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How does carbon avoidance differ from carbon removal?

Comparing carbon removal to carbon avoidance can be equated to a simple calculation: Let’s assume someone emits one tonne of CO2 into the atmosphere in one place and someone else avoids emitting a tonne of CO2 in another, this still leaves the atmospheric levels at one. If however, one tonne of CO2 is actively removed from the atmosphere, this leaves us at (net-)zero.

Next, let’s take a look at carbon avoidance in the context of the voluntary carbon market. Some companies pay others (in the form of climate projects, such as funding regenerative farming, sponsoring clean cookstoves, or protecting forests) to avoid equal amounts of their own emissions. This corresponds to carbon avoidance credits, which are akin to traditional carbon offsets. The effectiveness of such an action in addressing climate concerns hinges on the hypothetical scenario it compares to - what would have occurred if the project hadn't been undertaken? In reality, this can only be approximated, not observed. If a project claims it's preventing emissions that wouldn't have occurred anyway and, in return, allows other emissions to persist, then the project could potentially worsen the climate situation rather than improving it.

We also know that some companies are paying for the removal and safe storage of carbon from the atmosphere in amounts also equal to their own emissions. These are carbon removal credits, which are a core part of net zero goals.

The distinction may appear to be semantic, yet it holds significant importance. In order to avert the most severe consequences of climate change, we have to extract billions of metric tonnes of CO2 equivalent by the middle of the century. However, achieving this objective is tied to the proactive commitment of companies and governments to allocate appropriate resources towards carbon removal solutions today, ensuring their feasible implementation on a large scale in the near future.

This doesn’t mean that avoidance projects can’t be part of the overarching solution, particularly when integrated into a portfolio of carbon credits that judiciously balances impact and cost. These avoidance initiatives play a crucial role in safeguarding existing natural carbon sinks, such as preventing deforestation, while simultaneously expediting investments aimed at mitigating greenhouse gases like methane. The best avoidance projects offer a plethora of co-benefits related to biodiversity, avoided pollution, or environmental justice. These often-underemphasized efforts give us extra time to implement reduction plans and ramp up permanent carbon removal technologies.
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