Tabitha Whiting
Tabitha WhitingContent & Growth Marketing
What’s the difference between carbon removal and emissions avoidance in offsetting?
What’s the difference between carbon removal and emissions avoidance in offsetting?
Carbon credits can be generated through carbon removal or emissions avoidance projects. Both have a role to play in climate action. But what’s the difference? And should your business prioritise one over the other?
April 13, 2022

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Emissions avoidance and carbon removal – what's the difference?

Carbon offsetting projects fall into two categories, whether the offset has been generated by emissions avoidance (also known as emissions reduction) or by carbon removal. What's the difference? And which should you prioritise when purchasing carbon offset credits as a business?

Emissions avoidance 

Emissions avoidance or emissions reduction projects are when future emissions are avoided or reduced through an activity. The most common types of carbon offset projects are:

  • Renewable energy projects. For instance, building a solar farm close to a city which is currently powered by a fossil fuel plant will result in reduced future carbon emissions.
  • Forest conservation or management. Protecting forests from the threat of deforestation maintains the carbon stored in the trees, preventing future carbon emissions.
  • Carbon capture and storage technology in emitting industries. For instance, capturing and storing carbon emitted at fossil fuel power plants or industrial facilities will prevent emissions.

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Carbon removal 

Carbon removal projects – also known as Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR) or carbon drawdown projects – physically remove existing carbon from the atmosphere. This happens in nature and can also be achieved by technological solutions. 

New and innovative ways of removing carbon from the atmosphere are being worked on all the time, but currently some of the most common types of carbon removal projects are :

  • Afforestation and reforestation. As trees grow they absorb and store carbon, and so planting forests increases the carbon removed from the atmosphere by trees.
  • Direct air capture (DACs). Carbon is removed from the atmosphere directly through chemical processes.
  • Enhanced weathering. CO2 in the air naturally reacts with minerals to become carbonate in a process called ‘mineralisation’, permanently removing carbon and storing it in solid form. Speeding up this process by grinding rocks up into small particles to increase surface area results in increased carbon removal.

Long and short-lived carbon storage

As well as differentiating by carbon removal and emissions avoidance, whether carbon is stored by a project is also important. There are three kinds of storage within carbon offset projects:

  • No storage: a project does not result in carbon being stored. This only applies to emissions avoidance or reduction projects, such as renewable energy projects.
  • Short-lived carbon storage: a project results in carbon being stored, but this is temporary or has a high risk of being reversed. This can apply to emissions reduction projects (e.g. forest conservation) and to carbon removal projects (e.g. afforestation/reforestation) where future changes could affect the storage e.g. the land ownership changes and deforestation occurs. 
  • Long-lived carbon storage: a project results in carbon being stored permanently, with a low risk of reversal. This can apply to emissions reduction projects (e.g. carbon capture and storage on a fossil fuel plant) but more commonly applies to carbon removal projects where carbon is removed from the atmosphere and stored in a safe and permanent way, including direct air capture and enhanced weathering.

This diagram from the Oxford Principles for Offsetting shows these different types of carbon offsets projects:

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What should be your priority when carbon offsetting as a business?

Both carbon removal and emissions avoidance projects are needed to address climate change: we need to drastically cut current carbon emissions and to remove existing carbon from the atmosphere. 

Whatever you decide to do in your business offsetting, your focus should always be on how you can best support high impact and high-quality projects – ensuring you have the positive climate impact you set out to, and avoid being perceived as greenwashing.

Permanent carbon removal projects are generally seen to be the highest impact form of carbon offset project. However, these projects also tend to be significantly more expensive because they’re in the early stages of developing and staging (e.g. Direct Air Capture technology). In comparison, projects like forest conservation are much more affordable and are already well-established, so supporting them will enable immediate impact.

Because of this, we often recommend that businesses build a simple portfolio supporting different project types – which we can help you with. In this way you can balance having immediate impact with funding future high-impact removals, as well as balancing out cost. The Oxford Principles for Offsetting outline a suggestion of how to build a high impact portfolio, as well as how you might want to change that portfolio over time to maintain impact. 

As an alternative, you might want to consider switching how you think about climate impact in your business, moving from a model of compensating for your own carbon emissions to thinking about how you can contribute a percentage of revenue to the highest impact carbon removal projects to help them scale up and have the impact they have the potential to.

For a deeper dive on this, head over to our blog on contributing to carbon removal projects vs compensating via carbon offsetting.

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