Understanding carbon offset vs carbon removal has become increasingly important. Despite a brief respite during the COVID-19 lockdowns, carbon emissions have rapidly returned to pre-pandemic levels. In 2021 alone, carbon emissions soared to a record 36.3 billion tonnes, a 6 percent increase from 2020.
Unfortunately, this trend of rising emissions isn’t an anomaly. Carbon emissions have been trending upward since the Industrial Revolution, pushing the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide to levels above 400 parts per million—a level not seen since the Pliocene Epoch, some 2.6-5.3 million years ago.
Put into perspective, the Pliocene was a world where Greenland was virtually ice-free, sea levels were up to 25 meters higher than today, and mean annual surface temperatures were approximately 1.8-3.6 °C warmer than preindustrial temperatures.
As stark as these realities might be, we have tools at our disposal to turn the tide: carbon offsetting and carbon removal. In this guide, we put both concepts head-to-head.
What is Carbon Removal?
A potent tool in combating anthropogenically-driven climate change is the use of carbon dioxide removal (CDR), also known as carbon removal. This technique involves the intentional extraction of CO2 from the atmosphere and its subsequent sequestration in stable forms or locations, effectively preventing its re-release into the environment.
CDR can be seen as an active approach to reversing emissions, going beyond the mitigation of new emissions. Paired with mitigation efforts, it offers the potential not just to slow down but to counteract the accumulation of CO2, one of the main drivers of global warming.
In the following sections, we’ll explore in detail the different approaches to CDR—both natural and technology-based—and the role they could play in our future climate action strategies.
Is Carbon Offsetting the Same as Carbon Removal?
While the terms carbon offsetting and carbon removal may sound similar, they represent two unique strategies in the fight against climate change. That’s why it’s important to know the difference between carbon offset vs carbon removal.
Think of carbon offsetting as an environmental “safety net”—it counters our ongoing carbon footprint by implementing actions that reduce or negate emissions. While carbon removals actively pull emissions from the atmosphere rather than “countering” new emissions with projects or initiatives like carbon offsetting. Another notable distinction is that the lessening of existing environmental damage by actively pulling carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere through carbon removals is not commoditized like carbon offsets.
What is the Difference Between Carbon Offset and Carbon Removal?
Carbon offsetting, a practice geared towards carbon neutrality, operates on a credit system. Companies quantify their emissions and buy equivalent credits. These credits fund emission prevention or reduction projects, from safeguarding forests to mitigating lesser-known, yet more potent and no less important, greenhouse gases like methane.
The immediate benefit?
We buy ourselves time to implement reduction plans and scale up permanent carbon removal and mitigation strategies. Carbon removal extracts already-emitted carbon from the air and stores it securely—a core part of net-zero goals. A key strategy the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) claims is imperative to counterbalancing unavoidable emissions.
It’s worth noting that traditional carbon offsetting, while beneficial, doesn’t change the net balance of carbon in the atmosphere—it merely balances out emissions that are being created every day, preventing the increase of net emissions.” However, with carbon removal, we’re actually reducing the amount of carbon in the atmosphere, which is crucial if we’re to reach the 1.5 degrees Celsius warming target set out in the Paris Agreement Goals.
Learn more: carbon offset for flights.
The Two Categories of Carbon Removal
There are two carbon removal categories: Nature-based Carbon Removal and Technology-based Carbon Removal. These two approaches have different methodologies, potentials, and limitations, but both are crucial in our quest to reduce atmospheric CO2 levels and combat climate change.
Nature-Based Carbon Removal
Nature-Based Carbon Removal (NbCR) harnesses the power of our planet’s natural ecosystems—forests, wetlands, agricultural lands, and oceans—to act as effective carbon sinks.
NbCR strategies come in several forms:
- Forestry Practices. Forestry practices like reforestation, the process of replanting an area with trees, are prime examples of NbCR. Avoiding further deforestation also falls under this category. Through preserving and expanding our forests, we enhance the natural carbon removal process, as trees absorb CO2 during photosynthesis and store it in their biomass.
- Wetland-related Practices. Conserving existing wetlands is another crucial NbCR strategy. These ecosystems are potent carbon sinks that can store large quantities of carbon in their plant life and soils. This includes initiatives like mangrove restoration.
- Restorative Agriculture. This practice involves modifying farming methods to enhance carbon sequestration. Techniques may include cover cropping, rotational grazing, and reducing tillage. Promoting healthier soils and restorative agriculture improves crop yields and increases the soil’s capacity to absorb and retain carbon.
- Ocean-based Practices. Planting kelp and other forms of marine vegetation can also contribute to carbon sequestration. These plants absorb CO2 and lock it away in underwater ecosystems.
While nature-based carbon removal techniques are often cost-effective, trees offer an efficient, affordable method of carbon sequestration, estimated that each metric ton of carbon dioxide removed through afforestation costs merely between $5-50. This isn’t to say they don’t come with challenges. Land availability significantly constrains the potential scale of afforestation. Plus, today’s lush, protected forests can quickly transform into tomorrow’s timber industries or, worse, be ravaged by rampant forest fires or invasive pests.
Technology-Based Carbon Removal
While nature-based solutions harness our ecosystems’ inherent carbon storage capacities, Technology-Based Carbon Removal (TbCR) refers to man-made interventions designed to capture and reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. There are two main types of TbCR: Direct Air Capture (DAC) and Carbon Capture, Utilization, and Storage (CCUS):
- Direct Air Capture (DAC). This technology directly extracts CO2 from the atmosphere, like a supercharged tree. The captured CO2 can either be sequestered in deep geological formations, reversing emissions, or repurposed for various industrial processes. DAC technologies divide into two main types: solid and liquid DAC. Solid DAC operates at ambient to low pressure and medium temperature, while Liquid DAC works with an aqueous solution at high temperatures. Both methods present significant opportunities for future research, innovation, and cost optimization. It’s also important to note that these are considered carbon capture and utilization projects, not carbon removals because there is no durable, long-term storage.
- Carbon Capture, Utilization, and Storage (CCUS). This versatile set of technologies captures CO2 from industrial waste gases and directly from the atmosphere, then stores it underground or repurposes it. Capturing CO2 from industrial waste gas streams is known as point-source carbon capture. Once captured, CO2 can be transported to suitable sites for storage—a process known as carbon sequestration—or for utilization.
- Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS). BECCS combines the benefits of biomass as a renewable energy source with the carbon capture potential of technologies like DAC and CCUS. It harnesses biomass for energy, captures the emitted CO2, and stores it, effectively reducing the overall CO2 levels in the atmosphere. This method, though promising, requires careful consideration of potential impacts on land use, biodiversity, and food security.
As innovative as these technologies are, like natural-based carbon sinks, they aren’t without their downsides. A main challenge? Cost. Per metric ton of carbon, BECCS costs between $20-100, and CCUS about $80. While DAC costs $500-600 per metric ton (predicted to hit $250-350 by the end of the decade). These costs rest at levels significantly higher than their natural-based counterparts.
Carbon Removal Examples: 7 Promising Technologies
Through industry research and development, some promising carbon removal technologies and strategies are coming to light.
1. Trees & Forest Habitats
Carbon offsetting projects can also include carbon removals. A powerful example of nature-based carbon removal is our Garcia River Forest Project in Mendocino County, California. Spanning over 23,780 acres, this initiative annually sequesters more than 77,000 tons of carbon emissions, equivalent to taking approximately 16,500 cars off the road each year.
At the heart of the project’s approach is sustainable logging. By carefully managing the harvesting of Redwood and Douglas fir timber, the project supports local jobs and provides valuable resources to the local mill. In this way, it contributes to the economy of Mendocino County while also ensuring the longevity of the forest.
The project also champions biodiversity by protecting habitats for rare species. As a hub for innovative forestry practices, it tests and shares novel sustainable techniques with broader applications for forest conservation.
The Climate Action Reserve, a leading carbon offset registry, verifies the project, offering assurance of its environmental and financial contributions towards emissions reduction.
2. Algae & Ocean-based Approaches
In a pioneering partnership with Microsoft, Running Tide uses innovative ocean-based technology to tackle climate change. Over two years, their project aims to safely and permanently remove the equivalent of 12,000 tons of carbon dioxide, contributing to Microsoft’s carbon removal efforts.
Their method revolves around enhancing the ocean’s natural carbon removal processes. They deploy carbon buoys made from forestry residue and limestone, seeded with specific algae strains, into the open ocean. The limestone slowly dissolves, restoring the ocean’s alkalinity. Simultaneously, the kelp grows and draws in carbon dioxide through photosynthesis, a natural form of carbon capture. Over time, the kelp sinks to the ocean floor, effectively storing the captured carbon deep in the sea, away from the atmosphere. This technique offers a promising avenue for large-scale, ocean-based carbon removal.
The Myanmar coastline has lost a staggering 84 percent of its original mangrove forests due to unsustainable human activities, affecting climate, local communities, and ecosystems. Yet, the tides are turning with the ongoing restoration project, certified by global leader Verra. These mangroves, crucial climate allies that store four times the carbon of inland forests, are being replenished.
To date, our Myanmar Mangroves project boasts 5 million new mangroves that lock away 184,000 metric tons of carbon annually, with a target of doubling the plantation in the next two years. To ensure longevity, locals are educated on sustainable practices, including healthy mangrove utilization and ecotourism. This change of tide is not just climate-positive but also community-empowering, creating jobs and enhancing coastal resilience.
4. Farms and Soils
The Boomitra Grassland Restoration project covers over 1.2 million acres of Pampas grasslands across Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay. Under threat from overgrazing and unsustainable management, these grasslands have significantly declined Soil Organic Carbon (SOC)—an essential element for soil health and carbon sequestration.
Boomitra’s solution involves promoting sustainable practices, like rotational grazing and improved water management, to revitalize SOC levels. These practices help combat climate change and bring about enhanced nutrient cycling, increased yields, and biodiversity, ultimately contributing to food security.
Working hand in hand with local organizations, Boomitra equips communities with agronomic tools and knowledge to optimize carbon sequestration and grassland productivity. This approach provides a new income source for ranchers, protecting regional flora and fauna in the process.
5. Biomass Carbon Removal and Storage (BECCS)
Project Tundra represents a significant leap in BECCS technology, aiming to equip the Milton R. Young Station with innovative CO2 capture technology.
The project’s mission is primarily to capture about 90 percent of the station’s CO2 emissions and store them securely underground. The unique system cools gases and eliminates impurities before employing an amine-based solvent to absorb the CO2. Heat is then used to separate the CO2 from the solvent, leaving pure gaseous CO2, which is then compressed and prepared for geological storage.
Project Tundra boasts the US’s largest fully-licensed CO2 storage facility, benefiting from North Dakota’s ideal geological conditions. A multilayered rock formation acts as a perfect vessel for CO2 storage, with numerous sensors to monitor CO2 movement in the subsurface.
6. Direct Air Capture (DAC)
Located in Wyoming, Project Bison is a pioneering initiative aiming to remove five megatons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere annually by 2030. Its cutting-edge modular DAC systems filter CO2 directly from the air. The captured carbon is then safely injected into deep saline aquifers.
Starting with a modest goal of 10,000 tons/year in 2023-2024, the project plans to gradually scale up its carbon capture with advancing technology generations—hoping to reach a 5 megatons/year goal by 2030.
Organizations aiming for net-zero targets offset their emissions by purchasing carbon removal credits generated by the project, directly contributing to combating climate change. Importantly, each credit comes with a thorough third-party verification report, ensuring the captured CO2 is securely stored for over 1,000 years.
7. Carbon Mineralization
Project Vesta is pioneering Coastal Carbon Capture science, an innovative climate mitigation approach. Using finely ground olivine, they aim to speed up the natural process of oceanic CO2 absorption. The process not only captures atmospheric CO2 but also counteracts ocean acidification, offering a dual benefit.
The project is undergoing rigorous studies to understand the impact on ecosystems and organisms and biogeochemical studies to quantify the CO2 sequestered.
Carbon Offset vs Carbon Removal in Closing
Understanding the difference between carbon offsetting and carbon removals and how to apply them to our world is key in combatting climate change and moving towards a more circular economy. For more information on how carbon credits are verified or the state of sustainability in ecommerce, you can see our 2023 report here.