What are negative emissions?

30 junio 2020

Negative Emissions is one of the terms used by climate scientists in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) for activities that remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Other terms include Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR) and Greenhouse Gas Removal (GGR). 

To avoid the climate crisis, the absolute priority is that all sectors of the economy radically and rapidly reduce their greenhouse gas emissions to as close to zero as possible. However, there is scientific consensus that limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees, a globally agreed target, will also require removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, hence the need to talk about negative emissions. Scientists are currently debating just how much forests can remove, but we can and must do more to deliver healthy forests in Europe. 

It is important to state that carbon-dioxide removals will not help to prevent the climate breakdown if used as an excuse to delay mitigation. It is therefore problematic that some are suggesting that carbon sequestration could happen instead of reducing emissions and that others are pushing removal methods that are neither tested, nor supported by scientific consensus (such as bioenergy with carbon capture and storage - BECCS.) 

What is the best way to achieve negative emissions? 

There is an ongoing debate on the best method to achieve carbon-dioxide removals. They can be divided in two big groups: technological solutions and “nature-based solutions”.

Technological solutions rely on the assumption that future technologies will be able to remove more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than future economies will emit. However, there are presently no negative emissions technologies that work at scale, and those being suggested have significant risks of damaging environmental, social and economic impacts or even accelerate climate change.  

Nature-based solutions on the other hand,are efforts to use forests, lands and oceans, to absorb carbon dioxide. The term is controversial as it has been co-opted by large polluters as a way of delaying action to reduce their emissions. Fern prefers terms such as ecosystem-based approaches as years of degradation mean that the planet is not absorbing as much as it could. The priority should therefore be to restore nature to allow it to sequester increased amounts of carbon dioxide. It is important to remember that the ability to remove (and store) carbon in ecosystems is dependent on biodiversity as it helps ensure stability and resilience.

Unfortunately, many polluting companies and countries promote nature-based solutions which harm nature, for example replacing diverse forests with plantations, and use them as an excuse to delay climate action (see ‘How companies are using negative emissions to greenwash themselves’). It is important that Nature-based solutions are done with respect for people and the climate – not as a justification for countries and corporations to avoid changing their actions.

How are companies using negative emissions and net-zero to greenwash themselves?

Many companies make negative emission pledges when they are actually offsetting (often branded as “carbon neutrality”). This is the act of emitting a certain amount of carbon dioxide while paying for someone to attempt to remove the same amount elsewhere. Tree planting projects are often favoured by companies, given their recognised marketing potential.

This logic hides several glitches.

  • First, forest projects without long-term oversight and proper care risk being unsuccessful or even counter-productive.
  • Second, many projects are poorly measured and overestimate the climate benefit of the project.
  • Third, offsetting is incompatible with the goal of the Paris Agreement: our carbon budget is so small that there is no more space for offsetting. We must both drastically reduce carbon dioxide emissions and increase carbon sequestration to have any chance of limiting warming to 1.5°C.
  • Last but not least, projects often don’t respect the rights of local communities, creating more conflicts over resources, violating their human rights and their long-held, yet often unrecognised, right to their land.

Whenever companies make net-zero pledges, it is therefore essential to question whether it is in addition to emission reductions, or to replace them.

Oil giant Shell is case in point. In April 2019, the company announced that it would invest US $300 million “in natural ecosystems” over the next three years. According to Shell, this meant that motorists in the Netherlands who filled their tanks at Shell service stations “would be able to drive carbon neutral through the use of nature-based carbon credits”. These carbon credits would come from Shell’s investment in forest restoration projects. However, the company plans to continue to release billions of tons of carbon dioxide from oil and gas as late as 2070, claiming that it can plant trees to offset the damage.

Their commitment to plant trees was part of a drive to make continued fossil fuel use seem acceptable.

Does Fern support efforts to achieve carbon dioxide removals? 

Fern believes that the best way to remove carbon from the atmosphere is to protect and restore biodiverse forests. However, this must notbe a substitute for a rapid fossil fuel phase-out. It should be in addition to the decarbonisation of our economies.

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) defines forest landscape restoration as “the ongoing process of regaining ecological functionality and enhancing human well-being across deforested or degraded forest landscapes”.

To be resilient and long-term, it is important that all forest restoration activities follow these principles:

  • Be rights based: To ensure restoration is good for people it must respect the rights of local and Indigenous Peoples, respond to local needs and promote social justice and equality.
  • Be ecosystem based: To ensure restoration is good for biodiversity it must support ecosystem protection, promote environmental co-benefits and support biodiverse landscapes. This means that restoration should enhance natural forest features such as having a variety of local and endemic species, rather than cultivating monoculture tree plantations which have low biodiversity value. Furthermore, restoration projects should explicitly aim to achieve broader environmental benefits in the local area – such as improved water quality, ecosystem productivity and soil fertility.
  • Be science based: To ensure restoration is good for climate it must promote strong ecosystems, protect existing carbon stocks and increase overall climate ambition. It is therefore crucial to support biodiverse ecosystems, rather than plantations as they are more resilient to environmental changes. Primary forests, natural wetlands and grasslands store large amounts of carbon and they should not be compromised.


Of course, none of this will work unless we prioritise stopping deforestation and forest degradation.

In Europe, old growth forests must be protected. In addition, forest management must be closer to nature and prioritise biodiversity. The following forest management practices, when done in respect of the above principles, can improve forest health and benefit the climate:

  • Natural regeneration, with increased protection of diverse forests.
  • Assisted regeneration where tree seedlings in forested areas are protected.
  • Assisted regeneration where naturally-distributed tree seedlings are able to grow without human disturbance, and where trees of all ages are protected and preserved.
  • Improved forest management where the impact of logging is reduced by letting trees grow older and avoiding clear cuts. This also benefits local economies as it supplies quality timber which is currently imported.
  • Reforestation where single species plantations are transitioned to multiple species plantations adapted to the local geography.

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