made.

Nature-based solutions and carbon capture technologies: Do either have a role to play in the net-zero transition?

Pictured: A carbon capture array (left) and a mangrove forest (right). Image left: Carbon Clean Solutions

Released on Monday (9 August), the report from the IPCC’s Working Group 1 has been described as a “wake-up call” for policymakers. Without deep cuts to global emissions, beginning immediately, the report warns (it recommends at least a 50% reduction this decade), the physical impacts of the climate crisis will exponentially worsen by 2050.

The report also has fresh warnings about how, exactly, net-zero should be defined and delivered credibly. It states that the capacity of large-scale, man-made carbon capture technologies would need to rival that of all natural systems by 2045 if they are chosen as a preferential pathway. Previous IPCC analysis has concluded that this is unlikely, since these technologies do not exist, in most geographies, at commercial scale and reasonable cost.

This could prompt businesses, nations and international agreements to, instead, focus on nature-based solutions: restoring or creating landscapes like woodlands, forests, wetlands and peatlands to improve carbon sequestration. But the IPCC is also warning that ecosystems are more sensitive to smaller changes in emissions than previously thought, with this issue compounded by nature loss. As such, the capacity of the world’s natural systems to sequester carbon could be smaller by 2050 than it is today, unless deep emissions cuts and unprecedented action to conserve and restore nature run in tandem.

Nature-based solutions

The 15th biodiversity COP was initially due to take place in Kunming, China, last year. Covid-19 caused the event to be postponed until this autumn and the possibility of further delays is not yet off the table. In other words, discussions about – and action on – nature-based solutions have been intensifying for the best part of two years.

In the run-up to this event, where the UN’s post-2020 biodiversity framework will be ratified, an increasing amount of scientific research has been published into the interconnections between the nature and climate crises. The general conclusion is that climate change exacerbates nature loss and vice-versa, but that well-delivered, nature-based solutions should play a key role in delivering climate adaptation and mitigation. This consensus has been adopted by many national governments and a growing cohort of large businesses – most of which are using nature projects in accounting against their own climate goals.

Among them are hotelier Iberostar, FMCG giant Procter & Gamble, media streaming service Netflix and window manufacturer Velux, the latter of which is working with WWF to offset 100% of its carbon emissions in the future and capture the equivalent of its historical carbon footprint by 2041.

Speaking to edie on why Velux plumped for a nature-based approach, chief executive David Briggs says: “In our fight against climate change we shouldn’t overlook the biodiversity crisis, the loss of nature.

“Recently, there has been an increased focus on climate change and specifically committing to net-zero strategies but there’s still more that we can do to preserve biodiversity, beyond planting trees.

In WWF, we’ve found a partner with a global presence, deep expertise in biodiversity and on-ground teams who work closely with local communities. This means they can identify the right projects, in the right locations for tackling the root causes of deforestation and habitat loss while helping us deliver on our lifetime carbon-neutral promise.”

Briggs is speaking, here, about several potential pitfalls of nature-based projects which are becoming increasingly evident. These include planting the wrong trees in the wrong places, thus doing more harm to biodiversity than good; restoring habits and accounting for the ‘credit’ immediately, not taking stock of practical lifetime impacts; failing to protect local communities and failing to account for options beyond tree-planting.

The Taskforce on Scaling Voluntary Carbon Markets (TSVCM) was set up by former Bank of England Governor Mark Carney late last year in the hopes of addressing these and other issues as the markets expand. It is planning to launch an independent global governance body by the end of 2021. Separately, a new Voluntary Carbon Markets Integrity Initiative (VCMI) has launched and will develop guidance for businesses on how they can ensure that their claims around becoming ‘carbon-neutral’ or ‘net-zero’ using offsetting are credible.

Further challenges

Briggs is also keen to emphasise the fact that Velux has set verified science-based targets in line with 1.5C. This seems to be the exception rather than the norm at present. One problem with carbon removal, whether it be using nature-based or man-made means, is that many firms appear to be treating it as a first port-of-call without decarbonising in line with what the science tells us. As of November 2020, just one in 10 businesses with net-zero commitments had set verified science-based targets.

Indeed, the TSVCM estimates that the current market for offsets will need to grow by at least 15-fold by 2030 and up to 160-fold by 2050, if businesses and nations approach a 1.5C pathway using offsetting to the extent currently planned for. At present, most of the market is accounted for by nature-based projects as the capacity of man-made solutions is smaller. If existing challenges are not addressed, this scaling could bear awful consequences for biodiversity, Indigenous communities and global food security.

Even for businesses with credible, science-based plans that complement well-thought-out nature projects, there are other practical challenges in delivering them. Terraformation’s head of forestry, Jill Wagner, tells edie that many supporters of such projects grapple with a “lack of sufficient water, team training, seed supply, funding and equipment”.

“These are real challenges that slow progress and can collapse efforts altogether,” Wagner says.

This is before the challenges of maintaining nature-based solutions in a world where climate adaptation is severely underfunded are mentioned. Trees linked to companies including BP and Microsoft burned in the wildfires that have swept parts of the US this summer.

Terraformation describes itself as a ‘forest-tech’ startup that delivers nature-based projects in a manner that avoids common pitfalls. It received $30m from a funding round back in June, building on a $5m seed in 2020, so time will tell how it scales.

Carbon capture technology: Fantasy or necessity?

With the above in mind, businesses may conclude that man-made carbon capture technologies are more attractive than nature-based solutions – particularly if they are in a high-emitting, hard-to-abate sector that is struggling to reduce emissions in-house, in line with climate science.

Aside from fossil fuel majors – many of which have been accused of using carbon capture and storage (CCS) to avoid switching to truly low-carbon business models – early adopters include industrial sectors such as chemicals and cement. To the former, the CCS array described as the “first commercial operation of its size in the world” is at a chemical and fertiliser plant in India, owned by Tuticorin Alkali Chemicals and Fertilisers Limited (TFL). To the latter, building on individual trials and strategies from the likes of LafargeHolcim, multiple industry collaborations and commitments have been forged on net-zero, with CCS playing a key role.

Supporters include HeidelbergCement, which believes it can deliver the world’s first cement plant that is carbon-neutral in operations without offsetting using nature-based projects elsewhere. The firm is working with Danish engineering firm FLSmidth to install an array at its Slite plant in Gotland, Sweden. It claims the array will be able to capture 1.8 million tonnes of CO2e annually from 2030 onwards – equivalent to the plant’s total operational emissions.  

FLSmidth’s president for the cement industry, Carsten Riisberg Lund, tells edie that having onsite CCS is likely to become “an industry-standard practice by 2030”, as the sector has “widely accepted [these technologies] as a catalyst in the green energy transition”.

However, Lund does have a word of caution. “Given the volume of CO2 emissions generated by cement production, traditional CCS has historically proven to be expensive and requiring significant infrastructural and logistical investments,” he says.

“The development of innovative solutions and emerging technologies for small-scale projects can help increase carbon capture project adoption across a range of industry sectors,” Lund adds, pointing to the recent signing of a partnership agreement with Carbon8 Systems. The partnership will use captured carbon to power industrial processes needed to recycle by-products into usable aggregates. 

The key term here is “small-scale”. The TFL array mentioned above is designed to capture 60,000 tonnes of CO2 annually. The world’s largest operational CCS facility is the US-based Shute Creek Gas Processing Plant, which has the capacity for seven million metric tonnes annually. Whether this capacity is realised remains to be seen; the Century plant project, also in the US, had aimed for an 8.4-million-tonne capacity but, in reality, is operating closer to five million tonnes. In other words, it is delivering around 60% of the capture promised.

When it comes to carbon capture and utilisation (CCU) technologies, whereby the captured carbon is not simply stored but purified into a gas for reuse in commercial operation, arrays are smaller than CCS arrays. The CCU project touted as the world’s largest by operator SABIC has the capacity to capture and process half a million tonnes of CO2 annually.

Globally, the collective capacity of all operational CCS and CCU plants is estimated to be 38.5 million metric tonnes. These arrays are addressing less than one-thousandth of global emissions annually, which now exceed 50 billion tonnes. While proponents of CCS and CCU claim the market and installed capacity is growing rapidly, by the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) calculations, global emissions will rebound to pre-Covid-19 levels by 2022, reach a new record in 2023 and continue rising thereafter.

Terraformation’s Wagner adds: “Brand new tech has a high failure rate and the highest risk of unintended consequences. While those problems will be overcome over time, if you are trying to solve a problem with the urgency and scale of the climate crisis, you need a tool that’s utterly reliable.”

The bottom line

As has been stated by many thought leaders in the wake of the IPCC’s report, the findings should lead us not to doom and despair but motivate us to act urgently – whether we are business leaders, policymakers, or simply individuals with the ability to put pressure on the former two actors.

Given the litany of drawbacks and practical challenges in “netting” emissions using carbon removal that has been discussed above, one thing has become abundantly clear; businesses and nations, by and large, are over-prioritising removals and under-prioritising the development and delivery of credible plans to reduce emissions in-house. Urgent action will now involve bucking this trend.

While bodies including the IPCC and the UK Government’s own scientific advisors – the Climate Change Committee (CCC) – have stated that man-made carbon capture will be an “option, not a necessity” in transitioning to net-zero, the fact remains that global emissions must fall 7.8% annually until 2020 to prevent the worst physical impacts of the climate crisis.

The UN expects a 7% year-on-year fall for 2019-2020, but this is due to Covid-19 lockdown restrictions and economic impacts rather than any step-change in policymaking or business action. The UN, like the IEA, is expecting emissions to rebound quickly. Based on global pledges filed before February 2021, the UN calculated that global emissions are likely to fall by just 1% this decade.

The final expert interviewed by edie for this feature was Dr Manuel Pinuela, the chief executive of Cultivo – a firm informing investors in nature-based solutions of their true impact using data collected from remote sensing technologies. With this interest in mind, it would be easy for him to encourage businesses and nations to take an offsetting-first approach that prioritises nature-based solutions.

Instead, he tells edie that any actor “needs to have a credible sustainability and climate strategy and a clear understanding of where and how nature-based solutions fit within that strategy”, because “investing in nature-based projects is not an alternative to decarbonisation”.

In conclusion, both man-made technologies and nature-based solutions will clearly have a role to play on the road to net-zero – the latter, particularly so, given the need to address the twin climate and nature crises holistically. But whether that role is currently being positioned correctly by governments or the private sector is questionable, to say the least.

Join the conversation at edie’s COP26 Inspiration Sessions 

On Thursday 9 September, edie will be hosting three back-to-back online events focused on how businesses can harness nature-based solutions while adapting to the changing climate to improve resiliency. 

Hosted during edie’s special COP26 Focus Week of content and events, this online event offers up an afternoon of live, interactive webinar presentations and discussions – all dedicated to driving business action around these two critical themes of the upcoming climate talks.

Click here for a full line-up of sponsors and speakers, and to register. Grosvenor, EY, the Woodland Trust have been announced as sponsors, alongside headline Festival sponsor Virgin Media O2. Additional speakers will be announced in the coming weeks.

Sarah George

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