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This Is CDR Episode 26: Standards and Regulations

This Is CDR is an ongoing series of online events to explore the range of carbon dioxide removal solutions that are currently in development. Most of the time, that means...

This Is CDR is an ongoing series of online events to explore the range of carbon dioxide removal solutions that are currently in development. Most of the time, that means we hear from a startup working on a specific approach to CDR, but this week, we’re looking at something arguably more important than any one process: standards. Without strict, trustworthy, universal standards for measuring carbon removal and verifying its permanence, the CDR space is open to all kinds of corner-cutting, low-quality products. Shoddy standards mean that corporate buyers can go with cheap options that don’t really do anything, driving more expensive (but actually effective) carbon removal out of the market entirely. So standards need to be designed and verified with the utmost care.

Our guide on this crucial and rather fraught subject is Danny Cullenward, Policy Director for the climate research non-profit CarbonPlan. CarbonPlan – tapped by both Microsoft and Stripe to help with their high-profile investments in CDR – does rigorous scientific analysis of projects that aim to offset or remove emissions, so Danny is well-positioned to speak to what is and isn’t working.

Unfortunately, at present, most CDR standards fall into the “isn’t working” category. Of current standards providers, Danny notes that “[there isn’t] a single one that isn’t offering a very large volume of extremely low-quality junk.” The space is rife with fly-by-night “carbon offset” providers planting tree monocultures that have a disconcerting tendency to burn down, totally negating any impact on atmospheric carbon.

So a new CDR company has the choice of going with said current standards providers (who may have established reputations but also have, well, low standards), or new ones who might be more honest but are also less familiar to potential buyers. Teams on the buyer side who may not have the technical expertise to tell the difference are likely to defer to the cheaper option, whether it actually removes any carbon or not.

And to be fair to those teams and the limits of their technical expertise, evaluating these technologies either as a buyer or as a would-be regulator is extremely challenging. As Danny notes, there are already six or seven major categories of CDR, all with their own complexities. Devising a set of standards that applies equally to DAC and kelp farming is not a simple problem. (In Danny’s words, “[How do you] tell the difference between crazy and cutting-edge?”) Add in the limited resources of state governments, and the risk of regulatory capture by a private sector with a vested interest in lower standards, and, well, it’s complicated.

These are all sobering problems, but frankly, we ought to be sober. However exciting it is to hear about the potential of new technology, it will all be for nothing if we can’t design policy that incentivizes genuine, effective, provable carbon removal. This talk is a must-watch for anyone invested in the success of carbon removal. Please be sure to watch it, and check back next week for more This Is CDR. For more, you can watch the whole This Is CDR series on our resources page.