Understanding the Difference Between Emissions Avoidance and Carbon Removal

As travelers it can help to understand the difference between emissions avoidance and carbon dioxide removal. Many conventional offsetting programs fund emissions avoidance projects. So what is the difference between these two climate actions?

Emissions avoidance refers to actions or technology that avoid the input of more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Avoidance technologies include renewable energy such as solar, wind, or geothermal. Typical carbon offsets that many travelers may be familiar with are set up to try and help ‘neutralize’ emissions. Here is a basic scenario: if you emit 1 tonne of CO2, you can purchase a carbon offset that helps fund wind-generated energy someplace in the world. The use of the wind-generated energy helps avoid the use of fossil-fuel generated energy. Therefore, it is said that the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has been neutralized. You emitted one tonne, but then you avoided one tonne through the purchase of your offset. This is an avoidance offset.

There are also carbon offsets that fund forest protection, for example. In this scenario, your 1 tonne carbon credit purchase helps support a forest that absorbs and stores 1 tonne of CO2 for a short period of time - forests do not offer permanent carbon dioxide storage as in the case of mineralization. The carbon offset credit is backed by a “counterfactual” - meaning the seller of the credit claims that your money is necessary to protect the forest, and furthermore, without your money the forest would be cut down. One challenge with this type of offset is that counterfactuals are very hard to prove.

Recycling, composting, or driving an electric/hybrid vehicle are ways to avoid emissions as well.

However, to keep our Earth’s temperature from warming further, and return to the air we had in the past, avoiding new emissions alone is not enough. Because we have waited too long to reduce emissions, we now have excess carbon dioxide in our atmosphere that must be cleaned up.

Even with rapid investment in renewable energy and technologies that help avoid putting new emissions into the atmosphere, the world will need to remove about 10 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere every year by 2050 and 20 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide per year by 2100 (Economist Impact). 

Novel forms of carbon removal such as direct air capture, biochar, and enhanced weathering offer an additional solutions and a crucial complement to emissions avoidance and the protection of natural carbon removal and storage methods (such as forests). Carbon dioxide removal + storage technologies take carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and lock it away permanently.

Renewables help prevent new carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere, whereas carbon removal cleans excess carbon dioxide already in the atmosphere. The scale-up of carbon dioxide removal, together with approaches to help avoid new emissions, are essential to restoring our climate.

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