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CDReality: Is CDR Greenwashing?

Opponents of CDR frequently claim that efforts to remove CO2 from the air are just a smokescreen for the fossil fuel industry. Is it true, is CDR greenwashing?

What is true, is that the oil and gas industry is trying to use CDR for their own purposes but that should not keep us from doing what is necessary. Simply because CDR is on the radar screen of the fossil fuel industry doesn’t make it innately bad or dangerous. It just means that–as in many other parts of society–we need to create a policy framework to prevent abuse.

What’s needed is a balanced approach.

The bottom line

The solution of choice for the fossil fuel industry is CCS, where carbon dioxide is captured directly from the smokestack. This approach works in their favor because it gives them an excuse to keep burning fossil fuels and locks us even deeper into fossil fuel use.

CDR is their second choice and one they have embraced more recently (case in point, the August 2023 purchase of Carbon Engineering, a DAC pioneer, by Occidental). However, the fossil fuel industry’s support of CDR just speaks to the fact that bad actors can abuse good things, and we need to create the appropriate legal frameworks to prevent it.

Remember eighth grade: how to spot a logical fallacy

The argument “the fossil fuel industry supports it, hence it has to be bad” is a classic logical fallacy. This one is known as “poisoning the well”.

This practice is fallacious because the personal character of an individual is logically irrelevant to the truth or falseness of the argument itself. The statement “2+2=4” is true regardless if it is stated by criminals, congressmen, or pastors. [link]

There is obviously very good reason to carefully and critically scrutinize every position held by the fossil fuel industry, and not naively trust their assertions. But their stance on CDR, pro or con, doesn’t affect the facts: we know we’ll need CDR to remove the excess CO2 that we have been emitting and will continue to emit for some time to come. We know that we will need to explore, develop and scale up a multitude of CDR solutions along with aggressively decarbonizing our lives to be able to remove enough CO2 by mid-century to keep our planet habitable.

We cannot let opponents hijack carbon dioxide removal because a bad actor can abuse it. What we have to and can do is develop legal and regulatory frameworks that keep the fossil fuel industry from turning CDR into an excuse to further burn fossil fuels.

Instead of asking “How does CDR prolong our fossil fuel dependency?” the question we need to answer is: “How can CDR be used to support and accelerate the managed phase-out of fossil fuels?”

How to make it work

It all comes down to the simple fact that we already have too much CO2 in the air and even an immediate stop to all burning of fossil fuels (which nobody can suggest in good conscience) would leave us with this excess of greenhouse gas in the air that needs to be removed (the excess, not all CO2, just to make this extra clear).

So whether we like it or not, CO2 removal is needed and somehow we need to make it work. An important part of making it work – other than developing the technology and systems to physically do it, is to put the right incentives – and penalties – in place to avoid abuse.

Many smart and experienced people think about this issue every day and here we can only just scratch the surface of this complex topic here. However, here is one promising approach that makes it impossible (or at least a lot harder) for the fossil fuel industry to game the system and use CDR to stay in the fossil fuel burning business longer: governments have to create separate targets to ensure that carbon removal does not count toward emissions reduction goals.

The idea is simple: businesses/countries need to reduce their emissions by a certain percentage AND use CDR to remove emissions, e.g. those hard-to-abate emissions. CDR cannot be used to cancel out emissions.

Sweden is taking this approach by setting a goal of cutting emissions by at least 85% below 1990 levels by 2045 and relying largely on carbon removal to get the rest of the way to zero.

Over time this model might need to be refined or new models might emerge, but the important part is, that the problem is known (really, nobody trusts that the fossil fuel companies are doing the right thing when it comes to global warming) and we know what to look out for and what to avoid.

Saying that we cannot take critical measures to mitigate climate change because bad actors can abuse it is at best reckless. We need to do it right, we need to be careful, diligent and ever-vigilant, but we need to do it.