Tabitha Whiting
Tabitha WhitingContent Marketer
What’s the difference between carbon removal and emissions avoidance?
What’s the difference between carbon removal and emissions avoidance?
Carbon removal vs emissions avoidance – what's the difference? And which (if either) should businesses prioritise when buying carbon credits?
April 13, 2022

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Carbon removal vs emissions avoidance – 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. But what's the difference between these two methods? And should you prioritise one of them when purchasing carbon offset credits as a business?

Emissions avoidance 

Emissions avoidance or emissions reduction projects are when an activity or project results in future greenhouse gas emissions being avoided or reduced. 

The most common types of emissions avoidance 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.

Carbon removal 

Carbon removal projects – also referred to 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.

Want to know more about any of these (or others we haven't mentioned here)? Take a look at our post on the different carbon offset project types.

Emissions avoidance vs carbon removal – should you choose one over the other?

Both carbon removal and emissions avoidance projects are needed to address climate change – we need to drastically reduce our current carbon emissions and to remove existing carbon from the atmosphere to meet climate targets.

As carbon offset project categories, they fulfil different functions:

  • Emissions avoidance: methods for avoiding emissions are typically well-established and relatively easy to implement (think renewable energy or forestry projects, for instance). This means that buying carbon credits from an emissions avoidance project usually results in immediate impact being made to reduce emissions, at a relatively low cost, because you're funding an established project.
  • Carbon removal: many techniques for removing CO2 from the atmosphere are new and developing (enhanced weathering, Direct Air Capture, seaweed farming etc) but have the potential to remove vast amounts of carbon if deployed successfully. But, because they're early-stage projects, they need substantial amounts of funding now to research, develop, and scale-up to reach that potential. They're more expensive than emissions avoidance projects (if they aren't, definitely question the quality of the project), and the actual impact made is likely to be in the future, but it's also likely that the real impact made will be much higher if the project does successfully scale up.

Again, both of these are super important.

But, because of the high potential for exponential impact, carbon removal credits are usually seen as the highest impact form. So, if you have the budget, we'd definitely recommend prioritising offsetting through carbon removal credits (or simply making contributions to these projects to help accelerate their development).

However, we know a lot of companies don't have the budget to offset their footprint entirely with more expensive carbon removal credits – which is why we often recommend that businesses take a portfolio approach. Building a portfolio means businesses can include both emissions avoidance and carbon removal carbon credits in their offsetting purchases – balancing having immediate impact with funding future high-impact removals, as well as balancing out cost.

If the idea of a portfolio approach appeals, we can help you create a portfolio that's right for you through the Lune dashboard.

Lune dashboard showing a portfolio of high-quality offset projects

It's also important to note the caveat with all business offsetting is that whatever you decide to do, your focus should always be on finding and supporting high-quality projects to ensure you actually have the positive impact you set out to. So, whether emissions avoidance or carbon removal, make sure you've done the due diligence to make sure you're supporting a high-quality project – or that you have a sustainability partner that will. At Lune we do the due diligence for you, since we only include high-quality projects in our library.

We'd also recommend taking a look at Oxford Principles for Offsetting.

They've developed a framework on how build a high impact portfolio which incorporates both emissions avoidance and carbon removal, and includes how you might want to change that portfolio over time to maintain impact (as the carbon markets develop).

Their suggestions involve both the idea of building a portfolio and ensuring that portfolio is always only using high-quality projects, so it's a great resource for businesses who are keen to approach carbon offsetting in the right way, and maximise the potential impact they can have.

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So, to return to the central question: emissions avoidance vs carbon removal?

The answer is that both have a hugely important role to play in combatting climate change. Right now, the highest-impact carbon credits are in early-stage, innovative, carbon removal projects. But, creating a portfolio which incorporates both types is likely the best approach for more businesses.

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